Movie Postmortem # 4: Licence To Kill


by John S

Movie Postmortem is a monthly series that reviews certain films which showed promise but misfired (critically and/or commercially) upon initial release. Join us in our attempt to find out exactly what the hell happened.

The Casualty: Licence To Kill

The Case History: Summer 1985. James Bond is doing well at the box office, despite practically being of retirement age. A View To A Kill, the 14th entry in the durable series, stars Roger Moore in his 7th outing as 007. Moore half-jokes that he needs to step down because, at 57, he is actually older than his latest Bond Girl’s mother. Everyone, including him, knows he’s right.

Sam Neill, Timothy Dalton, and Pierce Brosnan appear to be favored by the folks behind the franchise. However, head producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli is not completely sold on Neill, and Brosnan’s chances of donning the tux are scuppered by the last-minute renewal of his Remington Steele contract in the wake of all the 007 speculation. That leaves Dalton.

After years of goofy setpieces and tongue-in-cheek elements (practically almost everything in Moonraker and Octopussy), the Bond films will be coming back down to Earth to meet Dalton’s request for a return to Fleming. And Dalton’s Bond will be one not to suffer fools gladly, as opposed to playing the fool as Moore often did (two words: clown outfit – yikes).

Summer 1987. The first Dalton Bond flick comes out. The Living Daylights is a welcome return to the basics of Bond and the Classic Spy Thriller. We have a twisty plot that is refreshingly believable while retaining the franchise’s trademark action set pieces. Bond only has one leading lady in the form of naive but scrappy Russian cellist Kara Millovy (Maryam D’Abo), lending added depth. As for Bond, Dalton is appealingly serious but with traces of dry humor. The only flaws are the the buffoonish villains played by Joe Don Baker and Jeroen Krabbe.

The Living Daylights takes in $51 million ($112 million today) in North America and several times that, internationally, making it a solid hit. Plans for the next Dalton Bond flick unfold. Titled Licence Revoked, it will feature a Bond in uncharted territory: going rogue and out for revenge. Licence Revoked will be even more molded to Dalton’s take-no-prisoners style.

Carey Lowell and Talisa Soto are chosen as Dalton’s leading ladies. Robert Davi nabs the role of the villain, a ruthless South American drug lord who is the target of Bond’s vengeance. The title is eventually changed to Licence to Kill because a studio survey reveals most Americans don’t know what “revoked” means. Given how stupid they apparently think we are here in the Colonies, it’s surprising they choose to keep the British spelling of “license.”

Summer 1989. Licence to Kill opens in early July and pulls in “only” $8.7 million ($19 million today), and finishes its North American run at $34.6 million ($75 million now). This is a marked decline from The Living Daylights‘ performance. Licence to Kill does considerably better overseas and is a solid hit there. However, domestically, LTK is labeled a disappointment.

Understandable, if it actually sucked. However, it turns out to be one of the best Bond flicks since Sean Connery’s reign.


So what the hell happened?

The Autopsy Details: Most detractors gripe about how Licence to Kill is “un-Bond-like.” Meaning, the camp factor is turned down considerably. Just because, however, LTK doesn’t have a giant henchman with iron teeth marching around or a space satellite filled with gorgeous mannequins, doesn’t mean it’s not a Bond flick. In fact, Licence to Kill is both a very good film and a very Fleming-esque Bond story.

What makes LTK so refreshing is how it doesn’t treat its characters as elements of the Bond Formula that need to be ticked off on a list, but actual organic parts of the story. The screenplay by Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson is taut and snappy, and director John Glen (who directed the four Bond flicks before LTK) knows his stuff by now but never phones it in.

Robert Davi is excellent as Franz Sanchez, the drug czar for whom loyalty is more important than money. Davi makes Sanchez into a multi-layered character whose sinister code of honor actually makes sense. After years of Bond Villains who were either cheesy, weird, or both, we finally get a baddie who is a real, if vicious, human being. Sanchez often comes across as a “Dark Side Bond” with shades of humanity and complexity. Also, he is streets ahead of the previous baddies in The Living Daylights who were basically morons.

As for the women, they’re definitely a step up from most of the ladies from the Moore era . Pam Bouvier and Lupe Lamora are babes but definitely not lost-babes-in-the-woods. These two have seen a lot and are survivors. Instead of being pulled into the fray, they are already active participants in it. Carey Lowell is a home run as Pam, a CIA operative and the sole surviving informant on Sanchez’s operation who becomes Bond’s vital ally in toppling the empire. Lowell’s serious-but-sexy performance paved the way for the more take-charge, active heroines in the Brosnan and Craig eras.

Lupe, in contrast to the explosive Pam, is a cooler, craftier presence who is constantly reading the terrain and sizing things up. She has chosen a side: her side. Like Pam, she impacts the plot, but in a subtler way. Lupe’s betrayal of Sanchez at the very beginning is what kicks the whole movie into motion, and her “double-agent” status as Bond’s “insider protector” within the cartel is also intriguing. For a man with a “one-strike-and-you-are-dead” policy, Sanchez sure puts up with a lot from Lupe. Clearly, she has a hold over this dangerous guy and with the darkly-alluring, cat-like Talisa Soto in the role, you get why.

Even with a great villain and strong leading ladies, though, LTK could have still suffered if it didn’t deliver on the action. However, it does so and in spades. The set pieces are tougher and more believable, but still exhilarating. Examples include Bond’s elaborate hijacking of a seaplane filled with drug money and the climactic tanker chase on a winding mountain road.

Then there’s Bond himself: this would sadly be Dalton’s last turn as Bond, but it’s actually one of the best performances in the franchise. Dalton’s Bond is human and fallible: he bleeds and makes mistakes. It’s interesting to see how much Daniel Craig is praised and adored for something Timothy Dalton pioneered. As much as I like Craig, he sometimes comes across as smugly posturing in his movies. With Dalton, it’s always organic and natural, like a second skin.

Ultimately, Licence to Kill didn’t misfire because of lack of quality. Rather, its then-daring and atypical tone might have confused fans and mainstream audiences who were still not ready for a gritty, mean, down-to-Earth James Bond. And we know what sometimes happens to things that are ahead of their time.

Likely Cause of Death: Unfortunately, the unconventionally dark, no-nonsense tone made clear in the film’s marketing campaign, coupled with intense summer competition in the form of Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Lethal Weapon 2, just to name a few, ensured Licence to Kill had a tough run in July 1989 and sealed its fate. Timing is everything. Accordingly, Bond films have been released in the fall ever since then, just to avoid another LTK-like situation.

Next Month’s Casualty: Alien 3 – “In 1979, you discovered in space no one can hear you scream. In 1992, you will discover on Earth, everyone can hear you scream.”

Except we never did. Because the threequel to Alien and Aliens had an extremely chaotic and highly erratic evolution, to say the least. Leading to actual theatrical teaser taglines (such as the one above) that were misleading, at best, and downright dishonest, at worst. Another teaser tagline that led to absolutely nothing: “The bitch is back!”

Unless, of course, they were talking about Ripley, not the Queen Alien. Meow.

That’s all.

John S. is a Scarecrow volunteer who loves James Bond, Jason Bourne, Italian Gialli, Dario Argento, Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Peanut M&Ms with popcorn, Julia Roberts in PRETTY WOMAN, Theo James in anything, HALLOWEEN (movie and holiday), Scarecrow Video, Russell Crowe as a villain, strawberry soda, and Karaoke – not necessarily in that order. He also thinks he was a Bond Girl in another life, maybe a cross between Dr. Christmas Jones and Dr. Holly Goodhead.

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