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OUR WORD IS OUR BOND – LICENCE TO KILL (1989)

Our Word Is Our Bond returns with Ash Loydon offering his views on Licence To Kill (1989), starring Timothy Dalton, Robert Davi and Carey Lowell.

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Original art work by Ash Loydon for Licence To Kill (1989)

Licence To Kill – “loyalty is more important than money”
It’s 1989 and the world of cinematic heroism is in a state of flux… as Indiana Jones rides off into the sunset in the company of his dad and Captain Kirk has a cut-price family-friendly face-off with God, a hero from our childhood is about to emerge onto the big screen darker, dourer and much, much more leathery than ever before…
Indeed, 1989 was the year of the Bat.
But Bob Kane’s eponymous Dark Knight detective wasn’t the only character of old being dragged kicking-and-screaming into the modern age.
Another 60’s pop culture icon was about to receive a much needed make-over.Bond was back.

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Bond (Dalton) and Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell) at the baccarat table in Licence To Kill (1989)

And, after the frankly schizophrenically scripted The Living Daylights tried somewhat unsuccessfully to mix Moore-style quips with Connery era arse-kicking, 007’s new adventure Licence Revoked looked to return to a Bond with a more realistic edge (but with a dreamy Welsh accent), the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the franchise’s very beginning.
But evil machinations of which Blofeld himself would be proud were about to scupper the super spy in his attempts to regain his action crown.
The least of which was the worry from Eon that no-one in America would know what ‘revoked’ meant. (And, if they did, would they assume that the title referred to Bond’s driving licence?)
A dozen meetings and one swift title change later – well, I say swift… but not swift enough to save Eon from having to dump Robert Peak’s darkly daring promotional artwork and quickly replace it with what looked like a hastily Pritt-sticked community centre panto poster – and Licence To Kill was born.

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Felix Leiter (David Hedison) and Bond (Dalton) prepare to go after a deadl drug baron in Licence To Kill (1989)

And with it a grittier and, let’s be honest, a damn sight sexier Bond for a new and more dangerous age.
A Bond out for revenge and out for justice.
A Bond that bled, cried and wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty.
And, unfortunately, a Bond that no-one save the die-hard fan seemed to have had any interest in seeing.
Which is a pity really because those of us who did see it at the time realised that we were witnessing probably the greatest Bond movie ever.
And if you don’t believe me, then I’d happily listen to you explain why they’ve been remaking it every few years under a variety of titles only this time with Daniel Craig in the lead role.
Welcome to the weird, wonderful and high-wired world of Licence To Kill.
And by its end the Bond franchise will never be the same again.
But first, for those few who’ve still not seen it, I think a wee recap is in order.

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Poster art for Licence To Kill (1989)

Helping his best bud Felix Leiter (David Hedison, the only other actor save Jeffrey Wright in play the role twice) prepare for his wedding, suave super spy James Bond (Mr. Vegas himself Wayne Newton – nah, only joking, Timothy ‘Bloody’ Dalton obviously) finds himself and Leiter sidelined by the DEA to help in the capture of the evil drug kingpin Franz Sanchez (the great beast himself and star of Maniac Cop II and III, Robert Davi).
In a feat of airborne daring so great that Christopher Nolan would later rip it off for The Dark Knight Rises, Bond and Leiter – using only a big hook and a few metres of old rope – capture Sanchez by literally ‘fishing’ his plane out of the sky before parachuting into the wedding ceremony to a sexy Gladys Knight theme.
Phwoar indeed.
Unfortunately (for Felix, that is… I mean for us it’s a godsend, otherwise the movie would be over), Sanchez bribes slimy DEA agent Ed Killifer (Twin Peaks‘ Big Ed himself, Everett McGill) and escapes, but not before setting in motion a raging rampage of revenge that begins with feeding Felix to a shark before murdering his wife.
Bond, upon discovering this, is understandably a wee bit annoyed.
His temper is helped by the fact that the DEA refuse to assist our hero in bringing Sanchez to justice, due to him being out of his jurisdiction, leaving Bond – alongside his buddy Sharkey (Frank McRae) – to start their own investigation.

