2012 marks the 50th anniversary of James Bond on the big screen. To celebrate, SFX’s Nick Setchfield revisits each and every 007 adventure in a week by week countdown to Skyfall…
MISSION 16: LICENCE TO KILL (1989)
TRY HARD WITH A VENGEANCE The sixteenth Bond film has blood on its knuckles. The most vicious-hearted of all 007’s adventures, it puts a final bullet in the lingering ghost of the Roger Moore years. Encouraged by the success of the harder-edged The Living Daylights, Dalton and director John Glen pushed for an even more bruising take on Fleming’s hero, one that refused to blink at the inescapable violence of Bond’s world. The movie’s vast cruel streak is clear from the opening scenes – while the muddlingly duplicitous villains of Daylights had proved the feeblest in the franchise’s history, cocaine kingpin Franz Sanchez makes an instant, chillingly censor-baiting impact. Confronted by a cheating moll, he orders the heart of her lover hacked out and then presents it to her as the ultimate bloody valentine before taking a whip to her body. Fleming’s taste for a little light S&M frequently infiltrated the original novels but the numb brutality of this sequence has none of his characteristic kinky quiver (a torture scene with a similar dynamic in Thunderball plays out with far more dark imagination). Savage tone duly established, the movie relentlessly jabs at the acceptable limits of big screen Bond – when a crooked DEA agent slams a rifle butt into a man’s face there’s a shocking bloom of blood; elsewhere the nefarious Milton Krest explodes inside a pressure chamber, blotching a window with brain-jam. “Bond exists in a violent world and has to use violence against violence,” declared Dalton, unapologetically. For all that it pursues adult sensibilities there’s an adolescently-minded touch of try-hard about this blood-letting, and it’s telling that this is also the first truly sweary Bond movie: 007 himself tells an MI6 colleague to “Piss off”, a jarringly raw moment that punctures decades’ worth of nonchalant cool. Licence To Kill earned a 15 certificate on release in the UK, the first Bond film to be exiled from a traditional family audience.
THIS TIME IT’S PERSONAL Trading the usual Whitehall-sanctioned world-saving for a snarly personal vendetta, Licence To Kill repositions 007 as a late ‘80s action hero: a self-motivated force for hi-octane redemption, operating distinctly off the grid. This is the adrenalised age of Rambo, Commando and Die Hard, after all, but there’s also a belated echo of Dirty Harry and Death Wish in Bond’s newfound disdain for authority and his embracing of lone wolf status. Stylistically the shadow of Miami Vice looms large: Michael Mann’s neon-hearted, pastel-suited cop drama had recently redefined TV detective shows and here the Bondmakers invade its drug-war turf without ever quite capturing its slick, cocaine-benumbed ‘80s sheen (they even enlisted the show’s costume designer, Jodie Tillen). The ruthless, reptillian Sanchez could easily have faced Crockett and Tubbs on the small screen, but inspiration for the movie’s villain was in fact found in real life. Demanding an antagonist “ripped from the headlines”, the screenwriters channelled the true life evil of Manuel Noriega, the Panamanian drug csar whose leathery, pitted countenance is clearly recalled in Robert Davi’s casting as Sanchez.
DALTON TAKE TWO Who exactly is Timothy Dalton playing in Licence To Kill? It’s sold to us as a James Bond film but its gruff hero bears precious resemblance to the cinematic archetype established by Connery and Moore. If his predecessors had occasionally felt like suave, untouchable holograms, dancing through glamorous peril with the easy confidence of those who are born bulletproof, then Dalton is the first Bond to bleed persuasively. He gives a strikingly less charming performance in this film – while The Living Daylights had shown us a 007 whose romantic, chivalric side softened his steel, this vengeance-impelled version is an altogether different proposition, a brusque, ill-tempered bastard with a gaze like a furnace. He simmers as M revokes his licence to kill, threatens Lupe with a blade to her throat, sacrifices a corrupt DEA agent to a shark while his face remains impassive and not a little scary. He’s almost fed into a giant shredder in Sanchez’ cocaine plant: “Switch the bloody machine off!” he barks, trading Bond’s usual cool disdain for the very real reaction of a man who’s a heartbeat from an especially grisly death (“Do you expect me to talk, Goldfinger?” feels a universe away). Even his delivery of signature line “Shaken not stirred” is weirdly brutal, closer to a punch than a smile. Dalton’s never less than compelling, though, and his sheer acting chops let us buy into this wounded, human Bond, which in turn sells the vendetta that drives the plot. When he discovers the body of Felix’s murdered wife his anguished cry of “Della!” is genuinely jolting. Seconds later, you clearly see that a fuse has been lit, one that will burn all the way to Mexico’s Isthmus City and Franz Sanchez, trailing blood, bullets and fire.
A GENUINE FELIX LEITER Bond seeks revenge on behalf of Felix Leiter, his old CIA contact and possibly the closest this most coldly self-reliant of heroes has to a friend. Ian Fleming introduces 007’s Stateside ally in the very first Bond novel, Casino Royale, “a cool and quiet no-nonsense character who knows 007′s strengths and weaknesses well”. Future Hawaii Five-0 icon Jack Lord established the big screen Felix in Dr No but never returned to the role – some say he demanded too much money to encore, others believe the filmmakers feared that Lord’s towering, sharp-suited cool threatened to eclipse their star. The compulsively recast Leiters who pop up in Goldfinger, Thunderball and Diamonds Are Forever certainly possess a fraction of Lord’s charisma and feel far from rivals to Bond’s dick-swinging alpha male status (only Thunderball’s Rik Van Nutter lodges in the memory, and that’s mainly for his clearly brilliant name). While The Living Daylights had introduced yet another forgettable Felix, Broccoli argued that for Licence To Kill’s storyline to have any resonance it needed an actor who possessed a history with the Bond franchise. Time to recall David Hedison, Roger Moore’s co-star in 1973’s Live And Let Die. Director John Glen initially thought that, at 62, Hedison was too old to be a convincing compatriot of the fortysomething Dalton and, in truth, he’s a faintly perplexing choice, looking more like a freshly reupholstered morning show host than CIA bad-ass. Even more perplexingly, the end of the movie finds him cosily joshing with Bond about an upcoming fishing vacation – perhaps not the most appropriate moment for a man who’s just survived a mauling by a Great White, let alone someone whose wife was raped and murdered on their wedding day.
TANKING CRISISLicence To Kill’s centrepiece action scene finds Bond at the wheel of a tanker, manoeuvering its long, gleaming bulk through tortuous Mexican mountain roads filled with dust and fireballs and the chatter of machinegun fire. There’s a muscular Monster Truck Show vibe to this stunt sequence, never more so than in the moment the tanker performs a gravity-mocking wheelie (Kenworth Trucks fitted a 1000 horsepower engine, close to three times the amount of horsepower on a normal tanker – five tons of weight were also placed over the back wheels so it could attempt the feat). Filming took place at the La Rumorosa Mountain Pass in Mexicali and required a total of 16 18-wheeler trucks, corralled by veteran stunt co-ordinator Remy Julienne, who performed the astonishing tanker-tilt without recourse to a special rig that had been constructed for the shot.
LICENCE REVOKEDLicence To Kill ultimately feels like a tussle for the soul of Bond. It chases a place at the high table of ‘80s action flicks but it’s in danger of bartering the franchise’s matchless magic for the kind of quotidian, low-horizon thrills you can find in any Chuck Norris VHSer. On release in ’89 it notably failed to find an audience in the States, crushed by a blockbuster summer that included such monstrous multiplex-fillers as Batman, Lethal Weapon 2 and Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade (Bond has never dared step into the summer arena since). It was also crippled by a truly lacklustre marketing campaign: gone were the traditional painted posters with their high-dreaming glamour, replaced by drab photo montages that made a point of ditching Bond’s time-honoured tux. Cubby Broccoli soon realised that this surly, single-minded new Bond was a misstep: “In making Bond an altogether tougher character we had lost some of the original sophistication and wry humour,” he confessed in his 1998 autobiography When The Snow Melts. “Bond is not a Superman, or a Rambo… He is, as Fleming insisted, a skilled professional: ruthless and sardonic in his work; gentle, witty and stylish off duty. That is the way the public want him and it’s clear we had to get back on to that track.” As tired as it’s revolutionary, lumbered with the dullest title in the series, Licence To Kill closes a chapter on James Bond in the cinema. It would be a long six years before Her Majesty’s secret servant returned to the screen, and in that time it would shed familiar names from both in front of and behind the camera. Perhaps sensing his licence to kill would soon be lost, two-time Bond Timothy Dalton went bluntly off-brand when he told a journalist “My feeling is this will be the last one. I don’t mean my last one. I mean the end of the whole lot. I don’t speak with any real authority, but it’s a feeling I have. Sorry!” But as that invincible mantra always tells us, James Bond will return…
TRIV AND LET DIE
China was the original choice of location for this adventure – potential story elements included a motorbike chase along the Great Wall and a fight sequence among the priceless Terracotta Army.
The film uses two unfilmed ideas from Ian Fleming’s original Live And Let Die – Felix’s shark torture and Milton Krest’s fish factory.
Originally titled Licence Revoked, the movie was renamed after the studio fretted that the word revoked would be a hard sell in the US.
A key influence was Akira Kurosawa’s classic revenge tale Yojimbo.
MGM refused to run a series of stylish teaser posters by The Spy Who Loved Me billboard artist Bob Peak, much to Broccoli’s annoyance.
Robert Davi played Bond in the screentests for Lupe.
President Lopez is played by the son of Pedro Armendariz, who played Bond’s ally Kerim Bey in From Russia With Love.