Monday, April 2, 2012

Bondage, Pt. 16: License to Kill

Before I start, let me say I plan to end my Bondage series here - for now. Why? Truth is, I'm a little bored with it. I've posted about nothing but Bond movies since October. Also, the final Timothy Dalton film is a good place to break, thematically. After License to Kill, the 16th installment in the series, there was a six-year delay in getting the next one made. It also marked the final bow for not only Dalton, but for Caroline Bliss as Moneypenny, Robert Brown as M; it was the last bond film screenwriter Richard Maibaum worked on, and the last of the groundbreaking, influential opening title sequences by Maurice Binder; it was the last of a long run for director John Glen and cinematographer Alec Mills. Most significantly, it was the final Bond film to be produced by Albert R. Broccoli, who'd been there since the beginning and is probably single-handedly responsible for the longevity of the series up to this point.

License to Kill, released in 1989, is also the last Bond film of my childhood years. By the time they cast Brosnan and returned to the franchise, I was all grown up. That also makes this a nice place to take a break. When Skyfall - the latest Bond film - comes out later this year, I'll resume this series with the Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig eras. Until then, I'll move on to some other fun stuff.

Synopsis: Bond's best buddy Felix Leiter is all set to get married, with 007 as his best man. But the day of the wedding, Felix gets a call that his CIA pals are hot on the trail of Franz Sanchez, the notorious leader of a drug cartel who has recently escaped CIA custody. Unfortunately, Leiter manages to get himself kidnapped and fed to sharks. Though he lives, he's wounded for life, and his poor new wife is raped and murdered. Bond discovers all this and vows revenge - but M doesn't want him on the job. It's the Americans' problem, M thinks. Bond persists, and has his license revoked after an argument with M. He runs for it, goes on the lam, and hunts down Sanchez.

The Villain: Very few people do "bad" like Robert Davi, who has been often been cast as a Big Bad throughout his career (even in more comedic roles - he was one of the bad guys in The Goonies). Davi is pretty chilling as Franz Sanchez, an amoral and jealous woman-beating, man-killing Central American drug czar. He virtually rules the fictional Republic of Isthmus through a puppet president. Sanchez rarely exhibits explosive outbursts - his temper is all the more disturbing, however, for its calm execution. A scene when he beats his mistress with a belt is particularly unsettling.

The Henchman: Who is this skinny kid Davio? Why, it's a young Benicio del Toro! This giggling, knife-wielding assassin is a favorite of Sanchez, favored with a hug or two from the villain as the film goes on. He's responsible for most of the cold-blooded murder that happens in the film, and is pretty memorable, as far as henchmen go. Underrated character actor Anthony Zerbe plays Krest, another Sanchez minion, who is framed by Bond and put to death in a hyperbolic chamber, where he explodes. Nasty. Finally, one of the most memorable minions of the entire Bond series is Professor Joe Butcher (played to hilarious effect by Wayne Newton), a televangelist whose ministry is just a front for Sanchez' drug ring.

The Bond Girl: This is another one of those movies were there are arguably two Bond girls. First we have Lupe (Talisa Soto) a beautiful Central American girl, the mistress of Sanchez who suffers regular beatings by him. When we first see her she is cheating on Sanchez, who catches her and kills her lover while he beats her. She later flees to Bond and works with him, helping to frame Krest and setting up Sanchez for the fall. She ends things up by marrying the president of the Isthmus Republic, so she ends up OK even though Bond (ultimately) rejects her advances. The real Bond girl, I think, is Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell), a CIA informant who flies Bond into the Republic of Isthmus and gets her hands dirty (and her negligee wet) helping Bond take down Sanchez. Like most latter-day Bond girls, she can fight, shoot, and get tough with the guys (and saves Bond's bacon more than once) - but of course, she is completely immune to Bond's charms after a period of token protest.

