An uneven script and relentless violence lead to the fall of Timothy Dalton’s Bondian reign
|Licence To Kill (1989), 133 mins, directed by John Glen.|
Something lurks deep in Latin America. Something terrifying, a creature from beyond our world. And even more terrifying, he somehow made his way into the sixteenth James Bond film, Licence To Kill. His name is Don Stroud. Ever vigilant, he stands next to a scaly cold-blooded creature, the reptilian Robert Davi, although I understand there is also an iguana in the film. Another creature, lurking nearby, goes by the moniker Wayne Newton, a televangelist on the prowl for donations. Together, they run a South American drug cartel that, quite understandably, sells drugs. This complex plot would be incomplete without the grisly violence associated with menacing drug smugglers; but scripters Michael G. Wilson and Richard Maibaum, along with director John Glen, provide many violent action sequences in the film, and when you see them, you’ll say, “There are many violent action sequences in this film.”
Just listen to some of the violent scenes thrown into the story: Sanchez whips his mistress, Lupe Lamora, for her tryst with another man. Felix Leiter is lowered to a great white shark to have his leg bitten off. In a clever variation of this shark-feeding theme, DEA official Ed Killifer is thrown to the same great white shark, only to be eaten completely. The main Bond girl, Pam Bouvier, takes a powerful bullet in the back that knocks her onto a motorboat (but fortunately her Kevlar vest saves her). Milton Krest, on the other hand, suffers a gruesome death when his head inflates and explodes in a decompression chamber. In a subtle lyrical moment, the henchman Dario simply falls into a bag shredder. But the film returns to its sonorous violence when Bond burns Sanchez alive in their climatic showdown. The result is the series’ first feel-good movie of mayhem: a bleak mess, Licence To Kill overrides its own attempt to be a realistic thriller by offering muddled plot elements, illogical characterizations, and utter violence that mar the story.
The astute viewer will realize that Licence To Kill is the riveting sequel to the 1988 Masterpiece Theatre production of the Corey Haim-Corey Feldman classic, License To Drive—a film that accurately portrays the pain of failing to get a driver's license and, consequently, a life too grim to bear. In Licence To Kill, the two Coreys are mysteriously reincarnated as James Bond and Felix Leiter, and the film explores that stage of adulthood where one has the privilege of having a license to kill but loses it when dark passions override the human spirit. The premise is serviceable: when DEA agent Felix Leiter (formerly of the CIA) and his bride suffer doomed fates at the hands of drug lord Franz Sanchez, Leiter's good friend—our man Bond—snaps and goes on a rampage to seek revenge. It’s an effective plot device, and a good argument can be made that the revenge angle—which has graced literature since the days of Senecan revenge tragedy1 —provides a sense of thematic unity: Bond’s revenge derives from the one that Sanchez undertakes early in the film.
It all begins when DEA official Ed Killifer concocts a scheme to spring Sanchez from federal custody. Of course, Killifer’s motivation is simply money (a $2 million bribe from the drug lord); yet considering the failure rate of prison escapes that involve intricate coordination with many men, access to customized service vans, contingency plans to outsmart federal agents, and, in this case, the strategic use of scuba divers and miniature submarines and other underwater vehicles, it seems much more sensible to just take that job at Uncle Sal’s TV repair shop. Killifer, on the other hand, is a complete idiot who hatches a plan so unrealistic that it has a 1-in-a-97 kajillion chance of success.
Fortunately, he is in the hyper-reality of a Bond film wherein such a plan could actually work. As Sanchez heads for his permanent residence in Quantico, Virgina, his armored van—hijacked by none other than Killifer and some hapless guards—smashes into the guardrail of the Seven Mile Bridge2 in the Florida Keys and tumbles into the ocean where the drug lord and the DEA official are rescued by scuba divers manning sleek submersibles. Freed and eager to torment Leiter for arresting him at the beginning of the film, Sanchez returns in revenge mode, killing Leiter’s new bride and throwing the DEA agent to a great white shark.
These gruesome events point to the new mentality of the Bond makers: they inexplicably equate the stomach-churning violence with the realism of the Fleming books. During the early stages of production, John Glen was enthusiastic about “‘going back to the grass roots of Bond’” and to “‘make the new film more of a thriller than a romp.’” For producer and co-screenwriter Michael G. Wilson, Dalton’s portrayal of Bond is “‘closer to the Fleming style’” and, consequently, the film would “‘play a bit tougher’” (Hibbens 14).
