Retrospective: LICENCE TO KILL (1989) | Casey's Movie Mania | Movie Reviews, Features & Others

Monday, 2 November 2015

Retrospective: LICENCE TO KILL (1989)

Following the global box-office success of THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS in 1987, it was proven that fans and audiences were responding well with Timothy Dalton's edgier and less tongue-in-cheek version of James Bond than his predecessor, Roger Moore.

Then came LICENCE TO KILL two years later. Released in the mid-summer of 1989, the US audiences didn't care much about the movie. The US$42 million-budgeted movie flopped with a measly US$33.2 million at the box office. However, the international box office was still encouraging, even though the movie made significantly less money than THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS (US$154.7 million vs. US$190.1 million). So, what went wrong? Here's my analysis:

THE STORY: In this entry, Bond (Timothy Dalton) is on leave in Florida to become the best man for the wedding of his CIA buddy, Felix Leiter (David Hedison) and Della Churchill (Priscilla Barnes). Then on the big day itself, Bond aided Leiter to apprehend notorious South American drug kingpin Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi). Sanchez's arrest is short-lived when he manages to bribe someone in the law-enforcement agency and help him escape. Sanchez subsequently ordered his men to kill Leiter's wife, and then teaches Leiter a cruel lesson by torturing him to near death. When Bond learns about this, he decided to cancel his flight back to England and vows to exact revenge against Sanchez. Because of Bond's personal vendetta, MI6 revoked his licence to kill. But that doesn't stop him at all, as Bond goes rogue and infiltrates Sanchez's organisation using every skill in his possession.

THE ANALYSIS: Looking back at the US weekend box office chart archive from Box Office Mojo, it was a shame that LICENCE TO KILL couldn't even landed in a No.1 spot. Instead, the movie had a disappointing No.4 three-day opening weekend (July 14-16) with just US$8.7 million. Whether it was a poor marketing campaign or a bad timing to release a Bond movie at the height of more well-received Hollywood entertainments by the likes of INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE, BATMAN, LETHAL WEAPON 2 and HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS, I would say it was the radical change of formula that ruined LICENCE TO KILL.

When I first watched LICENCE TO KILL back in the late 90s on a VCD, I didn't like it. While I appreciated the producers at the EON Productions has given us a more serious Bond movie as proven in THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS, they went overboard with Dalton's second 007 outing. Here, the normally suave-looking Bond is reduced to an unkempt and unprofessional version of himself. Instead a secret agent on a globe-trotting mission filled with international intrigue, we get an angry-looking Bond who doesn't give a shit and goes haywire like Mel Gibson's Martin Riggs in the first two LETHAL WEAPON movies.

Then there's the story. It looks obvious to me that the creative team of LICENCE TO KILL tries to emulate the quintessential "this time it's personal" action-movie formula of the '80s popularised by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and among others. Such approach might work well if LICENCE TO KILL was not a Bond movie, but an entirely different action picture altogether.

That was a decade ago. But as the years go by, I did revisit LICENCE TO KILL every now and then to see if my original perception of the movie still remain the same or otherwise. Strangely enough, when I revisited the movie again in coincide with the upcoming release of SPECTRE this week, my opinion changes. Fast-forward to 2015, LICENCE TO KILL feels more relevant if viewed by today's standard. Had the movie released in the Daniel Craig's gritty era of Bond movies, it would have been more successful both critically and financially. Suffice to say, LICENCE TO KILL is ahead of its time way before Craig turned Bond into a brooding individual with a personal grudge.

