Licence to Kill is one of the most daring, interesting and revolutionary Bond films ever made. Even the modern films of Daniel Craig, praised for their ‘edge’, ‘grit’ and ‘darkness’, owe a debt to this ‘unpopular’ predecessor. If this seems like an outlandish suggestion, then read on, and let a British child of the 80s show you why…
Reboot Revoked: The Postmodern Deconstruction of Bond
by Paul Harrison (@Doc_Harrison)
This article does not seek to be the definitive one-stop for all things Licence to Kill. You have your double DVD special edition, or remastered Blu-ray for that. I’m not going to focus on the trivia, such as that they altered the name from Licence Revoked. You know that story. I’m not even going to venture too deeply into the suitability of Dalton. He was, and remains, an excellent actor, and sound choice. I’m especially not going to tackle what seemed to be some reeeaaally awkward sexual tension between Dalton’s Bond and Felix Leiter’s ill-fated bride-to-be. No.
This article will focus on two key things: the context that created (or reinvented) a ‘darker’ Bond, who would endanger the life of dozens of bystanders that may deserve a bullet in order to get the one guy that did; and the notion that what makes this Bond movie stand out (and unpopular) is the fact that it isn’t a spy movie, let alone a ‘Bond’ movie as audiences knew him. Despite this, it is a thematic precursor to all three of Daniel Craig’s more recent blockbuster iterations in many ways.
Licence to Kill isn’t a reboot, but if made in a later era it certainly would have been. Before the modern fad of ‘reboots’, ‘ret-cons’, and ‘re-imaginings’ had firmly laid roots and entered popular understanding and use, filmmakers were presented with a unique problem: how to revitalise an ailing franchise whilst paying due homage to what had gone before. Worse, how to tie this ‘assumed-continuity’ together without ruffling the feathers of an oft-fickle set of ticket-buying auditorium-fillers. Simply put, the cinematic reboot was not yet an accepted premise, and filmmakers had to be creative to break away from the silliness of previous incarnation of their franchises, without moving so far as to lose their audience.
The post-modern audiences of the 1980s, raised on a diet of new-wave punk, bricolage and Ridley Scott, were tired of camp. They saw through its glossy surface and hacked at it’s foundations with such tools as ‘psychoanalysis’, ‘post-structuralism’, ‘orientalism’, and, most damaging in Bond’s case, ‘feminism’. And lest we forget, the ‘Cold War’ was all but over. Mining that somewhat overplayed resource for cinematic conflict had nearly proven fatal for such films as Rambo III, the film’s 1988 release coinciding with new peace talks between the USA and the USSR. This put Bond in a particularly difficult position. For the first time in a long time, the ‘Red Threat’ did not loom large, and worst yet, it was perceived as culturally and politically insensitive to portray the Eastern bloc as enemies, amongst continuing talks for peace. Bond, created among the paranoia of the spread of Communism, was now a soldier without a war. As such, the custodians of Bond found themselves in a quagmire: How to make a character who had a past history of elitism, imperialism, misogyny, and significantly, capitalism, relevant again, and if possible, popular again.
Enter John Glen, Michael G. Wilson, alongside, Richard Maibaum (who had been adapting Fleming’s work from the very beginning). Presented with the challenge of updating Bond, they were very much in sync with thespian and Fleming fan, Timothy Dalton, who wanted to see a return to the source material: A darker, harder, more ruthless Bond.
Sound familiar? Was this not the line we were sold with the debut of Casino Royale? Was this not one of the ‘Unique Selling Points’ that, along with an admittedly gripping (if somewhat uneven) story, led CR to critical and popular acclaim? So why does LTK languish in relative obscurity, where many of the other, older, Bonds become ‘classics’? I’d say it was all down to one crucial ingredient. The one factor that can win or lose a war, a heart, and an audience…
Yes, timing. Not Dalton, who is more often blamed for the late-80s pictures’ limited success. An easy target, Dalton was, in his own way, a suitable reaction to the darker, edgier ultraviolent heroes of the 1980s. A seasoned actor, and excellent fit for Fleming’s original vision of the character, Dalton bought a physicality not seen since Connery’s initial forays, along with a ruthlessness that might have made Fleming proud.
In John Glen’s own words:
“(Dalton) and Daniel are both harder-edged Bonds. I think Timothy was before his time. You look at Licence to Kill now and it keeps up. It’s more in vogue now than when I shot it, I think..”[i]
It was perhaps too stark a departure from the still-recent memory of Moore, whose final three adventures had also been helmed by Glen. LTK director, Glen, had attempted a very gradual return to ‘realism’ over the late-70s and early 80s, and a Bond who relied more on wits and grit than flashy gadgets and space-age technology. This shift had to be gradual to avert criticism over betraying the premise with which audiences had become familiar, even if those same mores were becoming somewhat staid. Bond audiences had come to know what to expect from their quipping, daring secret agent, and Glen worked against these expectations at his peril.
