Thursday, March 21, 2013

Bond-arama: No. 0021 Licence to Kill (1989)

We continue our ranking of the Bond films with Licence to Kill. This film stinks. It’s a Miami Vice episode without the drama, the tension, or the style. It also lacks any sense of grandeur and offers nothing that would please a traditional Bond fan. That’s why it ranks No. 0021 of 0023 on our countdown.

Plot Quality: The film opens with Felix Leiter and our Mr. Bond arresting a drug lord named Sanchez (Robert Davi) whom the DEA has been after. Why the CIA is involved isn’t really explained. To add drama, they interrupt Felix’s wedding to make the arrest. Shortly thereafter, Felix gets maimed when the drug lord escapes and feeds Felix to a shark. Bond wants revenge, so he resigns and flees to Latin America against orders to kill Sanchez. Once there, he tricks Sanchez into taking him in like a lost puppy, then he kills Sanchez in a moderate-speed tanker truck chase.

That’s it.
The details don’t add much either. Bond is being chased by the Secret Service for resigning and escaping their grasp, so he teams up with a woman (Carey Lowell) who is a CIA informant and pretends to be an out-of-work assassin. Of course, the Secret Service captures him right away. . . and then Sanchez helps him escape because that makes the plot work. Bond then discovers that Sanchez has hidden his operation as a meditation retreat run by televangelist Professor Joe Butcher (Wayne Fricken Newton). This ultimately has nothing to do with the plot, what there is of it. Once Bond finds Sanchez they play a silly cat and mouse game and then end the film in a gas tanker truck chase which is packed with “uh. . . why didn’t he just ___” moments. That’s always a horrible sign.

All in all, the plot is beyond stale and little of it makes sense. The film billed itself as being “torn from the headlines” for its drug-revenge plot, but that idea had already been done two years before in similar ways by films like Lethal Weapon, RoboCop and Beverly Hills Cop II. Moreover, a lot of the characters’ actions aren’t things people would do in the real world. Bond is out-of-character throughout. There is no drama as there’s no sense that anything unexpected will happen. The bad guy and his scheme are uninteresting, and it’s impossible to care about Bond’s desire for revenge. Not to mention, there are no iconic moments and not a single memorable quote.

Bond Quality: This is the second and last Timothy Dalton Bond film and, honestly, two was too many. James Bond is a special character because he perfectly mixes sophistication, style and conscience-less brute force. Dalton was too huffy and curt to have style, too average and too self-conscious to be sophisticated, and this film proved he couldn’t do brute force either.
In fact, this film was a deliberate attempt to make Bond more “real” by making the violence shocking to audiences. Yet, the violence presented is no more realistic nor more brutal than we were seeing on average cop shows already. And, in making it more “real,” they stripped away the grandeur which Bond needs. He was no longer the suave superspy doing amazing feats of daring, he was just a whiny cop who sometimes shot people in self-defense. And when you compare the supposedly brutal Dalton Bond of this film with something like Craig’s Bond in Quantum of Solace, the claim that this film involves a brutal James Bond is laughable.

Further, to create the supposed brutality, they gave Bond this motive about Felix Leiter being maimed by the bad guy, but even putting aside the fact that James Bond isn’t supposed to lose his cool even when he seeks revenge, Dalton played this all wrong. He didn’t summon an inner-rage so much as an inner-pissiness, and he comes across more like someone upset at a waiter than someone upset about their friend being killed. Not to mention the ending scene is horrible where Felix laughs off his own maiming. If Felix doesn’t care, why should we?

The Bond Girls: Bond is pretty asexual in this, so it’s fitting that he got a totally forgettable Bond Girl – Carey Lowell as Pam Bouvier. She’s a pilot and a CIA informant with short hair and a total lack of mystery. There is no chemistry between them either. There’s also Talisa Soto as Sanchez’s girlfriend Lupe. There’s not really much to say about her.

Villain Quality: Finally, we come to the villain: Franz Sanchez. Even the name is pathetic. Sanchez is supposedly modeled on Kananga from Live and Let Die, but they must be from different mothers because I don’t see the resemblance. Unlike Kananga, he has no cool double-life, no cool sidekicks, no cool base of operations, and he doesn’t know Jane Seymour. There’s also nothing unique about him. Sanchez is blandly described as a powerful Latin American drug lord the DEA has been after for years. Yawn. The Miami Vice boys round those fellows up every week. And he is meant to suggest Manuel Noriega, who defines the term “petty tyrant.”

