Bond gets revenge. Licence to Kill is likely the darkest, most gritty Bond film to date. This stems from the fact that this is a revenge film, and that requires some nasty stuff to happen to James’ friends and his sworn enemies. This is the film that earned Timothy Dalton his maligned criticism. Many felt it deviated too far from the familiar Bond style and formula, but the truth is, this was likely the most true to Ian Fleming’s character, as he was originally written. However, I have always liked this film.
CIA turned DEA Agent Felix Leiter (David Hedison) is aided by friend and British spy James Bond (Timothy Dalton) in apprehending sadistic drug lord Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi) on Felix’s wedding day. However, when Sanchez is broken out of custody, he murders Felix’s new bride, and leaves him for dead after being mauled by a shark. This drives Commander Bond to seek revenge, but M (Robert Brown), his superior in the British Secret Service, denies him this and revokes his licence to kill. This forces Bond to go rogue to exact his revenge on this merciless criminal. He is aided by one of Leiter’s contacts in the capable Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell) as they attempt to crush Sanchez’s entire drug empire.
This film is definitely more violent than The Living Daylights, border lining on graphic. Bond holds nothing back, subjecting his enemies to gruesome fates. One man gets exactly what Leiter got as Bond maliciously throws him into the shark tank, but doesn’t survive. Others get quite severe deaths demonstrating that you don’t want to be on the bad side of Timothy Dalton’s 007. Bond goes after everyone hard and fast, but never sacrifices intelligence or savvy. He remains cunning but also deadly. Timothy Dalton slips into this harder edged 007 very comfortably and easily. He takes what he did in The Living Daylights, and just darkens it a few shades. He’s a little more intimidating and dramatically intense showing Bond’s passionate motivations in this personal story. Dalton might not have the opportunity to be very witty or suave, but he delivers on the dramatic weight and conviction that the story demanded. He also has small moments of pain and grief that do penetrate through the screen as he reflects on his maimed friend. The physical demands on Dalton are greater this time out, and he was more than up for the task. You can clearly see his face as he is lowered in a harness from a helicopter early on, or doing any number of daring stunts or fights. I can certainly understand why many never took well to this portrayal of the character. Definitely in this film, he is a fierce animal on a dead-set mission who doesn’t delve into light-hearted indulgences. He stays sharply focused on the matter at hand, and doesn’t allow anything to diverge him from that mission. In both of Dalton’s films, I find what he did with the character of James Bond to be very compelling and exceptionally intelligent.
Now, I am dead serious when I say that Franz Sanchez is one of the best Bond villains I’ve ever seen. Robert Davi is cutthroat and ruthless in this role, taking it also into a very dark and violent place. He’s a very realistic and threatening villain who is a fresh departure for the franchise being that he is a South American drug lord. That is a very identifiable villain for the 1980s in the era of Miami Vice. Davi makes a powerful impression right from his first scene proving Sanchez to be a very formidable villain. That solidifies him as a seriously dangerous adversary for James Bond. The fact that he’s not hesitant over getting his hands dirty makes him even more of an unnerving threat. Of course, having a young and sleazy Benicio del Toro as his main henchman Dario, and nicely villainous Anthony Zerbe as cohort Milton Keyes doesn’t hurt matters, either. Of course, I don’t know what the idea was behind his pet iguana, but chalk it up to Bond villain eccentricities.
The Bond girls of this film are fairly decent. Most would know Carey Lowell as Assistant D.A. Jamie Ross from Law & Order in the 90s. Here, she’s a nicely assertive and sexy female lead pulling enough of her own weight, but her performance doesn’t have that harder edge or strong spirit to measure up to Dalton’s Bond. It’s a good performance, but not a standout one. Talisa Soto is about the same, but with considerably less to do as Sanchez’s reluctant and intimidated woman Lupé Lamora.