The ‘reboot’ was not an accepted premise for existing franchises in this period, so they worked with what they had, and braved a more striking departure with Glen’s final film in the series, Licence to Kill. This may have been too much for audiences at the time, as it received a lukewarm reception domestically, despite success abroad.
Nowadays, of course, we are familiar with constant revisionism, indeed, overwhelmed with ‘rebooted’ franchises. The ‘reboot’ was an almost unheard-of phenomenon in cinema before 2004[ii], as opposed to the more common ‘remake’, which sought to rehash identical source material for contemporary audience sensibilities. Things were different back in the 80s, for those who don’t remember that decade first-hand. It was generally understood that a character’s story arc in a given format would all tie together. As such, it’s no surprise that our team attempt to tie this film to earlier continuity, leaning on Bond’s friendship with Leiter, relationship with Q, and even referencing his doomed marriage, as witnessed at the end of Lazenby’s foray, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
So what makes this Bond so different? So radical? Well, firstly, I’d suggest, that it isn’t a spy film.
‘There’s more to this than your personal vendetta!’
First and foremost, LTK is a revenge story. Set in the contemporary world of the 80s, against a very topical threat at the time, the rise in power of the drug cartel and kingpin, the film strives to be topical and relevant. Gone are the elaborate mad-scientist lairs and convoluted plots. Robert Davi brings palpable menace as Sanchez, the scariest villain up to that point, to my mind. The structure of the film likewise defies traditional Bond, and wider film mores. Try applying the likes of a Hollywood beatsheet to this structure and it resists with Bond-like tenacity, refusing to be constrained to typical blockbuster narrative. Famously, this is the first film to refrain from using a name from Fleming’s own works, constructing the film from characters and influences from many stories. There is even talk of Sanchez himself being a more true-to-type iteration of Golden-Gun-toting assassin, Scaramanga, than was Lee’s.[iii]
The film’s main cinematic link to the Bond tradition is the villain’s arc, in that Sanchez begins near omnipotent and omni-present, especially in his home-turf, able to resist arrest and bribe any who oppose him. As the story progresses, like many Bond villains, his work and world are slowly unraveled by that consummate spanner in the gears of evil, James Bond. But it’s how this happens, and most importantly, why, that makes this film so different.
What the film is, is a bizarre mesh of two other cinematic traditions: The ‘revenge’ Western, and the Eastern ‘ronin’ storyline.
Bond goes rogue. ROGUE! This is by no means a surprising turn of events for those familiar with Fleming’s work, or the modern cinematic Bond. The character is only ever one typed sentence away from resignation, such is his internal conflict and existential angst. But significantly, this is the first time this is a core theme in a Bond film, and a radical departure from the ‘Queen and Country’ Bond we had become accustomed to in the films up to this point. I remember my own excitement, seeing that trailer on the television as a child, itching to see how this rogue Bond would still win the day, bereft of his support system and guided only by his own moral compass. Of course, quitting and fighting his allies seems to be the Craig-Bond default solution to most of his problems, whilst he pumps round after round into anything with a pulse in his way. But back in the 1980s, this was a novel approach!
A masterless samurai, Bond cuts all ties to his former society to wreak vengeance in the name of his friend, pulling on the real core theme of the piece, aptly stated by Sanchez himself …
“Loyalty is more important to me than money.”
Well said, Sanchez. And loyalty, of a personal, rather than abstract nature, is Bond’s motivating force here. Sanchez also prizes loyalty above all else (though notably this is loyalty to him, more than from him in several instances, revealing how our hero is the more noble of the two). Sanchez, a thug dressed in refinement, a killer with a veneer of respectability, and a capitalist without ethics, is in many ways the ideal foil for this Bond, an equal and dark reflection of our hero.
Like a ronin, or ninja, Dalton enters Sanchez’s world, and instead of tackling them by force, he initially infiltrates, and sows distrust amongst Sanchez and his forces. This poetic justice, making Sanchez the architect of his own demise, follows the tradition of films such as Yojimbo, according to scriptwriter, Wilson.[iv]
So how is this film also a Western, if it is based on an ‘Eastern’, so to speak? I mean, it even has ‘Ninjas’ in it! (let’s not get too sidetracked by the fact that ninja are traditionally a Japanese, not Chinese phenomenon, as portrayed in LTK…)
Well, we should note that these forms are not incompatible, but complementary, despite the polarization of their geography. Yojimbo (1961) was famously remade as the Western ‘A Fistful of Dollars’, which led to an entire genre of ‘revenge Westerns’. Let’s turn briefly to Will Wright, for a quick analysis of the structure, kids! Back in 1975, Wright dissected the tradition of cinematic Hollywood ‘Westerns’, using Levi-Strauss’s ‘structuralist methodology’ to analyse the films. What he found, was that the movies worked on a principle of binary oppositions – i.e. ‘inside society’ vs ‘outside’, ‘good’ vs ‘bad’, ‘strong’ vs ‘weak’ and ‘civilisation’ vs ‘wilderness’, etc.