Sanchez is played by Robert Davi, whose acting career never rose above bit parts. He does ok here as a standard drug dealer, but there’s nothing to make you see him as anything special. His base of operations, for some reasons, involves using Wayne Newton as an evangelist as a front, but it’s never clear why this matters. His henchmen are just thugs, including Benicio del Toro who is not the least bit intimidating.
Even worse, Sanchez’s scheme is stunningly weak. He’s just trying to find a way to smuggle cocaine to other countries by dissolving it in gasoline. Big deal. If he succeeds, nothing changes in the world. Nor is this very interesting, it amounts to little more than one of a million unoriginal smuggling methods. This does not a Bond villain make. Moreover, to give you a sense of how lost the writers were on this one, there is a scene where Sanchez’s financial advisor spits out the scheme to a group of visiting Japanese tourists Asian drug kingpins, and the scheme is mindboggling in its ability to use an incredible amount of buzzwords without producing any actual meaning, like when he hands these drug kingpins a “demographic report, breaking down each of your territories by age and socioeconomic group” to prove to them that there is indeed a market for illegal narcotics in Asia. Who knew? Seriously, this is pitiful.


This film had a plot that would have been rejected by Miami Vice for being too bland, an out-of-character Bond played by an actor who lacked all the required elements to be a quality Bond, a villain without a plan other than competing with FedEx, no real Bond girl, and nothing else to commend it. There isn’t even a memorable quote. Hence, it sits at No. 0021 on our list. Not coincidentally, it is also the lowest grossing Bond film.


Backthrow said...

Wow, harsh.

LICENCE TO KILL is far from being in the top ranks of my personal 007 list, but I'd put most of the Moore films below this, especially MOONRAKER. For me, this is somewhere in the middle, along with THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS and the other three Brosnan films.

What hurt the film the most, I think, besides some lazy scripting, was John Glen's largely flat, bland direction. It's serviceable in action scenes, but you never get the overall sophisticated flair of the best Bond films. He's a far better editor than director. Also, like THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS, there's some residual, unwelcome silliness from the Moore era, like the wheelie-popping tanker truck, death-by-electric eel, and the parachutes on Bond and Leiter treated as bridal trains in a visual gag.

That being said, I liked some of the elements in this film that Andrew didn't. Sanchez is no Blofeld, Dr. No or Goldfinger, but I thought he was a fairly ruthless villain, played decently by Davi... certainly a step up from Joe Don Baker in the previous film. I liked Carey Lowell, even though her character was written a bit annoyingly; she was hot, and could handle a shotgun. Good enough for me.

I liked Bond going in alone as a mole to sabotage Sanchez, especially the early sequence with the boat, aqua-sled and seaplane, where Bond destroys the drug payload and makes off with the cash. I liked the death scenes of Sanchez, Anthony Zerbe (Kananga in LIVE & LET DIE should've gone more like this), and Del Toro. A minor thing, but I liked the part of the scheme where the various (unseen) worldwide bidders were represented/covered as 'donors' in Wayne Newton's televangelical TV broadcast; too bad the story wasn't more interesting, to incorporate that into something more than a rather irrelevant sidelight.

But, yeah, I don't like it when the Bond series tries to get too topical with their stories. Dalton has a few good moments, but is too uptight and irritated most of the time. The score and theme song are both bland. Wayne Newton was just a silly gimmick, amusing for a moment or two, but no more than that. Talisa Soto was pretty, but vacant. The plot needed to be much better-thought-out... maybe have Sanchez work a scheme, besides just smuggling coke in gasoline, to be some major new enemy force, funded by drug money, after he's crippled/killed off his global competitors... the Goldfinger of Coke. I think the filmmakers were sort of trying for that, but half-heartily so. Too bad.

Anonymous said...

Try as I might, I can't hate this film. I like Dalton, and wish he were given better scripts to work with. Perhaps the creators were trying to overcompensate in the "gritty" department after Roger Moore's films. But if that's the case, then the attempts at humor in Dalton's films don't quite work (though I like the cello case gags in The Living Daylights).