There was just one complication: the approach of the filmmakers is actually far from the spirit of the Fleming books. What we have isn’t even an espionage story, is it? In fact, the filmmakers have provided very little reason at all for the Bond of this movie to be a British secret agent. They even discarded much of the sophistication of the character, presenting him in mundane clothes like the police detectives in many action films of the time, epecially Lethal Weapon. The character is rewritten to incorporate the élan of those monosyllabic heroes: he is closer in spirit to Rambo, a man of action who attacks frequently but without much thought. The filmmakers envisioned a brute, not Fleming’s debonair spy, and Dalton is forced to deliver what they want. The change was disconcerting to editor John Grover, who implied during post production that this new Bond, in tandem with the hard violence and the Scarface-type storyline of drug smugglers, wouldn’t work: “‘It will be very interesting to see,’” he tells journalist Sally Hibbens, “‘if this Bond will be like the previous ones or whether it will lose its English flavour’” (The Making of Licence To Kill 121).
In his second and final attempt at playing 007, the misused Dalton gads about in grimness, failing to create an engaging personality that could carry the entire film. Edgy and prone to violent outbursts, he comes across as someone in need of a straight jacket. It is a bizarre rendition of 007: he loses all sense of rationality in his personal vendetta against Sanchez and never stops to question his actions. Any harm to a friend is enough to trigger his impulse for vengeance: instead of escaping undetected from the Wavekrest (a marine research vessel), he calls attention to himself by shooting one of the thugs on board with a shark gun in retaliation for the murder of his ally, Sharkey (played by Frank McRae).
Through it all, he displays emotional instability. He can, for example, savor watching Pam Bouvier strip down to her underwear in front of him. Yet, in another moment, he can suddenly stick a gun to her face when he suspects the slightest sense of treachery from her. Exuding weariness, this Bond is a psychological wreck with a jagged thinning hairline, and his scowl throughout the film seems to reflect Dalton’s discomfort with the ridiculous pseudo-Eddie Munster hairstyle that the filmmakers thrust upon him in the casino scenes. The signal of Dalton’s end as 007 appears in the opening sequence, an unintentionally laughable moment when the secret agent is forced to make bird-like motions with his arms as DEA agents suspend him from a helicopter like a captured egret.
One can argue that Dalton captures the hard side of the literary character; however, what makes the character in the books so engaging is that Fleming explores the agony—the inner torment—that fuels the character’s hard side. Fleming’s Bond carries a sense of self-disgust in his knowledge that he is just as ruthless as his enemies. At the beginning of the novel Goldfinger, we find the agent “with two double bourbons inside him” as he sits in “the final departure lounge of Miami airport,” brooding over life and death. He feels remorse for killing a Mexican gangster in a recent mission but reminds himself to keep a professional, emotional detachment from the act of killing:
As a secret agent who held the rare Double-O prefix—the license to kill in the Secret Service—it was his duty to be as cool about death as a surgeon. If it happened, it happened. Regret was unprofessional—worse, it was death-watch beetle in the soul. (3)
For Bond, the act of killing and, by extension, all violence in his profession must be regarded without second thoughts; but another part of him, haunted by the grim task of killing—of being a contributor to the violence in the world—attempts to justify his role as executioner:
What the hell was he doing, glooming about this Mexican, this capungo who had been sent to kill him? It had been kill or be killed. Anyway, people were killing other people all the time, all over the world. . . . How many people, for instance were involved in manufacturing H-bombs, from the miners who mined the uranium to the shareholders who owned the mining shares? Was there any person in the world who wasn’t somehow, perhaps only statistically, involved in killing his neighbor? (9)
These passages suggest that Fleming’s Bond, had he been in the world of Licence To Kill, would not have embarked on such a personal vendetta against Sanchez. He would have remained professional and objective, detaching himself from the misfortune of Leiter and his bride. Then again, the film’s premise suggests that Leiter’s friendship is significant enough for Bond to be deeply affected by his friend’s grisly fate. Why the filmmakers didn’t combine this premise with the characterization of the literary Bond is a mystery. Above all, what the film needed was not ugly violence but this compelling characterization of the hero—an individual torn between professional indifference, self-disgust with his role as executioner, and the need for retribution for the sake of Leiter. Dalton, however, is presented with a script that doesn’t probe these aspects of the character. Nor does it explore in detail two major elements in Bond’s background that motivates his reason for revenge.
