Thursday, 30 March 2017

Licence to Kill review

Because it would not be The Midnight Ramble without some Bond-related ranting, here's a review of Timothy Dalton's final stab at the role.

Following the success of The Living Daylights plans were made for what was meant to be the second of Timothy Dalton's four-picture contract as James Bond. Events did not go to plan. Due to tax changes in the UK, production was moved to Mexico, and the 1988 Writers Strike meant the producers were unable to utilise the services of longtime scribe Richard Maibaum, who honoured the strike after only working on the first draft.

The resulting movie's ad campaign was scrapped in favour of a cheap, generic variant which made the movie look cheap and generic. Released in summer 1989, the movie was crushed by the juggernaughts of Batman and Lethal Weapon 2. Though it ultimately made around $150 million worldwide, it bombed in the US.

If you listen to public opinion, Licence to Kill is in contention as either the worst film in the series, or an unsung masterpiece. I'm more in the middle on this movie, so in the style of my Quantum of Solace review, I'm going to break this movie into pieces.

The good
You do have to give this movie some credit for attempting to shake things up -- after nearly 30 years, the series was due for some changes. The premise is interesting -- Bond imbeds himself in a villain's organisation, and uses his paranoia to destroy the organisation from the inside. It's Yojimbo, with Bond as Toshiba Mifune's ronin (or Clint Eastwood's nameless gunslinger in the remake Fistful of Dollars).

Robert Davi makes for a great villain,. You always feel like he will kill Bond if he learns who he is, which is a pretty rare quality for Bond bad guys. He has a little bit of the kinkiness of the books, with his use of a whip and horrific post-mortem jokes ('You liked my little Valentine, huh?'), which does not feel wedged in (ala Kristatos' keelhauling in For Your Eyes Only).

The supporting gang of rogues are also more interesting and varied than any batch since -- we've had good main villains (Elektra King, Le Chiffre and Silva), but other than Xenia Onatopp and General Ouromov in GoldenEye, supporting villains have been pretty colourless. Benicio Del Toro is the most memorable as Sanchez's sadistic flunky Dario, but Anthony Zerbe is also fantastic as Milton Krest -- his desperation to save his own neck makes him rather compelling and empathetic. One thing that this movie gets right are the villains, and each of their respective deaths are great.

The action sequences are all pretty solid, with the water skiing escape and the tanker chase finale being the stand-outs. The final chase does suffer from some bizarre attempts at broad comedy (the tanker tilt feels a bit too silly, and it's not shot well -- it looks like a movie stunt), but overall it works in the old Spielberg cause-and-effect style of action.

I'm probably an outlier on this, but I really have a thing for the title song. It is very eighties, but it gets the vibe of the movie and has a weird way of sticking in your brain.

The bad
The attempt to be contemporary backfires badly on Licence to Kill. The plot of a man seeking vengeance against drug dealers was old hat in 1989, and the filmmakers make it worse by throwing out the series' glossy aesthetic. Blended with the fashions and uninspired set design (the bar set is so insanely 1989 it feels straight of the MacGruber movie), the movie feels like a carbon copy of movies that it should not be competing with. It does not help that those movies, the Lethal Weapons and Die Hards, are all R-rated. Bond has always walked the line to be as mainstream as possible, and the film's lurches into harder violence always feels jarring.

This movie also includes ninjas. Why? Because EIGHTIES.

Overriding all of this nonsense, the visual style is a major problem with this movie. It looks overly lit and cheap. Some people say it looks like Miami Vice, but that is pretty unfair... to Miami ViceLicence to Kill looks more like an episode of Magnum PI or Simon & Simon.

The female characters in this movie are real blank slates. To me they exemplify the film as a whole: interesting in concept, underwhelming in execution. To their credit, I think this is the fault of the script and direction more than the actresses. Pam Bouvier is meant to be a tough-as-nails pilot and special agent, but within 10 minutes of being introduced she turns into a jealous would-be girlfriend. The character never makes sense -- Lowell is also a bit too young and good-looking (she was a famous model at the time) to make her feel convincing. Lupe, Sanchez's girlfriend, is problematic for the same reasons -- she starts a victim of domestic violence, and then turns into Bond's bit on the side. There are shades of Skyfall's Severine to her character, in that she is given a complex backstory yet forced into a traditional Bond sexpot role that completely ignores any complication.

The ugly
 The script is a contradiction. The premise is pretty simple, but the execution is weirdly over and under-developed. The idea of Bond infiltrating an organisation and destroying it from the inside is great -- having Dario, and every other character he's already met, not run into him until the end of the movie is a massive plot hole. The other problem is how quickly Sanchez trusts him. All the parts are there but the movie always feels a few drafts away from being really good. It relies on too many action movie cliches from the era, and it leaves the movie feeling a little bit like a copy of a Joel Silver movie.

Using Felix Leiter (David Hedison) as the sacrificial lamb to get the action going would be fine -- if the character had been used consistently before. But he had been played by so many different actors by this point (including the movie prior to this one), that his presence doesn't really add to the drama as much as it should.

Michael Kamen's score has some nice moments (the track 'Licence Revoked' on the soundtrack features some great use of the James Bond theme), but overall it lacks a distinct identity, and feels too much like a distaff version of his work on Die Hard and Lethal Weapon.

The tone is the real problem here. The Brosnan movies are often criticised for their constantly shifting tones, but Licence to Kill, a supposedly serious movie, suffers from too many tone deaf moments of 'Bondian' comedy -- the character of Joe Butcher, a sleazy prosperity evangelist, is great, but his scenes feel like they have been lifted out of a Roger Moore movie -- which feel out of step with the extreme levels of violence elsewhere (minutes later we have Dario diced into confetti and Heller impaled). Director John Glen is not good at juggling between these extremes and the third act in particular swings back and forth in a very disconcerting fashion that dilutes the power of Bond's showdown with the villains.

License revoked?

When I was younger, I thought this movie was dark but kind of fun. Nowadays its flaws make it a hard sit. The movies released on either side of it are far better, and in terms of getting 'gritty' Fleming-style Bond movies, Casino Royale is this film done right.

It's not a totally bad movie, but it does end up feeling like more of a half-cooked gumbo of eclectic ingredients which don't congeal. It is interesting to note how the mistakes this movie made continue to recur in the series: the attempt to decorate the formula with moments of too much realism (The World Is Not Enough); the near-total dumping of the Bond aesthetic in favour of a passing trend (Die Another Day; Quantum of Solace); the half-assed attempt at 'strong' female characters (basically every Bond movie post-GoldenEye till Casino Royale).

I don't think Licence to Kill is a failure, but it is far too flawed to be considered a classic. While it tries to do something new, its 'newness' ultimately amounts to a poor approximation of contemporary trends, rather than anything that will push the series forward.

Previous reviews

Diamonds Are Forever

The Man With The Golden Gun


For Your Eyes Only


A View To A Kill

The Living Daylights

Tomorrow Never Dies

The World Is Not Enough (2010); (2017)

Die Another Day

Casino Royale

Quantum of Solace

Spectre (2015); (2016)

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