It's been said before but this film is less Bond and more Joel Silver, from Robert Davi and a couple supporting actors to the score by Michael Kamen (which is good but not great). I also agree with Backthrow - other than those incessant pigeons, director John Glenn didn't really bring anything special to the franchise. He's a good workman director (who rose through the editing ranks) but these films - especially Dalton's - could've used someone with style and vision. Even Peter Hunt, who started off as an editor and directed On Her Majesty's Secret Service, tried some different things.

I like Davi and I'd put him comfortably in the lower-middle as far as Bond villains go. It's not the best character in the world but Davi does the best he can with it. Carey Lowell is more or less a non-entity. Oddly enough, Anthony Zerbe's character dies in a fashion not unlike his character in Star Trek: Insurrection!

And the truck chase - it's not Raiders but it's something a little different and after learning how difficult it was to shoot, I can at least respect the craftsmanship.

I don't know... this movie definitely has a "dangerous" vibe to it, though it's tame compared to today's stuff. Should I knock it for being a subpar Bond, or praise it for being a semi-decent action movie in its own right? :-)

Anonymous said...

Scott, I have to agree about Dalton. I really like him as Bond. I think this stems from my reading "From Russia With love." Dalton was one of only two Bond actors I could picture while reading it. (Craig being the other.) Dalton played the character as constantly being on the edge of his temper, which is what I got from the written version.

Andrew, IMO, this was the last true Bond film before the series went on hiatus until 2006. It's not the best, but it's not the worst. It's entertaining enough, though Davi is criminally underused as the villain. I've read that the lackluster writing was partially due to a writers' strike at the time. I think Scott and Backthrow covered most of what I would've said.

But if we're going to talk about the bad and the ugly, why not go further with the ending scene?Not only is Felix laughing off his own maiming- he's laughing off the rape/murder of his newlywed wife! What were they thinking?!

Ah, well. All in all, a mixed bag.

Also, I can't understand how this movie can rank lower than the true low point of this series. To echo Backthrow, where is Moonraker? I've been waiting weeks for that bottom-of-the-barrel-scratcher that I hate so passionately so that I can destroy it- WITH SCIENCE!

I need to catch my breath.


Tennessee Jed said...

I don't know if people are aware of it, but the scene where Felix Leiter is thrown to the sharks is actually stolen from the book Live & Let Die. I am with several others on this. I didn't find it nearly as bad as most of the Roger Moore films. Carey Lowell actually represents a nice kind of Bond girl; kind of a tomboy who actually is a babe. I think your verdict is a bit too harsh. The main thing I didn't like about it was the whole last sequence with the trucks. Really, really, really, really lame.

AndrewPrice said...

Backthrow, Disagreements are what make this interesting. :)

I think the Moore films are better because even though they became ridiculous, they at least stayed within the James Bond themes. This film didn't. There is nothing in this film to say that this is James Bond, and that's the problem.

Is this a horrible movie? No. It's a forgettable, generic movie. And that's a pretty big sin when you're making a James Bond movie.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I'm kind of the inverse -- try as I might, I can't like this film. It's just generic and bland and not fitting of being part of the James Bond universe. As I say above, is this a horrible film? No. But if this weren't a James Bond film, I doubt that anyone would remember it.

That said, I also think that people underestimate how badly the writing in this one fails. Not only does it lack anything big or original or clever, but it can't even handle the bits it does have. Go back and look at the briefing of the Asian tourists and you will be shocked. It is utter nonsense. It's like they flipped open some self-help "how to succeed in business" book and just turned the chapter headings into sentences and then read them off.

I agree with your point about Glenn. He just kind of gave you what the film should have shown you, and not anything more. That's not always a problem, but it is a problem when the people around you aren't very talented and that seems to have been the case here.

Finally, I honestly don't give points for technical difficulty on things like the tanker truck chase. Sure, the experts might be impressed, but it doesn't come across on the screen to the audience as anything all that interesting.

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, The ending is bizarre all around and it shows the total lack of awareness by the writers on this one.

Even the idea that the British Secret Service would hunt Bond down with orders to kill him is bizarre. Just because he walks off from an assignment? That's where you get fired, not hunted down.

Honestly, nothing in the movie makes sense once you start to thinking about whether or not characters would actually act the way they do.

In terms of Moonraker... so you won't be too happy if it shows up in the top 3? :P

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, This is Commentarama, we don't tolerate disagreement! ;)

The character of Davi was supposedly based on the book version of Kananga, and the shark feeding scene was stolen from that book. It would have been nice if they'd tried to keep more of Kananga's grandeur in the Davi character.