The first is the murder of Leiter’s bride on their wedding day, a haunting reminder of Bond’s own short-lived marriage when his bride, Tracy di Vincenzo, was murdered just moments after their wedding. The second is his strong friendship with Leiter, implied only in the script and, consequently, lacking the concrete backstory that depicts how significant the friendship is for Bond, a friendship that, when threatened, would compel Bond to swear revenge. The result is that the film almost never holds together in logic. In perhaps his last interview, the late Richard Maibaum admits this deep flaw in the script and suggests that it is almost impossible for audiences to connect with Bond’s motivation: “‘In Licence To Kill, you didn’t get the feeling that there had been this close life and death relationship between Bond and Leiter. Somehow it didn’t come over, but it was our intention that it should.... It would have been better if there had not been so many Leiters [that is, actors who played the role], and if the audience had started out the picture with a very strong recall of the great camaraderie between Bond and Leiter, hooking it up with a face and a personality’” (Gross 90).
This lack of a solid backstory for the friendship limits Dalton’s performance. What we end up seeing on screen is simply an enraged Bond, verging on a psychotic obsession with revenge. He is a fictional mess: he is willing to go to almost any lengths to pursue the revenge on Leiter’s behalf; but once Sanchez is dead, Bond is not perturbed that the unstable Lupe has taken over the drug lord’s wealth. He even suggests that she and the corrupt president of Isthmus City should hook up (“I think you and El Presidente,” he tells her, “will make a lovely couple”). Brutal and careless, this Bond has no concern whatsoever for matters beyond his personal intentions. He functions out of pure self-interest.
This aspect of the character is suggested early in the film, at the Hemingway House in Key West, when M confronts Bond to remind the agent that he was suppose to be on a plane to Istanbul for his next mission. Would a Double-O agent forsake his duty and profession for personal revenge? Apparently, this Bond would. Surprisingly, Dalton’s performance is weak in this scene, helped along by lousy dialogue. Frustrated because American authorities are not pursuing Sanchez, he complains to M, whining like a small child: “Sir, they’re not going to do anything!” Frankly, we expect more from Mr. Dalton. Moreover, Fleming’s Bond would never abandon a mission—instead, he thrives on what each new mission would bring, an outlook driven by the unease of becoming bored of life, by being strangled by the “blubbery arms of the soft life” (91), as he calls it in From Russia With Love.
By the end of the series, Bond still retains this outlook. In You Only Live Twice, when he is given, by M’s account, an impossible mission in Japan, the agent embraces the adventure and whatever danger it may hold: he realizes “there were things hidden behind this assignment, motives which he didn’t understand.” Yet the mission is alluring, motivating Bond to accept it willingly and to tell M, “‘I’d like to have a try’” (27). His outlook is also driven by his patriotism, a force that compels him to move beyond himself and into a dimension of self-overcoming, that enigmatic plane of consciousness where heroes offer their lives for something bigger than themselves. In this state of mind, Bond seizes to see himself; his focus is on England. Again, from the pages of You Only Live Twice, Bond reveals his loyalty to his country when he explains, rather passionately, to the leader of the Japanese Secret Service that “‘England may have been bled pretty thin by a couple of world wars.... But there’s nothing wrong with the British people—although there are only fifty million of them’” (66). In other words, had Fleming’s Bond graced Licence To Kill, he would have boarded the plane to Istanbul, and we all could have gone home after the pre-credits sequence, blissfully humming old John Barry scores, our minds spared of the profound kitsch in the guise of Wayne Newton, Mr. Las Vegas himself in a white polyester suit.
The film's title gains significance when Dalton's Bond loses the licence to kill in his relentless pursuit of Sanchez. Suddenly a rogue agent and wanted by MI6 agents, he eventually makes it to Isthmus City to confront Sanchez. But just as he steps off the plane, he realizes he is stuck in another lackluster setting that continues the film’s trend of having uninteresting locations. Indeed, audiences who expect the series’ tradition of exotic locales will be disappointed in the bland settings of Key West, Bimini, and the scenes in Mexico that stand for Isthmus. Nevertheless, you’ve got to hand it to the filmmakers for making maximum use of Bond’s hotel. There are shots of the hotel bar, the hotel lobby, the hotel casino, and the hotel hallway leading back to Bond’s room, all of which are refreshing, vibrant travelogue depicting the cultural tapestry of the nation of Isthmus, a nation that has the ideal location of being somewhere in Latin America—a happy nation of 25 million people (20 million of whom reside in California), and its unit of currency, as every alert tourist knows, is the Lambada.
Bond arrives with two suitcases of money—money from Sanchez, which the British agent obtained after disrupting the drug lord’s smuggling operation—and passes himself off as a high-rolling mercenary. Oddly, in the sweltering tropical heat, he is clad in black as he arrives at the hotel. There’s gripping realism for you: this Bond draws attention to himself by dressing in black in the tropics rather than be covert like a good spy would do. Indeed, Fleming’s Bond would have arrived in style, perhaps dressed in an immaculate suit, especially since he is in the guise of a wealthy mercenary. Throughout the novels, there are moments when Bond is required to wear a disguise or assume a different identity. In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Bond impersonates the genealogist Sir Hilary Bray to meet archenemy Blofeld, who is claiming to share the royal bloodline with the de Bleuchamp family. Bond adopts the genealogist’s style of clothes, telling his secretary, Mary Goodnight, that he has “‘two new suits with cuffs and double vents at the back and four buttons down the front. Also a gold watch and chain with the Bray seal. Quite the little baronet’” (61). The next morning, as he departs for the mission, Bond arrives at the airport with a “bowler hat, rolled umbrella,” and a “neatly folded Times” (63). Spying is a force of illusion, Fleming reminds us; but he also questions, indirectly, where the “real” Bond can be found in all the different guises. Is there even a real Bond? Can a person grasp the enigma of the self?
Well, the chap in the books certainly longs for his real self. In Diamonds Are Forever, as he waits at the Tiara Hotel in Las Vegas, Bond despises his cover, which reduces him to a yes man as he follows orders from the Mob. He realizes he his “homesick for his real identity” (133), a thought that harks back to his realization at the end of Moonraker: alone in the park at dusk, he feels solitude all around him. The heroine Gala Brand, the prize at the end of the mission, is suddenly unattainable—she is engaged to marry, blast it—and Bond realizes he must “take his cold heart elsewhere” to play the role expected of him: the “tough man of the world,” a secret agent who was “only a silhouette” (232). In the illusion of spying, Bond’s life is erased into a silhouette by that of a cover, and he is given little opportunity to experience his real identity. Fleming’s Bond, then, is a man of solitude who holds doubts about his profession—doubts that continue to haunt him throughout the series, but which the filmmakers never touch upon in Licence To Kill.
Again, if the intention was to stick with the spirit of the Fleming books, then the filmmakers should have given Dalton’s Bond the credible attire to support his cover as a mercenary with an extravagant lifestyle. But the rationale of the filmmakers, in particular costume designer Jodie Tillen, is that “‘Bond is caught off guard.... He was going to a wedding and had just a couple of outfits in a suitcase, so we were restricted by reality’” (The Making of Licence To Kill 61). Unfortunately, they all forgot that at this point in the story Bond has Sanchez’s money and could have easily afforded to enhance his wardrobe. It’s probably not what the filmmakers wanted to leave me with, but it does somehow stick in one’s mind.
As the drug baron Sanchez, Robert Davi prepared for the role by adopting the accent of the Frito Bandito.3 At the beginning of the film—the traditional pre-credits sequence—it is obvious that Sanchez is evil because he’s rich, he orders his men to cut out the heart of the guy who’s been messing with his mistress Lupe, and he uses an entire can of black dye in his hair. There are lots of shooting in this opening sequence as DEA agents and evil drug guys fire guns at one another but, in the spirit of gritty realism, no one actually gets shot. It seems they were firing blanks at one another. Why Sanchez even bothers to leave his stronghold in the fictional Isthmus City just to retrieve his mistress and even risk arrest by the DEA is ridiculous. He’s a drug baron, for crying out loud, with legions of molls. And he’s got enough thugs who can “fix things for ya,” if need be, without his direct involvement.
“Your escapades are getting more creative,” Sanchez tells Lupe as he begins to whip her. A very odd line, for as we soon learn from Sanchez, he values loyalty above all. It’s a wonder he even takes her back, because it’s only a matter of time when the Latin beauty will snap and flee again. Anyway, cut to an exterior scene where the DEA agents and the drug guys are still shooting at each other. It leads to a slow motion close-up of Leiter and his men running toward Sanchez’s plane, but Alec Mills’ cinematography—which uses flat lighting and hazy filters—makes the scene unintentionally ridiculous. It looks like a Bridgestone tire commercial, only with gunfire.
Thematically, there is an instance of intelligence: the pre-credits sequence contains an idea that harks back to a recurrent theme in the Fleming novels. The civil servant, the dedicated agent who plays the role of the hero, is trapped in the bureaucratized government of which he is part. He is, in essence, a small component in a vast impersonal entity where he is estranged from himself—all his actions, it seems, belong in the line of duty and there may never be a divide between his professional calling and his personal life. In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Bond’s profession affects his marriage with tragic consequences: we are all familiar with the ending of the novel, of the ghastly moment when a thunder of gunfire shatters the marriage, of Bond glimpsing the face of the perpetrator 4 in a passing car, of the sorrowful aftermath in which Bond cradles the body of his bride in his arms.
In the pre-credits of Licence To Kill, Felix Leiter's wedding is interrupted when Franz Sanchez unexpectedly arrives in U.S. territory, and Bond and Leiter become involved in the attempt to arrest the drug lord. Once again, they are thrust into the line of duty. It overrides their personal lives, placing them outside of themselves. The sequence is a throwback to the Fleming notion of the heroic agent’s failure to live: unable to escape his profession, even in his personal life, the hero has difficulty cultivating his inner life and faces the threat of becoming less human. He is alienated from himself.
It’s a promising start, this effort to go back to what Fleming was writing in those dozen or so books. Not much, though, remains in terms of unused material—the film series has practically devoured the Fleming oeuvre; and for Licence To Kill, the Bond makers used leftover story elements from the books to spruce up the script. The drunkard Milton Krest (played by Anthony Zerbe) is from the short story “The Hildebrand Rarity,” although his penchant for whipping his wife, Liz Krest, is transferred to the Sanchez/Lupe scenario. The tail of a stingray, which Krest uses as a whip, is updated for the film—Sanchez uses some sort of sawed-off bullwhip, whether you care or not. Then there is Felix Leiter’s shark mauling, taken from the novel Live and Let Die. One can also argue that Bond’s infiltration of Sanchez’s empire, the rapid way in which he gains the villain’s trust and destroys the operation from within, are somewhat akin to the way in which Bond infiltrates Scaramanga’s operation in Fleming’s The Man with the Golden Gun.
To pad the story, the filmmakers introduce a subplot concerning Heller, Sanchez’s chief of security in Isthmus City. Played by the incomparable Don Stroud, Heller has informed the CIA that he will help return Stinger missiles—stolen by Sanchez—to the U.S. government. How Sanchez managed to steal the missiles is never explained; but things get complicated when Bond’s attempt to assassinate the drug kingpin fails and Heller changes his mind. Though he’s good in this marginal role, Don Stroud still allows himself to be blown off the screen by a tank. He’s had a long career of forced tough-guy stares and overdone antics, and when he’s not appearing in B movies like Carnosaur 2 or The Haunted Sea, or playing a long-haired Asian cyborg in Precious Find, Stroud continues to be adept at delivering sub-John Saxon performances. His role as Heller is to stand next to Sanchez for most of the film, try to look concerned, wear a camouflage uniform during a tank assault, and growl out lines like “You’re not going to believe who this guy is!” when he tries to share information about Bond with Sanchez. Today, Stroud has essentially retired from acting, which means his solid run as the two-bit villain in mindless action films has finally come to an end, although it does allow Rhys Ifans or Rutger Hauer to have a crack at the job now and then.
The rest of the script is jammed with a checklist of action scenes (skydiving, underwater battles, water skiing, flame throwing, bar fights, ninja attacks), and the drug smuggling motif is clearly inspired by Miami Vice, only without the cool setting of South Beach. But I can report that at least the actresses are quite easy on the eyes. Talisa Soto plays Lupe, a woman who wears a backless dress and seems to be addicted to lip-gloss. The other woman, Pam Bouvier, is played by Carey Lowell. I think she’s a CIA pilot but, in a dramatic twist, she wears a backless dress near the end of the film. The wardrobe change is a testament to the subtleties in Ms. Lowell’s portrayal of the character, though the role is not as challenging as her marriage to a slobbering creature, the gray-haired Richard Gere, who got an arrest warrant in India when he couldn’t restrain himself from smacking kisses on actress Shilpa Shetty at an AIDS awareness event.5
The plot thickens, I think, when Sanchez eventually begins to trust Bond because the British agent can withstand the interrogation of Hong Kong ninja-narcotics agents as well as survive Don Stroud’s cannon fire on the stronghold of those pesky ninjas. The implication is that the worst thing for Sanchez is knowing that Don Stroud can commandeer a tank. The only thing worse is knowing that Don Stroud and his beer gut could actually fit inside the cramped confines of an armored vehicle. Luckily, Sanchez now has Bond at his side and all fears are allayed. It’s the villain’s flaw, this business of giving high expectations on human trust. “Loyalty is more important to me than money,” he tells Krest early in the film. This is, of course, a seriously stupid idea, for the probability of finding trustworthy people in Sanchez’s line of work has about a zero percent chance of success. Sure, if pressed, he could boast that his men are highly loyal and quite content with their 401(k) retirement plans; but it wouldn’t surprise me if they suddenly turned on old Sanchez without a flinch if offered a better benefits package from a competing drug baron.
Soon Bond is on the inside, learning all about Sanchez’s intricate method of selling drugs through his partner, the televangelist Joe Butcher (played by Wayne Newton, great-grandson of Sir Isaac Newton). Please do not ask me who this televangelist is or where he came from. The character seems to be a holdover from an unfocused script review session that John Glen held in a pub with Maibaum and Wilson. All I know is that the televangelist has the power to persuade his followers to offer donations. He also espouses a gracious aphorism (“Bless your heart”) but never addresses the most pressing question in everyone’s minds—is he originally Methodist, Bolivian Evangelical Lutheran, or perhaps a former Hari Krishna? We never learn. It’s never even explained why a South American drug lord is in cahoots with a televangelist. Nor do we learn why Sanchez and his men—presumably devout Catholics—have decided to work with a preacher of an obscure religious sect in Isthmus, never once struggling with their conflicted spiritual state, nor asking themselves, “Hey, why are we listening to that guy from Las Vegas with the funny moustache?” Nevertheless, proud of his empire, Sanchez takes Bond and potential investors to the cocaine processing plant held within the walls of the Olimpatec Meditation Institute (OMI), a religious retreat in the outskirts of Isthmus City. 6
The OMI complex features cone-shaped structures that represent the rich cultural past of an ancient civilization. Indeed, during a major excavation in 1879 (and I swear this is true), archeologists were thrilled to learn that the early inhabitants—who built the complex by dragging and lifting gigantic stones—used these structures as glorious monuments to Quezacatotecxilonenchipotle, the God of Back Pain and Hernia. Unfortunately, the complex is a surreal setting, perhaps too fantastical, and clashes with the grim sets in the first half of the film (for example, the marine warehouse and the Barrelhead Bar). Even Richard Maibaum expressed dissatisfaction with the OMI setting: “‘Personally, I didn’t feel that the meditation center came off clearly enough as to what exactly its function was, but once you get there, the action is so exciting, that you don’t care. . . . But this scene is so far out and fantastic, that it doesn’t really go along with the darker, realistic mood of the rest’” (Gross 90).
It all leads to a gripping finale with tanker trucks and explosions. In fact, there are lots of explosions in the finale, and when you see them, you’ll say, “There are lots of explosions in this finale.” John Glen manages to stage some exciting stunts with the Kenworth trucks7, but the climactic showdown between Bond and Sanchez is over too quickly—somehow we expect an intense fight scene such as the one with Bond and Grant in From Russia with Love. As it is, the rushed ending suggests that not a whole lot of thought went into this showdown between hero and villain because John Glen was too excited to film explosions in the desert.
An odd entry in the series, Licence To Kill starts out with vigor but then loses it, barely ending up ahead of your typical Steven Seagal action film. Dalton does what he can with the erratic script—he was a fine choice to play Bond, looking every bit like the dark romantic hero in the novels, despite the bizarre hairstyle—but the approach of the filmmakers hinders his potential. The violence overwhelms the story and jars us from the flow of the narrative, forcing us to be detached from the whole experience. It is the most gruesome unpleasant film in the series, and anyone wanting to see it should first be hardened by life. Nonetheless, despite its grimness, the film does offer a number of bright song and dance numbers in the scenes of the family-friendly Barrelhead Bar. (I can personally foresee the release of a special uncut edition of the Licence To Kill DVD featuring Wayne Newton and Don Stroud in the Barrelhead Bar singing a duet of My Way.)