It’s interesting to note that the character of Felix Leiter appeared in The Living Daylights portrayed by 36 year old actor John Terry. In this film, he is portrayed by 61 year old David Hedison. He had previously played the role in Live and Let Die, and considering the need for an audience to care strongly about Leiter, the filmmakers decided to bring back a better established, more memorable actor in the role. It goes to show the loose continuity the franchise once had where the same character can be played by two different actors with a quarter century difference in age in back-to-back films. I always found that rather amusing, if not confusing. Regardless of that, Hedison does a fine, admirable job in this outing definitely making Leiter an enjoyable and sympathetic character.
Unfortunately, there’s not much to say about the opening credits sequence of Licence to Kill. It’s even more generic than that of The Living Daylights with various female figures dancing around, and the image of a roulette wheel spinning behind them. The title song by Gladys Knight is fairly good. It has a bit of a sweeping romantic quality with a lot of soul in her vocals. It’s a nice change of pace from the previous two films, but probably not quite as memorable.
On the far better side of things, I really have to hand it to the action scenes of this film. The filmmakers really pushed them to a whole new level with amazing mid-air stunts, exhilarating water skiing getaways, and the spectacular finale with the Kensington trucks. The pre-credits sequence is excellent with Bond being lowered down from a Coast Guard helicopter to tether in Sanchez’s plane, and then, James and Felix parachute down to the front of the chapel for the wedding. Bond is put into plenty of lethal peril in some nicely imaginative ways. He even gets to tangle with some ninjas. The climax is full of fire and explosions during a tanker truck chase down a desert highway. It’s an awesome sequence giving us plenty of original and memorable moments. Bond and Sanchez fight on the moving tanker truck until there is one final dramatic moment which has a beautiful and brilliant personal touch of revenge.
There is a James Bond style maintained in this action-revenge storyline. He uses his skills of espionage to infiltrate Sanchez’s organization, getting in close to him to both discover in the inner workings of it, and to destroy it from the inside out. He turns Sanchez against his own men by laying the seeds of distrust and betrayal in him. It’s quite a skillful revenge with Bond using his intellect instead of pure brutality, but always knowing he’s at the edge of danger at every turn. James is well aware of this being a personal vendetta, and he consciously tries to keep his friends and allies out of the crossfire. Regardless, they choose to help him anyway because the danger is so high that he needs all the help he can get, and it’s great seeing that loyalty, especially from Q. Miss Moneypenny is even so worried about James that she cannot even do her job properly. All of these character elements and emotional attachments are nicely woven into the story, and gives the audience a chance to see James’ concern for them and vice versa. Despite his unwavering determination for revenge, Bond keeps enough of his senses about him to not seek it at the expense of others. This is his own mission, and no else need risk their lives for his own gratification. So, despite how dark this Bond appears to be, he hasn’t lost sight of his humanity.
Scoring duties for Licence to Kill were taken over by Michael Kamen, who was a brilliant composer through to his passing in 2003. I immensely enjoyed what he did on this film. His score has its own distinct style and sound while still adhering to the classic Bond themes and feel. He brought something more rousing and dangerous, matching the film’s tone exquisitely. I love his arrangement of the James Bond theme as it is used quite a bit in various action scenes. Again, it has a unique flavor without making a drastic change. The sprinkles of Latin musical flair for some of Sanchez’s best moments was a fine touch. Overall, it’s an excellent score.
Topped off with some excellent and solid cinematography by Alec Mills, who also shot The Living Daylights, this really is a solid, hard edged Bond action picture. Surely, it might not be palatable to all fans of 007, but I think it definitely has its audience. In light of the success of Daniel Craig’s run with the character, going back to a more grounded and realistic style and tone, I think many should give Licence to Kill a fair watch. Timothy Dalton really delivers a very dangerous and action-packed performance that impresses me. It’s only unfortunate that the franchise got stalled out after this due to legal and financial issues, and by the time they were resolved, Dalton chose to bow out of reprising the role. While both of his outings are particularly good, I don’t think he got the chance to do his quintessential Bond film. Licence to Kill was not well received, and in the hotly competitive summer of 1989 with Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lethal Weapon 2, Back to the Future, Part II, and Ghostbusters II, it was difficult to be financially successful as well. Still, I continue to give Timothy Dalton credit for taking the franchise in a more serious and respectable direction which did set a good stage for Pierce Brosnan’s run. Thus, James Bond will return in GoldenEye.
Adapted from the novel by Stephen King, and directed by David Cronenberg, The Dead Zone is definitely one of the best films based on King’s work. It has always been heralded with acclaim for many excellent reasons. Not the least of which is an incredible lead performance from Christopher Walken.
Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) is a young and charming school teacher with a bright future ahead of him with a woman he loves and intends to marry. Yet, after leaving her home one night, he is involved in a car accident which leaves him in a coma for five years. Upon awakening, Johnny discovers he has gained the power of psychic visions where he see the past, present, and future with just the touch of a hand. This frightens Johnny, and he feels only more isolated from the world when he learns that Sarah (Brooke Adams), the love of his life, has married another man and had a child with him. After Johnny physically recovers from his coma, he becomes more and more reclusive until Sheriff Bannerman (Tom Skerritt) enlists his help to find the vicious Castle Rock Killer. However, when Johnny later shakes the hand of young and upcoming political candidate Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), he is confronted with a frightening vision that shakes Johnny down to his core.
To say the least, Cronenberg has been a very original director with a unique perspective and style which comes out in science fiction or horror fare. Although, what he gives us with this film is a much more subtly clever and psychologically powerful over overt strangeness. Instead of going for the throat like he did with Scanners or Videodrome, he really hones in on the heart of this story, and he does it magnificently well. Every element he brought together truly merged with the heavy, somber tone he was going for. That was an excellent direction to envelope the film in as it puts us right into Johnny’s headspace. I think it was a stroke of genius that he made Johnny’s visions fully enveloping. He put Johnny inside the vision as if he was right there as it happened, but unable to affect change within the vision. It created a far more strained experienced for the character than if it just appeared as a dream state. With the first vision, he could probably feel the heat and flames just as if he was there in the burning house. During the vision of the Castle Rock Killer, Johnny is adamant how he was right there watching the murder, but unable to stop it. This forges Johnny into a darker, more reclusive state.
This is the earliest film I’ve seen of Christopher Walken’s career, and it shows that, no matter the age, Walken delivers his all. Johnny starts out as a kind, lively man fully in love, but the accident forces a turbulent change in him. He feels like a man out of sync with the world, and is now haunted by his new abilities. He’s angry that five years of his have been taken away, and that the woman he loved moved on with her life while he has none to return to. Walken is able to convey the deep emotional turmoil of Johnny with so much humanity that you can’t help but feel his pain. The tragic sense of the character really comes through in such strong, brilliant ways. Walken subtly mixes in the charm of the pre-accident Johnny underneath that somber, unstable exterior. The well of emotion in his face and eyes honestly becomes heartbreaking many times over. When the visions occur, Walken goes into an intense trance which is immensely riveting. Walken actually had Cronenberg fire off a gun, loaded with blanks, to elicit his startling reaction in those moments, and that was greatly effective. Walken can be very intense, at times, as the fear of his knowledge of the future boils over, but he’s always able to return to that heartfelt side. I could really go on and on about all the nuances and profound qualities of Christopher Walken’s performance, as he is always so rich with, but suffice it to say, he is absolutely stunning in this role.
Another great talent on display is Tom Skerritt who brings his strong presence of authority and sense of compassion to Sheriff Bannerman. He feels very authentic as the lead police officer of a small New England town. He really invests you in Bannerman’s plight where he has exhausted all avenues of investigation, and is willing to put his faith in the extraordinary to protect the people of his town. Herbert Lom does a very interesting and relatable performance as Dr. Sam Weizak with the genuine care of a physician. I really like the candor and humanity he brings to the role as Johnny’s doctor. He’s about the only one Johnny can confide in about his abilities, and that creates some very strong scenes which show Johnny’s pain and struggles. It’s very strong and intriguing work. Brooke Adams is very lovely and beautiful in the role of Sarah. She is very sweet and smart showing a simple, very caring woman that would endear herself to the younger Johnny who was bright and full of life. Adams does the same to an audience showing warmth and tenderness, and really striking up a genuine, heartfelt chemistry with Walken. The great Anthony Zerbe has an admirable turn as Roger Stuart, who hires Johnny to tutor his son, and also, bridges Smith with Stillson. Zerbe has a screen presence of respect, intelligence, and sophistication which serves the character excellently.
