Franchise Expansion (Or Implosion): ‘License To Kill’
by Ben Martin
Franchise Expansion (or Implosion) is a column that looks at franchises that have new installments or releases forthcoming. In looking at a franchise, each entry in a franchise will be given a review and then be examined as part of the bigger franchise. (i.e., Was this sequel a worthy expansion of this franchise or was it an implosion of sorts?)
Very seldom does one character define a subgenre. But that is precisely what James Bond 007 has done with spy/espionage fiction. Since making his film debut in 1962, Bond has appeared in over 20 movies. Moreover, the character has only been portrayed by a mere six actors (officially, anyway). Now that the 25th (official) Bond installment, No Time to Die, is finally slated for release on November 25th, I think now is a better time than any to look back at 007’s dossier. I’ll be examining the James Bond franchise to see how these pictures evolved over the decades with each new leading actor. Today’s mission: License to Kill (1989)!
In 1988, Metro Goldwyn Mayer was experiencing financial difficulties. But thankfully for MGM, one of the oldest studios in Hollywood, they distributed James Bond; a franchise that has always proved to be a cash cow for the studio and 007’s movie rights holder, EON Productions. For their part, EON was more than happy to keep milking the franchise for themselves and their distributor at a consistent rate. After all, they had a new gritty era in mind for the films led by Timothy Dalton. Therefore, the producers wanted to continue the tonal approach of The Living Daylights (1987) and make the movie in review even “darker” and “more realistic” than the previous installment.
The 007 series often gloms onto cinematic and sometimes real-world trends, and “the war on drugs” was a particularly big deal by the late ’80s. As a result, the original screenplay conceived by veteran scribes Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson — then called “License Revoked” — was set in China and revolved around the drug trade in The Golden Triangle. This script was scrapped, however, after the Chinese government placed so many restrictions on the potential production that it became nonviable. Undeterred, the screenwriters chose to stick with the era’s drug-driven plot trend by chasing the yayo to the sunny shores of Florida for the 16th official film in the series.
Licence to Kill finds James Bond 007 (Dalton) near the Florida Keys not on duty as 00 agent, but as a groomsman. One of Bond’s only friends in life, CIA agent Felix Leiter, (David Heddiston, who reprises his role from Live and Let Die (1973)) finally intends to tie the knot. Alas, the nuptials are delayed when Bond and Leiter are pulled into a DEA-CIA co-operation to take down a brutal cocaine kingpin named Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi). The drug lord is captured and Leiter gets married. Sanchez’s incarceration does not last long as he almost immediately escapes custody and retaliates against Leiter by torturing and maiming him. As if that’s not savage enough, Sanchez then kills Leiter’s new bride. Following this violence, Bond finds that the local authorities aren’t taking the incident seriously enough. Thus, for the first time in this franchise’s history, Bond goes rogue from MI-6 on a personal vendetta to infiltrate Sanchez’s drug ring and average Felix!
While the screenplay incorporates an unused element or two from Ian Fleming’s novels and short stories, License to Kill is the first film in the franchise to use an original title and be based on an original screenplay. And that … is perhaps the biggest mistake. See, there’s a fine line between utilizing the current times to make your movie relevant and creating a film which doesn’t fit in the franchise. Unfortunately, License to Kill doesn’t ride this powdered line smoothly. To the contrary, License to Kill plays more like a somewhat dull, two-episode arc of Miami Vice (1984-1989) than it does a 007 adventure. Story-wise, this entry is very conflicting for me because I became a big fan of both James Bond and Miami Vice around the same time when I was twelve. Therefore, I love a good drug-fueled action romp as much as I do a 007 mission. If you watch License to Kill as the former, it mostly works except for a somewhat sluggish second act.
Aside from the overly-dark tone, this installment also has pacing problems — much of which I’m sure is due to production on License to Kill taking place during a Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) strike. Like many movies produced during a writer’s strike, this one suffers from uneven pacing and an overabundance of subplots; many of the latter of which seems unnecessary, particularly the one involving Wayne Newton as a televangelist. Then again, this installment’s immediate predecessor, The Living Daylights (1987), shared a similar pacing problem. So perhaps that’s just the recurring issue with Dalton’s duology.
Now, if you watch License to Kill as a proper Bond picture, only chunks of the film work and anything that does work is mostly thanks to Dalton. In his second-and-final portrayal of 007, Dalton brings his all. The leading man is nearly as somber and brutal as he was previously. Yet, he seems fully settled into his 00 status by this point. Thus, Dalton manages to bring more charm to his Bond. Although he still lacks sex appeal.
