Sunday, January 5, 2014

Double Oh...16: License To Kill

1989, John Glen

License To Kill Preamble: As I said last time, Dalton should really be my Bond.  But the only thing that attracted me to License To Kill as a 13-year-old was my surging libido, and seeing Carey Lowell in that sheer top on the License To Kill poster that appeared in comic books in 1989.  I knew Carey Lowell and Talisa Soto by name for a time because of that poster.   My sole interest in the film was these two gorgeous women, though I'm not certain I knew who was who.  I guess I was just embarrassed by my lust, ashamed maybe, thinking that everyone would know why I wanted to see the movie, that my cinematic viewing intentions were impure... so I never wound up seeing it.

When Skyfall came out there were countless "ranking Bond" articles on line and in print, and what I noticed was that some reviewers and critics felt The Living Daylights was the better of the two Dalton films, and others were on the side of License To Kill, and with disparity, not like they were side-by-side in rankings.  Many critics though this one was too dark, and having Bond go rogue made it less a credible Bond film.

Villains: Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi) is a drug lord introduced in the film's prologue whipping his girlfriend, Lupe, after catching her with one of his minions.  He's the main villain of the picture, a major wheeler dealer and a very ruthless individual.  Bond is introduced in the prologue in the back of a limo with Felix Leiter and his buddy Sharkey, all decked out in tuxes on the way to Felix's wedding.  They're flagged down by a DEA helicopter as Felix has been integral in taking down Sanchez and they're making their move.  Bond tags along.  Gunfire and one plane/helicoper chase later, Sanchez is captured, and Felix makes it off to his wedding, credits roll.
But, atypical for a Bond film, the story continues, as Sanchez is interrogated by head DEA Agent Ed Killifer (Everett McGill from Twin Peaks), but offers millions to anyone who frees him.  Killifer takes the bait and aids in Sanchez's escape.  This leads to Sanchez getting revenge on Felix by kidnapping him (his goons, it's insinuated, raped and killed his bride) and dumping him into a shark tank where Felix survives but loses an arm and a leg.  Bond snaps and is out for blood.  Killifer faces the same fate as Felix.
Sanchez takes off from Florida to his home in the Republic of Isthmus where he has the President in his pocket and is perhaps its most affluent citizen, owning both the Bank of Isthmus and its major casinos.
Sanchez is a major player in the drug world and is looking to expand his international operations.  He finances a televangelist, Professor Joe Butcher (Wayne Newton), whose broadcast is used as middleman for buying and selling.  His operation is large, with partners all over, for different purposes.
Milton Krest (Anthony Zerbe) is an exotic fish exporter as well as fish farmer, and he uses his explorations in international waters as a cover for transporting Sanchez's drugs into the US.  Bond manipulates their partnership and meets his grisly end at Sanchez's bidding in a pressure chamber (an effect used a year later in Total Recall).
Truman-Lodge (Anthony Starke) is a young businessman who is partnered with Sanchez in managing his illicit import/export business and the televangelical operation.  He's ill equipped to handle things when they start going south.
Heller (Don Stroud) is Sanchez's head of security, a former US Army Colonel but he's also set to betray Sanchez (by stealing a quartet of stinger missiles Sanchez plans on using to target US passenger planes and blackmail the DEA into backing off)
Dario (Benicio Del Toro... very, very young and lean) is one of Sanchez's many henchmen, but is the most prominent of them, and made unique by his prominent gold tooth.

Whilst Sanchez starts out as a straight forward bad guy drug lord, he starts to adopt more typical Bond-Villain traits as the film moves on.  He's a man of honor, he makes a deal and keeps his word.  Loyalty is of utmost importance, so you know, a serious guy.  But he's also got a diamond collared iguana because all Bond villains have to have an exotic pet.  Late in the picture we get to see his secret lair, an elaborate and exotic, remotely located temple, using the televangelical religion as cover for his drug processing operation (where they blend the drugs with gasoline rendering them untraceable during transport).  It has a giant hatch on the front courtyard that raises up to reveal a helipad underneath.  It's a delightful surprise when it's revealed.  Davi might not make for the most eccentric villain but he's a formidable one for sure.

Bond Girls: Della Churchill (Priscilla Barnes) is Felix's tragic bride.  I had to wonder given their first scene together whether Bond and Della ever had a thing (as she does kiss him oddly passionately).  She's of the "women in refrigerators" sort, where she's killed brutally and tragically to inspire the hero.  Shame, though, Barnes is charming.
Lupe Lamora (Talisa Soto) is Sanchez's unfaithful girlfriend.  She hates him but fears him.  She's not strong enough to outright leave him, but seeks often to undermine him or lash out at him.  She's all to ready to help Bond out when he turns up and actually seems to plausibly be able to kill Sanchez.  She's smart enough to deceive her man and his men when she needs to but she's also rather unnecessary in the film overall.  She serves more as a romantic foil for Pam than a true romantic interest for Bond.  She professes she loves him, but she's just like Kara from The Living Daylights where she's infatuated with the man rescuing her.
Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell) - is introduced as one of Felix's informant, when Bond keeps Felix's appointment at a rough dockside bar.  She's first introduced in a tank top and kevlar vest, tough talking, smart, suspicious and packing a shotgun.  She's an ex-army pilot and very capable in a fight, which is needed when Bond engages Dario and Sanchez's men in a bar brawl.  They escape harm, narrowly on a boat, and as we all know, being on a boat with a woman is like Viagra to Bond.  But Pam is sexually aggressive which seems to catch Bond pleasantly by surprise.  Bond encourages her to help fly him to Isthmus, and she decides to stay and help where he irks her by calling her his executive assistant.  She cleans up very nicely when she makes a reappearance at the bank after a shopping trip, and later is an absolute, jaw dropping knockout at the Casino.  I wager in this sequence she looks better than any Bond Girl (or any Bond himself), ever.  It's unfortunate that Bond keeps warning her off from helping him as she's a capable fighter, pilot and marksman.  She should be more active in the action than she is (arguably as active as any Bond femme previous though)