Martin Sheen is awesome as Greg Stillson. While he is perfectly stereotypical of a politician, and seemingly an exaggerated one, it entirely works for the role. Stillson is megalomaniacal, as is revealed to Johnny. He’s full-tilt insane, and Sheen revels in that madness. He has thinly veiled unhinged mentality which many voters would perceive as zeal, passion, and charisma, but Zerbe’s character perceives the danger he poses, which is a very nice touch to motivate Johnny’s and Stillson’s paths to cross.
While I have not read the novel, it seems like it had just a series of generally episodic events, which could have proven complicated to translate into a coherent screenplay, but I believe the filmmakers did an excellent job of weaving them together with Johnny’s plight being the through line. How he goes from feeling angry and cursed to slowly realizing the potential good he can do with his powers is a fascinating approach. Yet, he’s never really a man at peace. There’s always an emotional or psychological turmoil swirling inside him. Because of this, The Dead Zone is more a character-driven movie as there is no overarching main plot, aside from Johnny’s internal struggles. The film gives us a series of otherwise unrelated events that deeply affect and mold Johnny towards a powerful ending. While it could use a little more meat on the bone, in terms of a more rigorously involved plot in the Stillson centric segment, this really seems like the best approach to the material, and it is done exceptionally well.
The film’s score was done by the late, great Michael Kamen, who was a masterful composer and musician. Here, he produced a brilliant score that is powerful and haunting. It really has a strong presence which really digs deep into the emotions abound in the film, reflecting the sad, bittersweet feeling Cronenberg captured on screen. Even in the beautiful moment, he still manages to keep that heavy, foreboding tone present. It’s really a mesmerizing piece of music which is undeniably one of Kamen’s finest and distinct works.
The winter setting of The Dead Zone is marvelously brilliant. It reflects the cold, lonely, isolated sensibility that come to define Johnny Smith. It also perfectly Stephen King. Cinematographer Mark Irwin shot this film amazingly well. There are some sequences with wonderfully moody lighting such as the tunnel crime scene with the headlights reflecting off the ice, or the green tinge inside the Dodd residence. Johnny’s visions are all very visually strong, especially the ice break sequence. Overall, Irwin captures the power of this picture beautifully and compellingly.
The horror aspects in this film are very psychologically and visually based. Certainly the most graphic and startling is the Castle Rock Killer segment. We get violence and some disturbing imagery with this part which is very expertly executed. The rest of the film focuses on the fearful knowledge that haunts Johnny, and creates a troubling foreboding tone which leaves the audience unsettled. It’s a cerebral film built on a solid, somber atmosphere that can leave you saddened. I do think it’s a film that goes beyond the confines of horror, and pursues something much more fascinating and deeper. That was much of King’s intention. He wanted to write a story that didn’t delve into creatures or spirits or other things that come out to scare you in the dead of night. The Dead Zone was a sad, turbulent journey for a man that never asked for these extraordinary powers, but had to somehow cope with these experiencing jarring, haunting premonitions of death. They lead him down a chilling path that would be frightening for anyone.
As is obvious, I really like The Dead Zone. The only thing that pulls it away from a perfect rating is that I don’t think the build up to the climax is quite strong enough. A bit more time taken for Johnny to deep down struggle with his decision, or to really reflect upon himself would’ve given it a more dramatic swell. The ending is excellent, though. It really hits the right, powerful emotional beat. I wouldn’t change a frame of it. Christopher Walken puts in a rock solid performance that runs through a wide array of emotions that he brilliantly wraps into a single package. David Cronenberg had already proven he could go way far out with his concepts, and really deliver very bizarre, yet profound films. Here, he proves he get deep into the soul of a story and character, and deliver something equally profound on a much more intimate human level. I really, strongly recommend this film. It is expertly crafted by a great team of wonderfully talented film artists.