Anonymous said...

Andrew said: "In terms of Moonraker... so you won't be too happy if it shows up in the top 3? :P"

(imitates Marvin the Martian)

It would make me very, very angry!

(runs to storage unit to find an Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator, but finds only rabbit hole)

Delayed, delayed... well, let's just say I'll have plenty to say about that film when it comes up...WITH SCIENCE!


AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, I'll see if I can drop it a few places. ;P

Seriously though, the science in that one is 100% wrong on every single issue. It's stunning how nonsensical that film is. The film is also derivative in every aspect.

But it does have one thing it needs to be credited with, which License to Kill doesn't, and that's a sense of being a Bond film. It is a ridiculous Bond film, but it is a Bond film. LtK really doesn't have that.

Backthrow said...

Andrew said: "But it does have one thing it needs to be credited with, which License to Kill doesn't, and that's a sense of being a Bond film. It is a ridiculous Bond film, but it is a Bond film. LtK really doesn't have that."

By that criteria, wouldn't you put LICENSE TO KILL at the very bottom of your list, then? Though awful, do A VIEW TO A KILL and DIE ANOTHER DAY still have a sense of being Bond films?

Backthrow said...

Err, *LICENCE* TO KILL, I mean.

AndrewPrice said...

Backthrow, Die Another Day and A View To A Kill are both criminally offensive. They leave you shaking your head wondering how much damage they have done to the franchise. This one isn't quite that bad, it's just not a Bond film. This is just a poorly made generic episode of Miami Vice.

BIG MO said...

The only things I remember about this movie is that it seemed much longer than other Bonds, and Wayne Newton's televangelist was a hoot. I though he nailed it.

Robert Davi deserved a much better role -- or at least better writing than what he had to work with.

AndrewPrice said...

Mo, I like Davi, but he's never been given much to work with. In this film in particular, he got nothing. I did enjoy the Wayne Newton character, but he didn't fit into the story at all.

Tennessee Jed said...

"Moonraker in the top 3?" Don't you make me come up there. Moonraker deserves a special place in hell, but I will hold off on further comments until it gets reviewed. It is the worst Bond film ever, though.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, LOL! Don't worry, it's not in the top 3. I wouldn't do that... even as a joke. :)

tryanmax said...

I can accept a low ranking for a Dalton Bond film. I'm used to it. I can't offer any defenses that haven't already been offered. But I'm shocked--shocked that this comes in below The Living Daylights. How is that possible?

Also, there may not be any memorable lines from this one, but the title alone kept comic writers in puns for the whole of the 90s.

AndrewPrice said...

It was a close call between the two. I think what helped The Living Daylights was that its beginning was more "spy-like", so it started with potential, even if it didn't ever reach that potential.

Anonymous said...

What a coincidence... this film is starting on G4... right now!! (At least for us on the East coast.) :-)

This all begs the question... what would a third Dalton film have been like? Dark like this, or perhaps lighter? It's too bad various legal/financial troubles caused the Bond films to shut down for a while. Michael G. Wilson actually sat down to write a Bond film in the early 90s but it obviously never happened.

Fascinating stuff.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, My guess is that a third Dalton film would have looked exactly like the first two. I think there is no chance they would have changed directions with the same actor. So if they could have done another, they would have just done a clone of the first two.

Anonymous said...

[sigh] Why did I expect a different answer? :-)

Off-topic... do you remember that movie montage I did for school last summer? I submitted it to the University gallery on a whim and ended up winning a $300 scholarship!

Yeah, I know.... in the real world, it means bupkes but I never win anything, so it was much appreciated!

AndrewPrice said...

A different answer would be nice, but I've never seen a film company use the same actor to essentially reboot something.

Congrats on the $300 win. :)

Anonymous said...

Andrew, I just went back to Sunday's thread and checked out that link you found for 'Star Crash.'

I just don't what to say except, well...
I'm not one of those people who blames drugs for everything. But in this case, well, the filmmakers must have been snorting something. And since I'm not an expert on the subject, I'll just jump to conclusions and say they were on an acid trip that they wanted to share with the rest of us.