The film ends with an unfortunate moment of ridiculous melodrama straight out of a John Hughes high school dramedy, as Lupe passionately kisses Bond whilst Pam watches on, then runs away.  But Bond has eyes more for Pam than Lupe (I guess having slept with them both, he's made a choice), and he jumps over a balcony into a pool, in a grand romantic gesture, to profess his...I dunno... desire to bang her again.  Cue the 80's slow jam (Patti La Belle's "If You Ask Me To"...really).  There's an insinuation early in the film when Della gives Bond her garter that he's unwilling to fall in love again, but he catches the garter anyway, foreshadowing that he may wed once more.  It would be interesting to know what the next Dalton Bond film would have been, and whether Carey Lowell was to return, she's a suitable match for Bond, Pussy Galore done right as a romantic interest for Bond.

One more note, while Caroline Bliss' Moneypenny made a solid debut in the previous installment, her role here was restricted to sitting behind a desk, pouting to M over her concern for the rogue James.  I'm assuming she sends Q to Bond, but it's not explicit so the scene is almost entirely extraneous.

Theme/Credits: Gladys Knight sings the theme song which features heavily a horn drop from Goldfinger, and it's actually a pretty cracking Bond theme.  It's not perhaps the most memorable theme song, but it's strong, with gravitas and a sweeping sense of both danger and romance. It feels both of its time as well as somewhat timeless as all the better Bond themes do.  Beyond the redundant horn drop it doesn't have a genuine hook but it's effortlessly listenable and nothing off-putting.
The credit sequence, Maurice Binder's last, is a few steps ahead of some of his previous efforts, but once again it seems to miss the plot of the film (there's a casino reference) but it seems more focused on dancers, models and photography, none of which have any bearing on the film.  Still thanks to Knight's track, it's one of his more alluring sequences, particularly the final shot of the sequence with a sultry model in repose, gun resting on her hip.  It's a nice note for Binder to go out on after 27 years.

Movie: It's odd to me that so many reviewers criticize this film for not being Bond-like enough.  For me, overall, the film feels exceptionally Bond-like, with its broad range of locations, bigger action sequences, more convolution in its storytelling.  But the story itself, with Sanchez's heavily networked drug operation, and the side elements, like Bond interfering in both Pam's mission from Felix and the Hong Kong Narcotics Bureau's multi-year operation lend a naturalness to this Bond picture that most don't have until the Daniel Craig years.  This, even more than On Her Majesty's Secret Service, feels like a template for the Craig movies.  Dalton has settled in the role tangibly here, and the tone also seems more in line with Dalton's desired portrayal of the role.  It's a darker Bond, he's angry and out for revenge.  He tells M off and goes rogue.  He gets downright nasty when he sees what Krest's men have done to Sharkey.  Bond even acknowledges that he's a dangerous man to aide, that he gets people killed.  There are lighter moments in the picture (Newton's repetition of "Bless your heart" to Pam as she slights him are great), but it's not camp, like the cello case toboggan sequence of The Living Daylights.
  It's tremendously enjoyable, and engaging, though I feel it could use tightening, as frequently I would check the timestamp and marvel at how long the film had been running and how long it still had to go.  Even still, the many deleted scenes on the blu-ray actually help fill out some of the puzzling parts of the story film (Sharkey's death, the arrival of Heller and Truman-Lodge) and characters.
  It features some of John Glen's best action sequences (the mountainside tanker truck chase is amazing) and some genuine classic Bond moments.  It also features Q helping Bond out (going a bit rogue himself) and it's a highlight for that character.  It's also the best Bond movie to be shot in America by far, feeling less like a British cinema's interpretation of America (as it has before in Goldfinger and A View To A Kill) and more like typical American movie.

Explosive alarm clock
Plastic explosive toothpaste tube with cigarette igniter.
Camera gun with optical palm reader that only works for Bond.
X-ray Polaroid camera with laser flash
Rappelling cummerbund
Radio rake

Despite the fact that Q is featured here more prominently as a character than ever before, its use of gadgets feels much more natural, less forced than most Bond films.  Some gadgets turn up without any prior set-up, or they play a role other than their intended use.

Classification (out of 01.0): 00.8, I really, really liked this one, in spite of its clunkiest parts.  When it was wrapping up I felt disappointed, cheated even, that there isn't another Dalton Bond available.  He was really making the role uniquely his and I think a third film would have solidified the darkest, edgiest, most dangerous Bond, and he would be more favourably remembered.  People who malign this one are the same people who poop on Quantum of Solace, they're both a lot better than they get credit for, they're just different.  For me, I think Bond works best when it knowingly plays with its conventions rather than adheres to them.