Saturday, November 17, 2012

Licence To Kill

The Dalton era is a decidedly odd one to discuss.  He was in the role for such a short amount of time (Craig, for instance, has only been in the role for one more movie than Dalton, but he’s occupied the role for 6 years; Dalton only had it for 2) that there was no real evolution in film occurring around him.  He started in the late 80’s, he ended in the late 80’s, and the late 80’s were, quite frankly, kind of a desolate time for American film.

License to Kill looks and feels almost exactly the same as The Living Daylights, except just about all of the things that make a Bond movie a Bond movie are better.  The villain is better-defined, the Bond girl takes a more active role in the plot, Bond goes to swankier locations and seduces easier women, and Bond spends significantly more of his time in evening wear.  All of the elements are there to make this Dalton’s definitive stamp on the series and if it wasn’t for one fatal plot decision that’s how I’d feel about it.  But I can’t in good conscience call this anything but a colossal failure, and even though it’s for such a small thing, that small thing looms large over the last 2/3 of the film.

So anyone who’s seen this knows what I’m talking about – the decision to sever Bond’s ties, temporarily, with MI6.  On paper, this is the sort of ambitious decision that I thought was sorely lacking from The Living Daylights.  In practice, putting this into motion turns Bond into an out-and-out lunatic, acting in ways that are monstrously self-destructive and completely indefensible.

So, the plot.  Bond and Felix Leiter are on the way to Leiter’s wedding to that woman who took over from Suzanne Somers on Three’s Company after they wrote her out of the show (she is, incidentally, one of the worst actors thus far in this marathon, and that is a high bar to clear).  On the way they foil a Central American drug kingpin played by Robert Davi in an action setpiece that involves a mid-air plane hijacking that is very similar to the scene from the opening of The Dark Knight Rises (Skyfall might have stolen heavily from Nolan’s Batman, but Nolan stole from Bond first).  Davi pretty much immediately escapes (well, Felix gets married first, but right after that), murders Mrs. Leiter and half feeds Felix to a shark.  Bond flips the fuck out and decides to personally avenge his buddy by tracking down and killing Davi.  MI6, unfortunately, is having none of it, and after Bond refuses an order to go to Istanbul for an assignment, M strips Bond’s license to kill and, in a seriously cold-ass moment for M, barely spares Bond’s life when he goes rogue because, as he explains to one of his operatives with a gun trained on Bond, “there are too many people around” to kill him.  That’s fucked up.

Forget that the stakes here aren’t properly set up (the only dead body for Bond to avenge is Mrs. Leiter, who we didn’t know existed until the beginning of this film, and Felix certainly wouldn’t sign off on Bond leaving MI6 just to murder some pissant drug lord).  The problem with all of this is that Felix *is CIA*.  He and his wife being brutally attacked like this would mean that Davi was already living on borrowed time.  Poison in his morning coffee or a shiv in the back of the neck, whatever it was, the spooks would find a way to murder his ass sooner rather than later.  Bond does not need to get involved in any of this, but he does anyway.  There is a pall hanging over every decision he makes from this point forward, because it all stems from the dumbest decision Bond has ever made.  I try not to focus too much on the dumb plots of these movies, because dumb plots are part of the point, but this movie’s particular dumb plot is such a spectacular miscalculation, and does so much damage to the film, that it’s impossible not to get bogged down on it.

But in any case, Bond goes down to Central America, he gets close to Davi, and then he murders him and destroys his drug operation and MI6 invites him back at the end because this is a franchise and it must be refreshed anew.  So, here are some other thoughts.

I used to hate R&B music, and the theme song for this movie by Gladys Knight is a perfect example of the type of song that caused that state of affairs.  It is an awful, overproduced glob of mayonnaise, the type of thing that R&B producers were really keen on when I was 10 years old.

Davi is a great villain, menacing and charming in turn, and he has several distinct baroque ways to kill people.  There’s the shark thing, which is even done in an outlandish way (he hooks his target to one end of a balance and an animal carcass that is heavier than him on the other end; as the shark eats the carcass, the target drops closer and closer to the water, and eventually gets eaten.)  He kills a dude by putting him in a pressure chamber and exploding him, and then almost kills Bond by dropping him into basically a giant wood chipper.

One of his henchmen is played by Benicio del Toro and he ends up in the wood chipper instead.

I liked Carey Lowell a lot as the Bond girl, easily my favorite American Bond girl (which is, admittedly, a very “tallest midget” type competition, since she’s competing against the likes of Tiffany Case from Diamonds are Forever, Stacey Sutton from A View to a Kill and, shudder, Mary Goodnight from The Man with the Golden Gun).  She saves Bond a few times, including right at the end, where she rescues him on the brink of disaster with air support, a distinctively Han Solo type moment.

Basically the first thing Bond does when he gets down to Central America is get into his tux and play high stakes games at Davi’s casino.  He plays blackjack which is decidedly less cool than baccarat but way cooler than the backgammon he played in Octopussy.  And he gets to play, not with proper chips, but with those big square blocks that ultra-rich people use (Bond, admittedly, uses these blocks a lot) which ups the cool factor at least one half grade level.

Q helps Bond through most of the back half of the movie, and he ends up getting a lot to do.  It’s a transparent bit of pandering (there is absolutely no reason for Q to risk his job for Bond’s sake) but it’s fun to have Q around anyway and he comes packing, seriously, a suitcase full of toys.

Wayne Newton makes a weird cameo and he’s not playing himself.  I don’t know what to do with this.  It would have been perfectly natural in, say, The Spy Who Loved Me.  In this movie, which aims towards a grimy realism, it is really out of place.

There are two pretty cool villain sets, Davi’s enormous mansion (completely with chair lift!) and his drug factory, which is huge and contains an underground heliport.  The last set is just as out of place as Wayne Newton, but it’s supercool, and that counts for a hell of a lot.

There’s a surprising amount of underwater action in this movie.  I got a bit of the Thunderball sweats, but it’s not nearly as egregious.

Bond sleeps with both the villain’s girl, played with maximum sexiness by Talisa Soto, and Carey Lowell’s character.  They play this dumb, catty, “he’s my man” game between the two of them and it is awful but mercifully confined.

1 comment:

  1. I realized after I posted this that Mary Goodnight isn't American - the other American Bond girl so far is the one from Moonraker, whose name escapes me.