Alas, the rest of the cast are hit-and-miss. Davi delivers a perfectly serviceable performance as Sanchez, a softcore version of Scarface. But, it’s nothing special since Davi’s made a career of playing hard-asses. Meanwhile, I felt the Bond girls of this entry are all but wasted due to them both falling for Bond so quickly you would think it’s a middle-school crush situation. So much so, in fact, that such an overly romantic response all but undoes what the strong female lead, Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell), would otherwise bring to the proceedings. Then there’s Lupe Lamora (Talisa Soto), who merely serves as a dull tool for 007 — a function made evident in that Soto sleepwalks in her part.
Even with its $32 million production budget, restraints were imposed on License to Kill. Supposedly, such financial caution was exercised because producers were trying to recoup overspending and interest on Moonraker‘s (1979) production a decade earlier. While that sounds weird to me, movie math has been known not to make sense. However, I think this film’s production budget probably has more to do with the fact that MGM was going through a fiscal fallow period. Even still, fifth-time Bond director John Glen once again delivers a competent picture.
The problem, though, is that Licence to Kill is more focused on being a dark adventure set in the world of drug trade than being part of the Bond legacy. For example, the film’s cinematography looks just like another episode of Miami Vice minus an overabundance of pastels. Beyond that, this entry doesn’t even seem concerned with sounding like a Bond flick. On the contrary, it seems a concerted effort is made to avoid such audible familiarity.
The premier action movie score composer of the 1980s, Michael Kamen, replaced series mainstay John Berry as composer this time around. Thus, License to Kill features the signature and distinctive sounds of any of Kamen’s scores. Therefore, your ears are greeted with music which sounds like Lethal Weapon (1987) and Die Hard as opposed to Bond. If it weren’t for the occasional peppering in Monte Norman’s Bond theme, Kamen’s compositions here would not even qualify as a 007 score.
Furthermore, Eric Clapton and Vic Flick were brought on to perform the title song with music by the film’s composer — no doubt due to Kamen and Clapton’s collaborative score for the popular Lethal Weapon a couple of years earlier. In the end, though, this track was rejected in favor of a more traditional sounding title song performed by Gladys Knight. Quite a strange choice considering this entry doesn’t mind straying from franchise tradition in so many other ways.
As you probably discerned from my above assessment, License to Kill is an Absolute Franchise Implosion! While I can respect what everyone involved was trying to do with this entry, it simply does not work well as a Bond adventure. The film becomes enamored with going so dark that it ultimately loses its focus; which I’m sure was to be the Goldfinger (1964) of the cocaine era. Instead, it merely becomes a 007 picture that doesn’t even feel of its franchise’s ilk.
But being a Franchise Implosion doesn’t change the fact that License to Kill represents the end of an era. Not merely for the decade and Dalton but for many others who had long been involved in the franchise. Specifically, License to Kill served as the final Bond picture for director John Glen, co-writer Richard Maibaum and title sequence designer Maurice Binder. Beyond that, it’s also the last entry in the series to be released during The Cold War.
Ultimately, License to Kill was financially successful, grossing over $156 million on a $32 million budget. Thus, despite the audience and critical reception to License to Kill, EON Productions and Dalton were gearing up for what would’ve been Dalton’s third outing, Property of a Lady. The project was as far as pre-production in 1990. Alas, development halted as a result of legal issues between MGM and EON. With no end to the legal battle in sight, Dalton’s 00 contract expired in 1993. The following year, the man who would’ve been Bond before, Pierce Brosnan, took over the role in Goldeneye (1995) after the franchise’s six-year hiatus. I’ll cover that film soon enough, but next time around I’ll look at the first Unofficial Bond adventure.
Licence to Kill is Available on Home Video
James Bond Will Return For Another (Unofficial) Installment of Franchise Expansion or Implosion with Casino Royale (1967)!
007’s Newest Mission, No Time to Die, Will Be in Theaters on November 25th!
Read About Bond’s Past Franchise Endeavors-
From Russia with Love:
You Only Live Twice:
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service:
Diamonds Are Forever:
Live and Let Die:
The Man with The Golden Gun:
The Spy Who Loved Me:
For Your Eyes Only:
A View to a Kill:
The Living Daylights: