It is a big day week here with 007(x3) Weeks of 007 as we discuss “Licence to Kill,” the second—and final—Timothy Dalton movie. Why is this big? Because “Licence to Kill” is the first Bond movie I saw in the theater.
The shame of this being my first in theater Bond is that I was finally old enough to watch a Bond movie on the big screen and the franchise was about to take an extended break. Yup, following “Licence” it would be six years before the next Bond movie arrived, a massively long break for the franchise and things would be very different on the other end. But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves, let’s just deal with what this week has to offer.
First off, very early on in the movie we get another clue that Bond is always the same Bond no matter who is playing Bond – Felix Leiter explains to his new wife, Della, that Bond acted oddly when she suggested he might get married next as he was married once, a long time ago. Yes, you could again argue that maybe this Bond, too, was married and it didn’t work out, just as Moore’s Bond was and Lazenby’s, but eventually you get to the point where you’re doing those crazy backtracking things people who believed in the geocentric theory of the solar system had to do in order to explain the motion of planets and stars.
Occam’s Razor. It doesn’t always work out to be true, but all other things being equal, go with Occam’s Razor.
Now, Della dies in the movie and does so on Leiter’s wedding night. One of the things I’ve always wondered about that is what exactly it means. What does it say about Bond and Leiter that both of their marriages ended before they could really begin? The parallel is, of course, one of the reasons Bond takes this thing so badly, but I feel like the movie would be far more strong if they had really brought it to the fore.
The conversation between Leiter and Della should have been slightly longer, less cryptic, “He was married once, a long time ago.” “I didn’t know.” “Of course not, he’s very private about it. She died and it’s something he’s never gotten over.”
Then, maybe, Leiter wakes up earlier in his hospital bed and has a chat with Bond before 007 heads down to Isthmus. Leiter tells Bond not to go, says it’s not Bond’s fight, that Della isn’t Tracy and that Sanchez isn’t that guy who must not be named due to long-running lawsuits who killed Tracy. Bond goes off anyway, something about avenging Della and Leiter and Tracy and stopping all the people in the world who would harm innocents.
I hate to rewrite Bond. I just feel like as stripped down as this movie is, they really could have done some things to bring it back into the fold. It requires more callbacks to the series and its history – M should acknowledge that Bond has done this sort of half-cocked crazy thing before and give him a “Now is not the time for one of your vendettas, 007, we need you in Turkey” or something similar. Instead, we get M playing with cats a la that guy who must not be mentioned. Odd choice for the movie, and definitely a callback but not the sort “Licence” desperately needs.
All of the elements for these callbacks are there already but they’re just not overt enough. “Licence to Kill” feels like a different sort of movie than other Bond film, but it isn’t. It is the “Diamonds are Forever” vendetta thing again; the two weeks vacation from “On her Majesty’s Secret Service.” It is the same set of Bond tropes, just in different packaging. They are even still going back to the novels what with Felix losing his leg. Heck, they’ve even gone back to the same Felix Leiter they used once before, and that’s something franchise hasn’t done to this point.
As for that packaging, oh, it definitely is different. Everybody loves Daniel Craig’s Bond for being stripped down and not caring about things like whether his vodka martini is shaken or stirred, but if you look at those movies now, especially “Skyfall,” it’s the Bond we’ve always known. Look at Dalton’s Bond, the way he dresses for various operations in this film, the way he goes about doing his job, it makes Craig feel like Dalton-lite, even in Craig’s first outing.
“Licence to Kill” is full of odd choices. Anti-Bond choices. It feels like a deliberate move away from the character we know and love, and it isn’t just the stuff above about being the same tropes we’ve seen before but refusing to acknowledge them or give more than a cursory mention of the character’s history. It is so much more.
As an example, let’s talk about Isthmus. They went with a fake city/country as Sanchez’s home base. For a franchise that prides itself on going to exotic locales, they spend a lot of time here in a location that doesn’t exist. It is one thing to have lairs that aren’t real, but unless the claim is that all of Isthmus is Sanchez’s private lair (it isn’t, however corrupt it may be), why go with a fake location? It doesn’t work for me, and is a weird choice for the series.
I can forgive that, odd though it may be. Less forgivable is the bar brawl.
Listen, I’m sorry, James Bond should not be involved in massive bar brawls, especially ones where there is chandelier swinging. There is something so horribly ’80s about that moment, it’s a level that even the synth-pop in “The Living Daylights” doesn’t attain.
Then, Bond even gets caught between two different women at the end of the movie. That, too, feels a little out of place even if Q is great watching it all unfold and shaking his head as if to say, “Well, it had to happen sooner or later.”
In the end, the Dalton years feel almost like an experiment, a getting ready for Craig (even if Brosnan is in between). They are asking what makes a Bond movie a Bond movie and how to update the character, yet again. I like the movies (save the bar brawl and synth-pop) and feel like Dalton didn’t get his full time in as the character. That he didn’t get to put his stamp on Bond and really only grazed the surface of what he could have brought to the role.
More movies were not in the cards for Dalton and consequently, next week things will be vastly different for us once more. 007(x3) Weeks of 007 will return with “GoldenEye.”
photo credit: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment