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Licence to Kill (1989)

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.

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The Living Daylights (1987)

The Living Daylights was the debut of Timothy Dalton as James Bond on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the franchise.  It also marked a distinct shift in tone from Roger Moore’s more light-hearted approach, and brought Bond back closer to the core of Ian Fleming’s character.  With Dalton came a more dangerous Bond who carried more weight and urgency with him, and it is a portrayal that I very much enjoy.  While this first outing was generally well received, I believe Dalton’s two film run with the character was unjustly maligned, and I hope this review and that of the following film will detail why.

After James Bond (Timothy Dalton) helps Russian officer Georgi Koskov (Jeroen Krabbé) make a daring defection to the West, the intelligence community is shocked when Koskov is abducted from his remote hiding place.  Bond leaps into action, following a trail that leads to the gorgeous Kara (Maryam d’Abo), who plays Bond as easily as she plays her Stradivari cello.  As they unravel a complex weapons scheme with global implications, linking up with arms dealer Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker) and Russian General Pushkin (John Rhys-Davies), James and Kara escape first to Vienna, then to Morocco, finally ending up in a prison in Soviet occupied Afghanistan as they track down the elements in this mystery.

The opening action sequence is very smart and exciting.  M sends three Agents to test the security of a military installation on Gibraltar, but are ambushed by an assassin.  I’ve always liked the touch by the filmmakers to cast two other actors who resemble previous Bond actors George Lazenby and Roger Moore before revealing Dalton himself.  Obviously, with marketing of the film and all, the trick loses its intended impact, but it’s a clever idea to keep an uninitiated audience guessing as these other agents fall by the wayside.  Regardless, this sequence sets the tone for this more action packed and daring approach of this new Bond.  It’s really a perfect start to a very promising film that does deliver in many satisfying ways.

The opening credits sequence for The Living Daylights is nothing special or distinct.  Watery images and silhouettes really don’t have much to do with the title song from Norwegian pop group A-ha.  It’s not particularly bad, just very uninspired.  While this musical track doesn’t have as much punch as Duran Duran’s had for the previous film, the high pitched vocals and melodic quality are still catchy and appropriately Bond-esque.  I like it quite a lot.

Timothy Dalton injects a seriousness into the role of Bond that I find very compelling.  He carries himself with sophistication and integrity creating a strong screen presence.  He firmly grounds Bond while still giving him charisma, wit, and a subtle depth of emotion.  He can be humorous and charming while never betraying the dramatic intent of the portrayal.  Dalton’s Bond is one that grasps the seriousness of situations, and acts with due intelligence and action.  There’s definitely a gritty vigor he brings into Bond that makes the film instantly more energetic and exciting.  It’s a dimensional performance that is thoroughly enjoyable, and creates a James Bond that can smartly weave in and out of the world espionage.  Beyond everything else, Dalton makes 007 a character that can be taken seriously, and allow for serious stakes to be highlighted in his films.  While there is room for fun, it is ultimately a better film when there’s real tension and risk at hand.  I think Dalton did an excellent job stepping into this role bringing realism back into the fold.  Timothy Dalton likely did many of his own stunts, and it really shows through, benefitting the quality of the action immensely.

The action of the film is excellent.  The chase sequence through the snowy landscape with the Aston Martin showing many of its “optional extras” is very thrilling and fun.  Plenty of explosive moments and clever twists and turns make it a memorable highlight of the film.  The foot chase across the rooftops of Tangier was very well done, also.  All of the action sequences are very fun and inventive using the unique locations, from the snow to the desert, to great effect.  The climactic action scene where Bond hangs off the back of a cargo plane, set to explode in a matter of minutes, while battling the Russian mercenary Necros is very tense and exhilarating.  Yet, it doesn’t end there as we get further explosions and a dangerous mid-air escape.  Then, Bond still has to finish off Whitaker in a great firefight.  It’s an immensely satisfying conclusion that does not hold back on the thrills.

Maryam d’Abo is probably not as alluring or sexy as most other Bond girls, but she is definitely a good actress that had a lot to bring to Kara Milovy.  She’s very likable and relatable as an innocent and talented young woman deceived by her deceitful boyfriend Koskov.  Maryam brings a strong will to the role, but also finds the vulnerability in Kara.  Kara and James share some moments of strong emotion that d’Abo conveys remarkably well.  She was a very good fit for this initial outing for Dalton as she satisfies on stronger levels than mere sex appeal.

I feel the only downside to the film are the villains.  Joe Don Baker is decently charismatic, but never really develops into a serious threat.  Opposite a more formidable acting talent in John Rhys-Davies, whose character is implicated as the true villain by Whitaker and Koskov, it’s even harder to perceive Whitaker as someone to contend with.  He’s portrayed as a man who doesn’t take anything too seriously, but any hint of arrogance or ego that could have been there, simply is traded off for a character that’s lacking in formidable competence.  Thankfully, he’s not a forefront villain.  Jeroen Krabbé’s General Koskov does definitely go down the path of arrogance, but it takes quite a while before he becomes intimidating at all.  He’s certainly the better quality villain of the two, ultimately, and at least has more of a detestable element to him due to how he eventually treats Kara.  Yet, he still could’ve used a lot more work.  I feel it’s more the near insurmountable odds that Bond faces which make the film tense and exciting than the villains he faces.  They are nothing major to contend with.  It’s just the forces they command are what create the danger the film needs.

I really like that the plot features a tangled web of deceit for Bond to unravel.  He has to tread cautiously amongst those he encounters before he can determine who he can trust, if anyone at all.  He works his way through a deceptive abduction, a faked assassination, opium trade, arms deals, and rebel fighters in the Middle Eastern desert to uncover the depth of this plot, and to stop it dead in its tracks.  It’s an excellently crafted story that never falls into a lull.  There’s a consistent development and progression of plot while never leaving our main characters of James and Kara in the dust.  Their motivations remain clear, and their relationship develops very solidly.  Despite James having to lie to her while attempting to determine her role in Koskov’s plan, Kara is able to eventually trust him, and they forge a convincing romantic relationship.  Everything is smartly wrapped together in a very satisfying package making for an entertaining ride.

I was very pleased by John Barry’s score for this franchise entry.  He gave a little more edge to the traditional Bond theme in a few of the action scenes, and nicely incorporated the melody of the opening title track into the score during the third act.  It’s a very tight, very good piece of orchestration that complemented the film’s tone and pace strongly.  It was a very fine and respectable final bow for Barry as this was the last James Bond film he worked on.

Ultimately, The Living Daylights is a very good film in this franchise.  There is more than enough action to spare while still delivering a very smart and well plotted story.  It brings espionage more skillfully back into Bond’s world, and the film is better off for it.  The real cog of success was Timothy Dalton who made the character honest and real, again.  Between his presence and beautifully deeper voice, you get that sense of dramatic tone from him throughout the film.  He simply made the film more exciting and interesting.  While there is a more gritty, dark style to this film, it still has plenty of fun moments to smile at that do not betray the tone veteran Bond director John Glen was going for.  If the film had strong villains, or simply stronger performances from the villains, I could really give this a very strong endorsement.  They just lack that edge of intimidating and formidability to push them over as a major threat on their own.  The excitement and engaging narrative is due to the twisting and turning mystery Bond has to weave through, and it’s all done with expert quality and precision.  The Living Daylights is definitely a big step up from A View To A Kill, and for those desiring a more traditional Bond film from Dalton, this is definitely the one to check out.  I do very highly recommend the film despite any shortcomings it has with the villains.  It’s a fun, thrilling ride that will entertain you.  Next up, James Bond will return in Licence to Kill.