Not surprisingly, at the base of this mountain of chaos was a troubled production. Marketing experts rejected the original title, Licence Revoked, when they realized the word “revoke” was unknown to a group of 8-year-olds that they polled during a game of street hockey in a Toronto suburb. The revised title, Licence To Kill, also raised linguistic complications for the same cadre of experts. Their market research led them to wonder whether to spell the first word “licence” or “license”? Further analysis revealed that moviegoers may come to a disturbing conclusion about the ambiguous spelling: is it possible that James Bond is perplexed by the spelling of the word and that part of the story of the new movie is his inability to decide between the different spellings of “licence” and “license”? The complications become more obscure: should the title’s first letter, the marketing experts wondered, be capitalized?
Problems emerged in other areas of the production. British censors ordered the filmmakers to trim some grisly scenes and considered branding the film with a rating that excluded anyone under 57 from seeing it. Eventually, a compromise was reached by adjusting the exclusion to anyone under 15. Studio executives then slashed the PR budget down to $752.34, discarded Eon’s striking “teaser” campaigns, and enforced a lackluster promotional campaign, created in-house, which was “so banal it barely registered with Bond fans.” (Sterling and Morecambe 269).
Even the development of the story was unsettling: the intent was to craft a drug smuggling tale about a warlord in the Golden Triangle, with the initial treatment from Maibaum and Wilson dictating exotic settings in the Far East and big production values—worrisome for the Bond makers who, at the time, were shelled inside an unstable MGM.8 To avoid what would have been expensive location filming in China, they sought the cheaper option in Mexico to fulfill their lack of ideas in a low budget production devoid of grandiose sets and a solid well-crafted screenplay. The result is an interesting tactic by Cubby Broccoli and his cohorts: “Let’s cover our slapdash efforts,” they seem to say, “with a level of violence that is so out of sync with the series. Oh, and let’s make it all unoriginal—let’s capitalize on the trendy Miami Vice series by tossing in South American drug dealers, and we’ll film a guy getting chopped up in a bag shredder to emulate the gruesome chainsaw sequence in Brian De Palma’s Scarface.”
It is, we must admit, a straightforward plan in theory; but, as often happens in life, much harder to accomplish. Licence To Kill mistakenly entered the over-crowded territory of violent action films that carried stock elements of the time—namely, sinister South American villains clad in designer clothes, operating their drug cartels above the law, and usually based in Miami or some other tropical hideaway. In a sense, these films became a genre of their own and were readily available. They were so oft-produced that at least 7000 filmmakers on any given day were shooting a violent drug smuggling film somewhere in the world. Meanwhile, Miami Vice offered the genre on the small screen on a weekly basis. You could even watch an episode from the store windows of many local Radio Shacks. For the Bond makers, it was a serious misstep to reinvent 007 in this saturated market.
My investigation into this quirky production reveals that Glen’s directorial style also contributed to the chaos. It seems Glen was too preoccupied with action scenes to even think about trivial things such as characters and a compelling story. As Carey Lowell explains in an interview for Cinefantastique, Glen’s “‘interest is really in the action.... He’s not really interested at all in the character’s history and he doesn’t want to discuss much of it. The acting sort of took second place to the special effects and the action and momentum of the story’” (Altman 26-28). Fortunately, Dalton stepped in to fill the void that Glen created, pulling the directorial reigns on the acting front and hitting pay dirt with Lowell’s praises. “‘What John didn’t give me,’” the actress recalls, “‘Timothy did.... Luckily, Timothy was helpful because he’s very into character and ready to discuss it’” (56). Put another way, Glen landed a cushy job, relegated to filming explosions and exempted from reading the script and bringing the story and characters to life. It is a masterful technique, which he surely learned from Godard, by way of Keenan Ivory Wayans, in a film lecture called, “Cinéma Vérité and the Art of Non-Directorial Control: Use it for Hack Filmmaking.”
As for co-director Dalton, could his anger throughout the film be a reflection of his own discontent with Glen’s lack of involvement? I would not usually entertain such an idea but, in his autobiography For My Eyes Only, John Glen suggests that all was not well between actor and director: “Things ended in a bit of a sour atmosphere, unfortunately.... The whole thing was a bit of an ordeal and Tim and I had a bit of a slanging match across the pool. I don’t know whether to put it down to tiredness at the end of the schedule or the accumulated tension of what had had been an unusually arduous shoot” (205).9 The “slanging match,” such as it is, suggests that the two were polite enough to simply yell, not grapple each other wearing nothing but loincloths to prove who was manly. Yet the sentiment from both Dalton and Lowell points to one thing: the film ultimately suffers from the lack of a director with a passion for storytelling, and it’s evident on screen—as we’ve discussed, there are plot elements not fully explained, and not a whole lot makes sense, especially with the characters.