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Panic stations for Felix Leiter (David Hedison) as he realises he is about to be fed to the sharks in Licence To Kill (1989)

The dashing duo soon discover that not only is the nearby marine research centre run by a henchman of Sanchez, the twitchy, bitchy Milton Krest (the always fantastic Anthony Zerbe), but it’s also in reality a cover for Sanchez’ cocaine smuggling operation. As it happens, Killifer is there to pick up his cash.
What are the chances?
Bond, by this point not only annoyed about bits of his best friend becoming fish food but visibly angry at spending a whole 30 minutes without chinning someone, angrily feeds Killifer to the same shark (c’mon, they’re expensive to hire) that maimed Leiter.
Which is nice.
Concerned by Bond’s mood swings, M (Robert Brown) meets up with our hero and orders him to travel to Istanbul for a new assignment which frankly is the last thing Bond needs to hear, causing him to resign from the secret service before headbutting M’s bodyguards and legging it into the bushes.

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The mutilated Felix Leiter (David Hedison) is found with sardonic message, in Licence To kill (1989)

Bond is now a rogue agent, bereft of official backing and on the run from both the US and UK secret services (and quite possibly Rumbelows), with only his trusty PPK and a suave line in blouson leather jackets and boating shoes for company.
Is there anyone Bond can turn to in his hour of need?
As luck would have it Major Boothroyd – or as we know him ‘Q’ (Desmond Llewellyn) – just happens to be taking a well earned holiday in exactly the same hotel that Bond is staying in; not only that, he’s come equipped with everything Bond could need to complete his mission.
All quite by chance, you understand.
The reunion has to wait though, as Bond has a drug shipment to foil.
Boarding Milton Krest’s ship, the none too originally monikered Wavekrest, Bond does indeed foil the shipment and also steals five million dollars of Sanchez’ cash in the process.

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Bond (Dalton) makes contact with the bad guy’s moll Lupe Lamora (Talisa Soto) in Licence To Kill (1989)

It’s not all joy and happiness though, as Sharkey ends up dead at the hands of the evil Dario (a frighteningly baby-faced Benicio Del Toro, sporting a fantastic quiff).
All this wanton violence is all well and good (and a little refreshing if I’m honest) but 007 soon realises that the film is missing one vital ingredient.
Yup it can’t be a proper Bond film without some top totty, so to that end James teams up with the tomboyish ex-CIA agent and bush pilot (ooeerr) Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell) who, alongside Bond and Q, head to the Republic of Isthmus where Sanchez holds court.
By that I mean he runs the joint, he doesn’t wander around in a powdered wig hitting a hammer on an old table whilst shouting “Order!” and the like.
Though he may have done in a deleted scene.
Who knows?
But I digress.

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Licence To Kill art work by Ash Loydon

Posing as an unemployed hitman (his undercover binman disguise must have been in the wash), Bond manages to get a job working for the evil Sanchez but an attempt to ‘take out’ (in a non Paddy McGuinness way, obviously) the deranged drug dealer is thwarted by two jobs-worth Hong Kong narcotics agents who unceremoniously bundle our hero into the back of a van before taking him along to a deserted warehouse (is there any other kind?) where an MI6 operative named Fallon (Hammer stalwart Christopher Neame) is waiting to take Bond back to London.
Dead or alive.
Crikey.
Injected with a potent sleeping drug, wrapped in bubble wrap and bunged in a box, all looks lost for Bond… until that is a couple of Sanchez’s goons turn up, machine gun the three agents, and rescue our hero.
It appears that they thought that the secret service types were the actual assassins and that Bond was trying to stop them.
How more twisty turny can this plot get?
Now well placed (on the right, just behind the drinks cabinet) in Sanchez’s inner circle, Bond decides to have some fun. Firstly, with the aide of Sanchez’s exotic girlfriend Lupe Lamora (Vampirella herself, the slinkily sexy Talisa Soto), he frames Krest by hiding the $5 million he stole earlier in one of the Wavekrest‘s hyperbaric (bless you) chambers, before dropping hints to Sanchez that it was Krest who nicked it.