The Sidekick: Mostly, it's Bond Girl Bouvier. There's also Sharkey, a friend of Leiter's who was also in the wedding party. He gets his throat slit later in the film, and Bond kills his killer with a harpoon gun. I'd say the best choice for "sidekick" in this one is actually good old Q, who, despite the fact that Bond is acting as a rogue agent and is being hunted by the authorities, shows up to help him infiltrate the Sanchez organization. I always get a kick out of seeing Q in the field, as opposed to his traditional scene at the beginning of the film where he issues Bond's gear for that movie. Desmond Llewelyn is always fun to watch, and I miss him dearly in the newer films (there's not even a Q character in the Daniel Craig era).

Gadgets: Despite the darker, grittier tone of this movie, traditional Bond gadgets are present. My favorite is a very simple one: a cloak that disguises 007 as a manta ray while he's swimming underwater. There's also a laser-shooting Polaroid camera, plastic explosive disguised as toothpaste, an exploding alarm clock and a gun that recognizes Bond's hand prints that only he can use. Q uses a two-way transmitter disguised as a broom (and, oddly, when he's done using it he just throws it away...this after his countless lectures to Bond in other movies to return equipment in good working order).

Music: Gladys Knight was asked to perform the theme song after producers rejected a theme from Eric Clapton as being "too dark" (Clapton, told the movie would emphasize Bond's darker elements, purposely wrote it that way). In the end, the song they went with is not that memorable, at least by me: it's the only one I can't recall without hearing it first. Patty LaBelle does the song of the closing credits. Gladys Knight's song featured a bit that was so reminiscent of the distinctive horn part in Goldfinger that the writers were forced to pay royalties. Longtime Bond composer John Barry was unavailable due to illness, so the film was scored by Michael Kamen, who had recently had success with his soundtracks for big-budget Eighties action flicks like Die Hard and Lethan Weapon.

The Director: This is the final bow for director John Glen, a veteran of five consecutive Bond films (a record for the series). He continued what he started with Dalton on The Living Daylights - that is, emphasizing the darker, more aggressive side of Bond. In this film, he went about as far as he could with that. Many critics panned this film as being too much like the other action films of the era, and not enough like a Bond film. However, others said it matched the tone of the novels better than many films had (this one, incidentally, was not based on an Ian Fleming novel). Glen himself considers this the best of the Bond films he made.

Fun Facts: David Hedison, who plays Felix Leiter, was the only actor to play Leiter twice until the Daniel Craig era. He originally played Leiter in Live and Let Die. He never expected to return to the role. This is an exception in a long (and somewhat perverse) tradition of the producers to never cast the same actor as Leiter twice. Another fun(ny) fact is that Robert Davi played Sanchez by method acting, and refused to break character during his entire time on the set. He envisioned Sanchez as a "dark reflection" of Bond, which is why he plays him as somewhat smooth and self-controlled. Pedro Armendariz, Jr., plays the puppet president of the Republic of Isthmus - he is the son of Pedro Armendariz, who played the ill-fated Kerim Bey in From Russia With Love.

Favorite Lines: You know, this one is pretty short on quips. But one line I remember fondly comes from Sanchez, right after he kills his minion Krest by exploding him in a hyperbolic chamber. There's a lot of money in the chamber with him that ends up getting splattered with blood. When another minion asks Sanchez, "what about the money?" he replies, slyly, "launder it." I also like a line from Q, who reminds Bond, "Remember, if it wasn't for Q Branch, you'd have been dead a long time ago!"

Other Stuff: Bond's obsessive pursuit of Sanchez and desire for revenge was said to be inspired by his own short marriage, when his wife is murdered moments after the wedding by a Blofeld henchman in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Screenwriter Richard Maibaum said he was inspired by the Akira Kurosawa film Yojimbo - one of my all-time favorites - in that Bond is "a man alone" in this one. He's not really alone, but being a rogue agent is, I suppose sort of like being a ronin, or masterless samurai.

And now, to simulate six years of legal wrangling that prompted Dalton to leave the series, we will pause in our exploration of the Bond films, returning in November to celebrate the release of Skyfall and James Bond's 60th Birthday.

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