There are basically two news stories that get written about James Bond movies. It’s a cycle.
The first one usually has some sort of headline like, IS IT TIME TO RETIRE JAMES BOND? or IS 007 GETTING STALE? and complains that the formula is worn out, we’re all sick of James Bond and his sexist antics, and it’s time action-adventure moved on.
The other one is a joyously excited, JAMES BOND IS BACK! ONE OF CINEMA’S TIME-HONORED HEROES PROVES AS FRESH AS EVER! And it’s usually a celebration of the fact that, damn, this franchise is still going after
twenty thirty forty fifty years!
The more knowledgable Bond aficionados can tell you which story got written about which movie. And most of us will tell you that these two varieties of puff piece don’t have a lot to do with a film’s individual merits. At this point, it doesn’t matter. James Bond isn’t just a franchise any more. He is a cultural artifact, something we all feel a sense of ownership about. Same as Star Wars or Star Trek or Superman, we all know pretty much what James Bond should be. We all know it when we see it.
The funny thing is, no two fans probably agree what that is, but it doesn’t matter. We all know. James Bond has a lot of cultural baggage. So when the series does one of its periodic reboots, it is always a remarkable risk. But they soldier on, and at this point it’s just a given that the series will continue.
But never in a vacuum. There’s always the culture around the series. You could never do a movie like Octopussy today, with Roger Moore’s seduction of Maud Adams that’s bordering on assault. (Seriously, she is pushing him away and saying no, no. But he just ignores it and kisses her roughly anyway, and seconds later she gives in. It’s THISCLOSE to out-and-out rape.)
All of which leads me to the time that the surrounding culture and other external factors conspired to bury one of the more promising interludes in the long history of the James Bond franchise.
Come back with me to the mid-1980s, when it was getting painfully obvious that Moore’s 007 was getting tired. The Broccoli studios had exhausted the original Ian Fleming novels and were working their way through adapting the short stories. Moore had already done “For Your Eyes Only” and “Risico” in For Your Eyes Only, and “Octopussy” and “The Property of a Lady” in Octopussy. “From A View To A Kill” was A View To A Kill, and after that even this last Fleming cupboard was looking bare. The Bond-Is-Over articles were getting written a lot again.
So in 1986, almost-rapey leering grandpa Roger Moore was out. It was clearly time for something new. There was a lot of publicity about Remington Steele‘s Pierce Brosnan taking over the role, but they ended up going with a different actor instead. Some guy named Timothy Dalton would star in The Living Daylights.
And they picked one of the better short stories to base it on. (I’m so thrilled Moore didn’t get this one. He couldn’t have sold it, even though the movie was originally written for him.)
This took as its jumping-off point one of the last Bond shorts Fleming wrote, “The Living Daylights.” And it WAS really short, hardly more than a vignette. It was originally printed in the London Sunday Times color supplement in 1962 as “Berlin Escape,” and then appeared posthumously in Octopussy and The Living Daylights in 1966.
Skipping over the pre-credits scene in Gibraltar, the first few minutes of the movie basically is Fleming’s short story, from the detailing of Bond’s assignment by Saunders right up to where Bond says, “Probably scared the living daylights out of her.” That’s where the original concludes.
I was overjoyed. As most of my friends can tell you, I am a Fleming purist. My image of James Bond is a blend of Fleming’s prose, the pounding jazz scores of John Barry, and the illustrations on the paperback editions of Bond that were current when I discovered the books.
(That would be Frank McCarthy’s covers for the Bantam editions circa 1973 or thereabouts. I tried to find out his name for something like thirty years before I finally found it. He was one of the artists that really influenced my own sense of design. But when I was first teaching myself to draw and for years afterward, to me he was just “The Bond guy at Bantam.”)
Smirky Roger Moore, especially the leathery leering senior citizen he had become by A View To A Kill, was just not my idea of James Bond at all. So when Dalton arrived, and he talked and moved the way Fleming wrote him in the books, and he even looked a bit like my mental picture of 007 as depicted by Mr. McCarthy, I was sold.
It helped that The Living Daylights had more of an emotional core to it than many of its predecessors, the script was one of the smartest spy-vs.-counterspy stories the series had ever attempted, and the action was really well-done. (The choreography of the kitchen fight in the safe-house is just a thing of beauty.) John Barry was back on the score, too– his final one for the series, as it turned out– and he really rocked it.
It was a revelation. For the first time in what felt like forever, once again James Bond was a genuinely dangerous guy… and was genuinely in danger for a large part of the story. Even better, there was honest emotion coming from Dalton’s agent 007. The bits with Saunders at the amusement park and the subsequent murder, especially, and also Dalton showed real feeling for his female co-star, Maryam d’Abo; she seemed to actually mean something more to Bond than another notch on his bedpost, and in turn Dalton’s Bond seemed like a decent guy that Kara Milovy would plausibly fall for.
I wasn’t the only one that thought so. Dalton as the new Bond was very well-received, the film was generally well-reviewed, and a lot of Bond-is-BACK! press happened. The only real shortcoming was, as far as I was concerned, that the villains weren’t quite Bond-sized. Certainly the henchman, Necros, was a physical adversary that challenged Bond on a level not seen since Oddjob in Goldfinger, but he was working for buffoons. Joe Don Baker as an egotistical arms dealer, especially, just felt like a minor workout for James Bond, not a major bad guy at all, and the ending is a little anticlimactic after the amazing mid-air showdown with Necros.
But the movie was smart, it was exciting, it was fun, and it felt like a real adventure and not some sort of sniggering parody. And anyway, it was James Bond, he wasn’t going anywhere. I figured they’d have four or five more movies to get it worked out. They were back on track with my kind of 007 again, which was the important part. Now that the series was actually about a dangerous secret agent again, we’d surely get a Goldfinger or Blofeld-sized villain for him to battle. I settled in happily, sure that the next one would be as good or better.
In early 1989 there were rumblings about how the new James Bond film, Licence Revoked, was going to be one of the most groundbreaking stories about Bond anyone had ever attempted. Darker, edgier, taking full advantage of the vastly more talented actor that now owned the role.
Then there were more rumblings, trouble at test screenings, people didn’t understand the title, an ad campaign canceled. Licence to Kill showed up in theaters in July of 1989.
Let me refresh your memory about the blockbuster summer of 1989. That same month, the competing first-run releases were Batman, Star Trek V, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lethal Weapon 2, and Ghostbusters II fighting it out for the adventure-lover’s franchise dollar. Against all those, Bond got buried. Even When Harry Met Sally clobbered it.
Worse, legal troubles enveloped the Bond rights soon after and it was a long six years before anyone could even consider making another James Bond movie. So the Dalton-era James Bond was over almost before it started. By the time Eon Productions had it all sorted out and was ready to get back in business, Dalton had moved on and it was Pierce Brosnan’s turn (really this time.) Licence to Kill ended up being the answer to the trivia question “poorest box-office performer of the 007 series.”
The hell of it is, Licence to Kill is actually a really cool movie. It could have reinvigorated James Bond the way Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale did a couple of decades later if not for all its mishaps with timing and lawsuits and so on. It was way ahead of its time.
The screenwriters, Richard Maibaum and Michael Wilson, tried a lot of really brave things considering how reluctant studios usually are to fiddle with a successful property. Dalton’s arrival and The Living Daylights had clearly energized everyone and even though this was the same production crew responsible for Roger Moore’s considerably sillier Bond movies, you get the sense that they were going to by God kick ass this time out and try all sorts of things they’d been wanting to do with a Bond story for years. In its structure, the script almost feels like it’s ticking the boxes on a bucket list.
Let’s run them down….
It’s a personal story. James Bond is not assigned to go get this villain, as is usual. He’s only involved at all because he’s on the scene to see his old friend Felix get married. And then, when the evil drug lord Sanchez takes his revenge on Felix…
Bond goes rogue. This was a big damn deal. Never happened in the books, never in the movies. Totally new territory. For you younger types who’ve seen Daniel Craig do it for four movies in a row, it probably seems like old hat. But back then it was unheard-of.
A revenge plot and payoff. The way James Bond systematically schemes to destroy the drug kingpin Sanchez and his entire network, and even lets himself be outed as a rogue British agent in order to do it, is pretty amazing when you think about it. That’s just not a typical James Bond story. And the eventual payoff is a cascading series of fuck-yeah-you-GO moments that are remarkable in the way they escalate. Robert Davi really sells the rage as things go more and more wrong, and when Sanchez gets his, it’s extra-satisfying.
Those are the big ones. But there were lots of little things as well. for example…
The Bond girls meet…. and hate each other. This is such a silly thing but it just delights me. This particular plot point is for all of us who wondered for years– how does James Bond’s success with women never backfire on him? The girl he just dumped never shows up at a party where he’s with a new one? No ex ever arrives at a diplomatic shindig to blow his cover and slap him? And so on. Well, it happens here. AWK-ward. But fun.
Q gets to go rogue too. The little mini-rebellion at MI6 was another fun piece of business that was unprecedented at the time. And it was a way to let us have some fun with Q and gadgets in the traditional sense, just to remind us we’re still in a Bond movie.
It’s hilariously nasty. We are used to death and mayhem being dismissed with a quip… but it’s usually from Bond himself. However, in this movie we get not only one of my favorite Fleming villain lines (“He disagreed with something that ate him,” the aforementioned bit from Live and Let Die) but when asked about the blood all over his stolen cash, Robert Davi as Sanchez just snarls, “Launder it.” I love that.
It’s not a perfect Bond movie by any means, but it IS a criminally underrated one. In my perfect alternate world, Dalton got to make five or six James Bond movies, with the same back-to-basics sensibility that we’ve seen with the more current Daniel Craig ones (but better-plotted. Don’t get me started on that…)
But since we only got the two with Dalton– the closest any actor’s ever gotten to the guy Fleming actually described in his novels– and they are often unfairly dismissed by Bond fans, I thought it was worth pointing out all the good things about them. Especially since someone specifically asked.
Back next week with something cool.