Friday, March 22, 2013

"50 Years of Bond" Retrospective - #16: Licence to Kill

For 25 years, the James Bond films had been well known for their light tones, but that standard had been abandoned in favor of a more serious tone in 1987’s The Living Daylights. The film was a success, and took James Bond down routes he should have gone down much sooner. Naturally, the studio wanted its star, Timothy Dalton, to come back for the next film. This time, they were gonna blow preconceptions of what Bond should be out of the water. The last film may have been gritty, but this next one was going to up that grit, take on a weighty tone, and give Bond the depth he hadn’t been given since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. This was Licence to Kill, a film which proved divisive among its audiences.

The film begins with Bond and his CIA friend Felix Leiter taking a drug lord into custody, but the criminal escapes, kidnapping and injuring Leiter, and murdering Leiter’s wife. Thinking Bond to be emotionally compromised, M revokes his license to kill and suspends him from MI6. Bond, however, goes rogue to pursue the criminal, Franz Sanchez, who plans to sell numerous shipments of his products disguised as fuel. Bond is aided along the way by an ex-Army pilot, and by his old weapons technician Q.

The thing that’s immediately striking about Licence to Kill is its tone, which is incredibly dark compared to anything that the other films had ever done, a lot of which is highlighted by the violence. I know that the other films had their fair share of heavy violence, but this film is downright aggressive. While it is true that there are some truly absurd elements worthy of the Roger Moore era, most of the time, everything is much more grounded, usually taking a back seat to Bond, occasionally taking a look into his emotional state. In fact, this is what the follow up to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service SHOULD have been.

The action in this movie is much heavier and unlike the lighter action of the Connery and Moore films. The aesthetic style is considerably harsher. Even the music took a more serious turn. The living Daylights marked John Barry’s last time composing for the 007 series, and I think that was a good choice. You gotta love John Barry, but after a while, all his scores started to sound the same. The music was handled this time by Michael Kamen, and much like Marvin Hamlisch, Kamen knew how to write great music, and, of course, the opening title song performed by Gladys Knight is a great song.

As for the cast, they’re all quite great. Dalton, like I’ve said before, may not have quite the same sense of charisma that early Connery or early Moore had, but he makes this incarnation of the character his own. I’ve said before that the character needs to take himself seriously for the movie to be taken seriously, and while many people may not like this more darker form of Bond, I think this is the best way to handle him. It’s a kind of Bond we wouldn’t get again until years later, but we’ll get to that in due time. The Bond girl in this movie is great. The villain here is downright wicked. There are also some nice supporting roles that provide some of the more welcome comic relief.

But, was everybody ready for this Bond? It depends on who you ask. Some thought it was a refreshing change of pace, but others thought it got too grim, too quickly, and they even thought that the cast and the story felt downright lifeless, which is not a totally unfair assessment. A lot of viewers were really turned off by the sudden intensity this entry brought. In comparison to previous Bond films, it didn’t do that well at the box office either. Needless to say, I don’t think it was what the studio had hoped for. This was the last film made before the series went into a six year hiatus, a hiatus where Dalton decided not to return as Bond.

Not only was it the end of the Dalton era, it was practically the end of the old-school Bond era. On top of it being the last Bond movie many of the old cast would ever work on, it also marked the last film for screenwriter Richard Maibaum, title designer Maurice Binder, editor John Grover, director and former editor John Glen, and it was even the last time Albert R. Broccoli would serve as one of the film’s producers. However, Broccoli would stay on as a consulting producer for the next Bond film, which was just the right restart the studio needed, and would arguably be considered the most popular of ANY of the James Bond films. Why? For that answer, join me next time…

****1/2 / *****

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