It looks like- to quote a review I heard somewhere about the Flash Gordon movie that came out about that time- the kind of film 20th Century Fox was afraid they'd get when they signed the deal for Star Wars. (Though your review of 'Flash Gordon' did make it sound better. I may check it out one of these days.)

Well, this couldn't be worse than 'Moonraker,' which, I remind you, my posts will annihilate...WITH SCIENCE!


AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, So I'm getting the sense that you don't think Moonraker might not be 100% scientifically accurate?

Acid trip is right on "Star Crash." Wow.

shawn said...

I remember seeing this one in the theater when it can out and thinking that it was a little more brutal than what had come before it and really enjoying it because it wasn't just another super villian wanting to take over the world- again. Still at times, the film is a little too light hearted to take the revenge aspect very serious. And as I've said before and you say in your review, the scene towards the end with Felix joking with Bond about helping to get his job back is painful to watch. It should have been a somber affair between two buddies having gotten payback. Still, I would have ranked this one a bit higher.

Starcrash- wow! That brings back memories. A friend and I went to see this at the theater back in the day. It came out fresh on the heels of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and tried to cash in on their success. Even as a wee lad, I could tell that it failed miserably. Message from Space, was another one that tried to cash in around the same time. It was better, but then that isn't really much of a compliment.

Alex said...

Very mixed views on this particular Bond film. Interesting. Plot-wise, it sounds kind of lame by 007 standards, but I, personally, would watch it just for Carey Lowell.

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, At the time, this film felt more serious than the stuff Roger Moore had been doing. In terms of brutal, I didn't really see it. When you look at films like From Russia With Love, you see a really brutal Bond. Dalton struck me as just kind of pissy. In terms of the rankings, feel free to disagree. That's what makes rankings interesting. :)

I'd never heard of Starcrash until I ran across that trailer. Wow. That just looks horrible!

AndrewPrice said...

Alex, This a Bond which doesn't really fit with the rest. None of the usual things you associate with Bond is present.

Backthrow said...

STARCRASH is a fun bad movie cheapie. Apparently, the director was tasked to rip-off STAR WARS, but hadn't seen it yet (STAR WARS hadn't been released in Italy, at that point), only having some production stills and the basic plot description to go on, so he made up his own story. He used it as an excuse to shoehorn in nods to some of his favorite sci-fi and fantasy films of the past, hence the bits obviously lifted from Harryhausen's JASON & THE ARGONAUTS, BARBARELLA, INVADERS FROM MARS (1953), etc. The DVD of STARCRASH has a ridiculously large amount of bonus material detailing this.

I have a feeling the presence of John Barry doing the music, Christopher Plummer, and others you wouldn't expect to be involved in a production this cheap, plus the fact it was a partly-Canadian production, in the late-1970s, indicates that this might have been done as a Carter-era tax shelter thing... and then Roger Corman's New World Pictures picked it up cheaply as a cut-rate STAR WARS for drive-in play, prior to making BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS.

Dwizzum said...

To me this is at the bottom of my Bond list. It's just an bland vanilla revenge film that contained nothing I could enjoy. Even a crappy film like A View to a Kill had a good theme song and I liked the interplay between Moore and Patrick MacNee. Plus Tanya Roberts looked pretty good. License to kill had nothing. Worse Bond girl, a boring villain, and it looked cheap. Sorry, Dalton. Nothing personal, but it's time to pursue other opportunities.

I guess I going to be the only one around here to defend Moonraker.

AndrewPrice said...

Backthrow, I am actually very tempted to watch it just to see what they've put together. Sometimes these films are fun even if they are truly horrid.

AndrewPrice said...

Dwizzum, Die Another Day was offensive garbage, so it had to go at the bottom. Between this and A View to A Kill, I think it was very close.

On Moonraker, personally, there are many parts of the film I like, but I think that objectively it's hard to call that a good film. I guess we'll see as we continue the countdown.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your main argument Andrew,this isn't a Bond movie. There is no villain, just a criminal and that doesn't work for a Bond movie. Add a bad script and poor direction and you get an average movie and a really bad Bond movie.


AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I agree. This was just a poor revenge film, without any real traces of "Bond" in it. Add in the fact this was not a very good film too and it really does deserve to be at this point on the list.

Anonymous said...

The pressure chamber scene, and Sanchez's 'launder it' after the death of his colleague is a really memorable, disturbing scene. I like this site and the reviews but do think both of Dalton's efforts were solid films.

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