Now for the pros and cons of the movie. Clocking at 133 minutes, LICENCE TO KILL is pacy and straight to the point. The pre-credit opening scene is spectacular, where Bond is seen dangling in the mid-air and hooks a cable around the tail of Sanchez's small airplane connected to a Coast Guard helicopter above. If the particular scene sounds familiar, that is because Christopher Nolan, a die-hard Bond fan himself, inspired the same action set-piece to stage his own mid-air plane hijack opening scene in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012). It was an incredible stunt work that only gets better during the climactic finale. Often cited as among the best action set-piece ever seen in a Bond movie, the ending involves a chase scene where Pam (Carey Lowell) piloted a crop-dusting plane with Bond on board to pursue the four tankers and Sanchez's car on a winding mountain road. Bond eventually jumped onto one of the tankers and takes over the driver's seat after he shoves the driver out of the door. From here, it's interesting to witness Bond's unique skill of driving a tanker. In one memorable scene, he manages to tilt his tanker on just one side of the wheels to dodge an incoming missile fired by Sanchez's men that flies beneath him and blows off the other tanker instead. Between the opening and the closing scene, the rest of the action scenes in the middle of the movie is no slouch either. Case in point is the thrilling underwater battle that reminds me of THUNDERBALL (1965), followed by a scene where Bond fired a harpoon gun at the seaplane and subsequently water-skied from behind as the plane takes off.

The whole revenge angle, as well as a more grounded storyline involved Sanchez's drug-trafficking operation, is actually nothing special but I enjoyed the overall economical approach.

The cast is also fantastic. Dalton may have been "un-Bond" like if to compare with his previous predecessors, but his rugged charm and no-nonsense performance remain an engaging presence.

The Bond girl, especially Carey Lowell carries her role well as a strong female role who knows how to fire a shotgun, piloted a plane and even saves Bond in numerous occasions. Despite her tough-looking exterior, she also proves to be an attractive woman who can pull off a sexy evening dress complete with a small Berretta holstered around her thigh. David Hedison, reprising his role as Felix Leiter for the second time after LIVE AND LET DIE (1973), gives a worthwhile performance within his limited screen time. Desmond Llewellyn, in the meantime, provides a wonderful comic relief as the gadget man Q. But instead of confining to a small role where he is often seen introducing Bond a brand new gadget, it's fun to see him getting a larger part playing a "field agent" of sorts. Benicio Del Toro, a then-unknown actor who eventually found fame acting in THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1995) and won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in TRAFFIC (2000), already shown great potential for a newcomer (this is only his second feature role after 1988's BIG TOP PEE-WEE) playing Sanchez's top henchman.

But of all the supporting cast here, it was Robert Davi who nearly steals the show as Franz Sanchez. Easily one of the best Bond villains of all time, Sanchez is a refreshingly different beast unlike others. He's not an exaggerated villain who has a crazy plan to conquer the world. Instead, he is more realistic bad guy who has his own personal code of conduct. He is smart, cunning and also a ruthless person who doesn't mind getting his hands dirty if needed.

Next, is the titular theme song by Gladys Knight. I never get bored listening to it, and it definitely ranks as one of the best songs in a Bond movie. I even enjoyed the beautiful ballad of Patti LaBelle's "If You Asked Me To" that played over the end credit, even though it feels awkward as a closing song for such a gritty Bond movie like LICENCE TO KILL.

While the songs are exceptional, the score is surprisingly a letdown. With the notable absence of veteran Bond composer John Barry, Michael Kamen was hired instead. At the first glance, he seems to be a good replacement. After all, he's the one responsible for bringing memorable scores in LETHAL WEAPON (1987) and DIE HARD (1988). Unfortunately, he goes auto-pilot with mostly uninspiring score in LICENCE TO KILL.

Finally, Talisa Soto has a photogenic look of an exotic beauty, but hardly leaves a lasting impression as one of the Bond girls with her bland performance.

FINAL WORDS: LICENCE TO KILL may feel strangely out of place during its original release in 1989, but improves over time after all these years. Timothy Dalton's bold portrayal of James Bond may have been as divisive as George Lazenby if to compare with the rest of the actors, I often wonder what would happen if he remains contracted for a third movie. Too bad he didn't choose to stick around, especially after the long-winded legal disputes between UA/MGM and EON Productions during the early 1990s.

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