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Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi) takes aim in Licence To Kill (1989)

Ever the reasonable employer Sanchez responds by locking Krest in the very same chamber, before smashing it with an axe causing the poor guy to explode.
Wondering how they’ll ever explain that to his Gran, Sanchez invites Bond along to his secret lair (cunningly hidden beneath a new-age meditation centre) to explain his plan to him – and us.
And what a plan it is.
Like a particularly over-excited child with a new toy, Sanchez explains how his scientists have discovered a way to dissolve cocaine in petrol, which they can them just roll out across the world in big trucks disguised as common or garden fuel and then sell it to evil Asian drug dealers.
Which is a pretty specific market if you ask me, but hey-ho what do I know about international drugs trafficking?
The best bit of the plan though is the fact that all of the dodgy drug transactions are conducted via the broadcasts of the centre’s leader, the porn ‘tashed televangelist Professor Joe Butcher (the afore-mentioned Mr. Las Vegas Wayne Newton), who just repeats whatever Sanchez’s ‘business manager’ Truman-Lodge (Iron Man himself, Starke) tells him to. Obviously adding a “Praise The Lord!” or “Hallelujah!” occasionally, just to make sure no-one suspects anything.
Preparing to end Sanchez’s plan (and let’s be honest his life), Bond is surprised when Dario arrives unannounced and reveals 007’s true identity.

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Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi), main bad guy in Licence To Kill (1989)

As a British agent, that is: he doesn’t turn up and shout “Bugger me, it’s Timothy Dalton star of Flash Gordon and Sextette!” because that would be silly.
Though probably perfectly acceptable in one of the latter Moore movies.
His cover blown, Bond does what any self respecting Welshman would do in that situation and sets fire to some stuff before attempting to flee.
But Dario has other plans and ties our hero up before dangling him feet first over a giant shredding machine.
Just as Bond is about to be sliced like so much bacon, Pam turns up and shoots Dario, allowing Bond, in one of the franchise’s most unpleasant deaths, to kick him into the shredder instead.
Which is as painful as it sounds.
Fleeing his burning base, Sanchez commandeers four tankers full of the cocaine and petrol mix and attempts to drive to freedom (or at least somewhere the Feds wont get him – Coventry, perhaps?) but Bond is in hot pursuit.

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Poster art for Licence To Kill (1989)

Well, actually he’s in a plane piloted by Pam, but let’s not be too anal about it.
Careering to an explosive climax, it’s soon one on one as Bond faces off with Sanchez…
Released on 13th June 1989, Licence To Kill, the 16th official James Bond, has a number of (fairly) interesting firsts and lasts attached to it.
It was last to be directed by long time Bond director John Glen (his fifth movie in succession) and the last to be produced by Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli who had handed the production reigns over to his stepson Michael G Wilson due to ill health, and last to make direct use of any of Ian Fleming’s story concepts and characters until Die Another Day in 2002, taking as it does elements from the novel Live and Let Die (the Leiter/shark scenes and the tactics employed by Sanchez to smuggle drugs) as well as from the short story The Hildebrand Rarity.
Though it’s been years since I read that so, to be honest, I really can’t remember which bits.

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Sanchez (Robert Davi) holds a wounded Bond (Dalton) at the end of his machete, in Licence To Kill (1989)

Probably the bit where Bond seduces a lady or something.
Staying true to Fleming didn’t go as far as the title though, it being the first not taken from a Fleming story (though A View To A Kill does cheat slightly by removing the ‘From’ from the short story title, allegedly to make it easier for Duran Duran to write the song).
Staying with songs, the film’s frankly fantastic title theme – as sung by Gladys Knight – was actually written as an homage to the classic Goldfinger, meaning that composer John Barry – alongside lyricists Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley- received royalty payments from it, which is nice.
But the more things stayed the same,the more things changed: the main thing being that, due to budgetary concerns (which for a Bond movie is bizarre), the film was the first in the franchise to be shot totally outside the UK, though with locations in such glorious climes as Florida and Mexico I doubt the cast and crew complained.
I mean it’s not like they had a two week shoot in Bognor or something, was it?

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Dario (Benicio Del Toro), a dangerous henchman working for the villains in Licence To Kill (1989)

And what of that sun-kissed cast I hear you cry?
Well, frankly, there’s never been a Bond film before this with such a top rate (or let’s be honest as sexy) cast than this.
Eon must have agreed as it took 17 years before they even attempted to up the sheer sexual magnetism and raw talent of the movies again when they gave us the frankly magnificent duo of Eva Green and Mads Mikklesen in Casino Royale.
And even then they had to balance out the sexiness and cast a big potato as Bond, for fear of a thousand spontaneous pregnancies during the card playing finale.
But let’s ignore Mr Craig and wax lyrical on the actor who, in my humble opinion, gave us the definitive portrayal of 007, Timothy Dalton.
It’s reported that on securing the role Dalton admitted to never having seen a Bond movie so decided to head back to the books for his inspiration and here it shows.

