Saturday, October 27, 2012

LICENSE TO KILL (1989)


PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*

At the beginning of my review of the two XXX films, I wrote:


Most films in the “superspy” subgenre lie beneath the colossal shadow of the James Bond books and films. This means that like those sources, latecomers have the same ambivalence as to their phenomenal qualities. Sometimes they seem to take place entirely within a naturalistic world, and sometimes in one that includes just a few uncanny aspects. And sometimes the superspy’s world possesses outright marvelous aspects, though these are usually confined to specific super-weapons, like Bond’s invisible car in DIE ANOTHER DIE. 
Because a few of the weapons in the two-film XXX series qualify for the “marvelous” category, both films fall into that category as well. However, the general approach of the films is closest to a naturalistic spy-series like the Bourne films, so that the presence of marvelous gadgets in the narratives is somewhat marginalized and treated with a almost condescending irony.

When I wrote the above I hadn't screened either 1987'S LIVING DAYLIGHTS or 1989's LICENSE TO KILL in many years, so  I wouldn't have remembered that the two Timothy Dalton films displayed a similar attitude toward the super-gadgetry of certain Bond films, possibly including the last two in the Roger Moore corpus, OCTOPUSSY and A VIEW TO A KILL, both of which deviated from the more realistic Bond seen in FOR YOUR EYES ONLY.  LICENSE TO KILL is even more dismissive of Bond-gadgets than DAYLIGHTS, for in the earlier film Bond uses a couple of marvelous gadgets in the field.  In LICENSE, the gadgets-- one camera said to shoot bullets and another that shoots what appears to be a laser-- only appear in one scene where tech-whiz Q shows up to give Bond the benefit of his weapons-advice.  In practice, Bond only ends up using one mundane hand-gun from Q's arsenal, though one of Bond's foes does remark on the gun's special qualities.

Possibly even more than in DAYLIGHTS, the producers hoped to remold Bond to make him more "relevant" to eighties audiences by making him an icon of the "just so no" campaign against drugs.  It's true that various Bond books had the hero go after drug-purveyors, as did some of the film adaptations.  But there was no drug-connection in the Fleming short-story that spawned DAYLIGHTS, while the original screenplay for LICENSE by veteran Bond-scripters Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson is all about Bond taking down the powerful Columbian drug kingpin Franz Sanchez.

To be sure, Bond goes after Sanchez not because of his business but in response to the old "he wronged my best buddy" trope.  Borrowing a scene from the book LIVE AND LET DIE, Sanchez wreaks vengeance on his nemesis, Bond's FBI buddy Felix Leiter, by having Leiter's legs mangled by a penned shark.  To avenge Leiter-- not only for his maiming but also for the rape and killing of Leiter's new bride-- Bond refuses the orders of his superiors and goes rogue.  However, this doesn't signal a serious departure from the Bond mythology: not only does Q make a rare unsanctioned trip into "the field" to aid Bond, M is patently sympathetic to Bond's quest.  After Bond's inevitable triumph, he's welcomed back to his old job without no mention of even some minor slap on the wrist.

Were it not for the marginal appearance of the weapons, LICENSE would be one of the wholly naturalistic Bond-films.  Sanchez is certainly a better villain than the two foes who occupy Bond's time in DAYLIGHTS, with actor Robert Davi portraying in him a formidable combination of violence (he's first seen whipping his mistress for sleeping with another man) and ruthlessness. Sanchez even professes a code of honor-- though it's a jaundiced one, in that he claims he values loyalty above all, but shoots one of his aides to death for mouthing off.  Bond spends a fair amount of time whittling away at the resources of one of Sanchez's major allies, Milton Krest (named for a dislikable character in the melodramatic Fleming short story "The Hildebrand Rarity"). 

Bond also makes a few allies-- both "good girls"-- Lupe, the mistress seen being whipped at the opening, and Pam, a tough female pilot/ex-CIA agent.  Both women compete for Bond's attentions, but neither qualifies as a "bad girl," though Bond briefly suspects Pam of duplicity.  In the end Bond worms his way into Sanchez's operation, much as the novel-Bond did in GOLDFINGER.  This leads to Bond finding out Sanchez's new plan to smuggle drugs out of his country, hidden in oil-tanker trucks-- a nice blend between two "foreign commodities" on which the U.S. became overly dependent in the eighties.  After the usual splashy Bond-stunts Bond has a concluding battle with the tough-as-nails Sanchez, who gets Bond on the ropes and only loses because Bond has an ace in the hole.

Sanchez's punishment of Leiter is the closest thing where he comes to committing a "bizarre crime," but while it's true that this isn't the most mundane way for a crime-lord to dispose of an enemy, I still label this trope as naturalistic in that the film doesn't conjure forth any *strangeness* in presenting this atypical murder-method-- in contrast, say, to Emilio Largo's heisting of two atomic bombs in THUNDERBALL.

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