Strained nerves aside, something more austere loomed over the production, forcing Dalton to proclaim that the end of the series was near. “My feeling is this will be the last [Bond film],” he tells Richard Schenkman of Bondage magazine. “I don’t mean my last one, I mean the end of the whole lot. I don’t speak with any real authority, but it’s sort of a feeling I have” (23). Well, regardless of Dalton’s questionable ability to portend the end of Bondian days, a descent into the maelstrom did occur: the 80s were coming to a close, ushering the demise of Miami Vice and pastel-shaded suits. In an unprecedented move, the U.N. Security Council rejected Huey Lewis’ theory that it was hip to be square and passed a resolution that declared it certainly wasn’t hip to be Huey Lewis. All the while, Licence To Kill flopped in the summer blockbuster season of 1989. The dismal box office result was enough for longtime producer Cubby Broccoli to question the viability of the Bond franchise and to consider selling his company, Danjaq. Bleak years followed: the franchise fell into a six-year hiatus, impelled by the protracted legal mess involving the Bond producers and the studio, MGM/Pathe. 10 Reports then surfaced that John Glen had the audacity to make Aces: Iron Eagle III but fans dismissed them as baseless rumors.11
The DVD I reviewed had terrific picture quality, whether you care or not, and the two-channel audio is quite good, although it’s far more dramatically engaging to watch the explosion of Anthony Zerbe’s head in pristine, digital 5.1 surround sound. Among the extras, there is a small documentary on the making of Licence To Kill and an audio commentary by Glen and Michael G. Wilson. I didn’t listen to the entire thing (there was a closet door that I had to fix), but I listened long enough to hear insightful comments such as, “This stunt took two weeks to film,” or “We worked hard in the desert to film this scene,” followed by a long gap of silence before the next batch of comments were heard. Strangely, the gaps of silence were a symbolic reminder of the emptiness within the script. Of course, given my reaction, I may not be the audience that John Glen and company had in mind. I suspect the ideal viewer is drunk. And asleep. And a marine biologist with a soft spot for irate great white sharks. If you are, then, a boozy marine biologist with hypersomnia, and your life’s joy is a loveable pet Carcharodon carcharias, I can happily recommend Licence To Kill. Enjoy in good health.
|1||Senecan revenge tragedy flourished in the Elizabethan era and was also known as the tragedy of blood. It derives from the Roman writer Seneca’s favorite elements of revenge, ghosts, and carnage—although Seneca depicted these elements “off stage” and reported by messengers and other minor characters. The Elizabethan writers, however, presented the gore on stage to support audience demand for violence, revenge, horror, bloody endings and sensational incidents. Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (1586) established this form of drama and served as the prototype for Shakespearean works such as Titus Andronicus, Hamlet, and other revenge plays from the Bard.|
|2||One of the longest bridges at the time it was built, the Seven Mile Bridge is one of many bridges on US 1 in the Florida Keys.|
|3||The Frito Bandito is a former cartoon mascot for the Fritos snack food product from Frito-Lay.|
|4||The perpetrator is none other than Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Bond’s Moriarty throughout the Fleming series.|
|5||For more information on Gere’s controversy in India, refer to http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/18328425 (accessed 9/20/07).|
|6||In reality, the complex is located in Toluca, Mexico and built in 1980 as a ceremonial site by the religious Otomi people. The filmmakers discovered the place while scouting locations in Mexico.|
|7||The stunt with the semi doing a wheelie is a variation of the sleek Mustang Mach I gliding on its side in Diamonds Are Forever (1971).|
|8||According to the filmmakers, another factor influenced them to drop the Asian drug lord story: the success of Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic The Last Emperor (1988) took the novelty out of exotic locations in China (The Incredible World of 007 132).|
|9||Glen also recounts in his autobiography how Dalton, who was set to star in Christopher Columbus: The Discovery, left the production when Glen took over the directorial reigns. “Whatever the reasons,” Glen recalls, “the official story was that Tim had decided not to play Christopher Columbus because of ‘creative differences’” (212). Again, Glen implies that the actor wasn’t too keen on his directorial style.|
|10||For more information on the legal troubles that surrounded the franchise after the release of Licence To Kill, refer to http://www.mi6.co.uk/sections/movies/ge_production.php3?t=ge&s= ge (accessed 10/10/07).|
|11||Of course, John Glen did go on to make Aces: Iron Eagle III (1992), starring Louis Gossett Jr.|