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Bond (Dalton) exits a tanker via unorthodox means in Licence To Kill (1989)

Dalton gives us a Bond that we can believe in, a cold-blooded killer for Queen and country but with a softer edge around those who know him, a flawed hero who will risk everything for a friend, and, in a lovely throwback to his ill-fated marriage to Tracey, a man haunted by his past.
If anything, Licence To Kill can actually be seen as a sequel of sorts to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service as it’s the murder of his best (only?) friend’s wife that sends Bond over the edge and on the path to revenge and ultimately redemption.
Imagine this movie following OHMSS, with Blofeld replacing Sanchez and a rogue Bond out for his blood to avenge Tracey’s death, no that would have been a swansong for Connery plus with the added bonus of the franchise being still (relatively) new enough to actually make the audience doubt that Bond would return to the fold by the movie’s end.
And, whilst you sit back and imagine that scenario, let’s look at the supporting cast.
Like all good leads Dalton isn’t afraid to let his co-stars shine, especially franchise stalwart Desmond Llewelyn as ‘Q’ who, in a role far expanded on any other movie, positively revels in the genuinely warm father/son relationship the pair share. I anything it’s only beaten by Llewelyn’s final words to Bond in The World Is Not Enough which act as a fitting tribute to a much missed actor.

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Sanchez (Robert Davi) guns down some of is own men who have let him down in Licence To Kill (1989)

It’s worth the price of admission for these scenes alone if I’m honest.
As for the villains, the casting director really struck gold with the amount of up and coming – and firmly established – talent on show, from a pitch-perfect Robert Davi, channeling real-life former dictator of Panama and all round bad boy Manuel Noriega, to Benicio Del Toro’s loon-tastically lecherous Dario, via Anthony Zerbe’s twitchy Krest. The cast of villains are at the top of their game with every single one of them bringing something unique to their roles. Not one main star or bit-part actor is out of place and all add to something, however small, to the film.
And in the much coveted ‘Bond Girl’ roles Talisa Soto is all exotically charged and smouldering beauty as bad-girl-with-a-heart Lupe Lamora, whilst Carey Lowell plays Pam with an energetic mix of wholesome cookie-cutting boy scout, wide-eyed sweetness and thighs you could happily ski down, ever so slightly reminiscent of Peanut‘s Lucy armed with a big gun.
Which says more about me than her, if I’m honest.
If the film has any fault it’s that, with hindsight it was just too much of a departure too soon for those used to the Roger Moore style of Bond… but bravo to Eon for not taking the safe route and attempting something different when staying safe would have been the easier option.
At the film’s end we find Bond slightly shaken, with his loins stirred by the pouting Pam as the pair flirt in a swimming pool to the dulcet tones of Patti LaBelle warbling If You Asked Me To. Who would have guessed that it would be 6 years before Bond returned, refreshed and re-imagined again, but this time as a post Cold War warrior with a scary bouffant, a smart line in Moore-style quips and taking orders from the woman from A Fine Romance?

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Theatrical poster for Licence To Kill (1989)

No sane person that’s for sure.
But that change resonated with a by-now more cinema-savvy audience, and once again cemented Bond as the world’s foremost action hero and, seemingly cemented Dalton as the true forgotten Bond, left awash in an uncertain point in the franchise’s history.
Which is why I feel it’s my duty to champion this, if not ‘unloved’ then ‘criminally neglected’ classic, because although I was brought up on a steady cinematic diet of Moore’s mischievous mayhem whilst encountering Connery on TV, Licence To Kill will always be ‘my’ Bond. It’s genuine wit, style and grit (plus an over-reliance on 80’s hair products), perfectly summing up Bond in all its forms.
Plus, as an aside in these PC day,s it’s the only action film I can think of that relies on the lead character being a smoker to defeat the villain.
It’s the sexy trumpet bit if you’re still wondering.
MoM Rating: 007/007 (that’s 10 out of 10, if you’re wondering)

 

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