Don’t worry, we won’t go too far into this, except to explain that his notion was to show how the ‘myths of a society (in this case, our beliefs and ideologies), through their structure, communicate a conceptual order to the members of that society.’ What? Well, the Western presents a ‘symbolically simple but remarkably deep conceptualisation of American social beliefs.’ It’s a microcosm.
The classic Western, he suggests, promotes the notions that the way to achieve such things as human friendship and companionship, as well as respect and dignity, (at least as advanced by the narrative of such movies) ‘is to separate yourself from others and use your strength as an autonomous individual to succor them…’ (1975: 186). This is the lone hero trope, who rides into town unknown and sets all wrongs to right, eventually gaining the respect of the town by defeating the cause of its ills (usually a villain or gang) and giving up his ‘special/outsider’ status in favour of good clean American living: home, security, love and procreation.
“God help you, commander”
But this is not a classic Western. Bond eschews his ‘society’, Her Majesty’s Government, in favour of his own personal vendetta. He is only helping the society incidentally, and not in the way it desires.
The vengeance variation, however, ‘weakens the compatibility of the individual and society by showing that the path to respect and love is to separate yourself from others , struggling individually against your many and strong enemies but striving to remember and return to softer values of marriage and humility.’ (1975: 186-7)
Ok, well, humility aside (though we might assume he goes crawling back to M after the credits roll), Bond resists aid from his allies throughout, despite their necessity (both practical and narrative), sending away both ‘Q’ and love-interest, Bouvier, on at least two separate occasions, only to change his mind or have them pop up again in times of need.
When all is done and Sanchez is vanquished, Bond abandons the allure of Sanchez’s world, because, thematically, it represents the corrupt cultural ‘other’ (the ‘outside-society’ mentioned earlier by Wright), in order to return to his society and proper place. This requires that he abandons his former lover, Talisa Soto’s beautiful Lupe Lamora, in favour of the more ideologically suitable Bouvier, a fellow enforcer/representative of Western values. I could get more technical here, but I think you catch my drift: Bond only enters Sanchez’s world to complete his goal, then he is required by the narrative, by the continuation of the myth itself, to step back out and resume business as usual. Otherwise he risks undermining his existence, and the franchise at large. Being ‘in on the joke’, we know that Bouvier, Bond’s latest fling, will be flung by the time the credits start rolling on the next movie. Perhaps that explains the monumental fish ‘winking’ at us at the end of the film. This otherwise bizarre touch almost says to us, the audience, ‘All is well, folks, status quo has been returned.’
“I love James, so much!”
So status quo is returned. ‘Q’ informs Bond that ‘M’ has a job waiting for him back in London. The villains are defeated, and Bond, showing his usual flair for the dramatic, jumps a balcony down a storey into a pool to win the girl. So is this film a far removal from ‘Bond’ as we knew him up to that point, or a return to form?
Well, I’d say it’s both, without that being contradictory.
Licence to Kill delivers massive set-pieces and dramatic action (practically every ten minutes, at that). It involves remarkably well-coordinated stunt work (all pre-cgi, making it all the more impressive), tuxedos, casinos, beautiful girls, guns and a fairly clear-cut sense of morality. I’d argue it’s not a ‘departure’ in this sense, as all the normal Bond accoutrements are indeed, well in place. As such, this is a variant, in that it is thematically and tonally different, following a structure based more in the revenge Western and ‘ronin’ archetypes, rather than convoluted spy films and world-domination.
These factors, along with the ‘edgier’ more ruthless Bond of Dalton, were perhaps too many variables for the still entrenched audiences of 1989 to take, given that Moore’s iteration was still well in memory (I myself even saw Octopussy at the cinema as a child… yes what a shame that was my first!). My point being: in the modern day and age, a film like LTK would have done remarkably better, I think, and suffered in ’89 only because cinema-goers had not yet been trained to accept variation and retcon in the way that contemporary audiences now have. For instance, I remember, on the release of Batman Begins in 2005, a friend being confused at how this new film was meant to sit in continuity with the ‘other ones’ (the films of Burton and Schumacher). Ten years later, the reboot is a well-establish phenomenon, and we’d balk at the idea as ridiculous, but even in 2005 the hard reboot was a relatively new concept.[v] And because the term does not strictly apply to LTK, which is a reimagining set within the confines of established Bond film continuity to date, I’d say the expectations of audiences still applied, unprepared as they were for such a radical departure, both in Dalton’s portrayal, and the tonally darker film.
Private vendettas, unsanctioned killing, with no license to kill, this was just too dark a Bond for most, ironic considering the modern incarnation’s incredible success. Yet we can enjoy this Bond now with new knowledge and understanding of exactly what the team were attempting to do with the franchise, and perhaps begin to give credit where credit is due.
In the end, I think John Glen summed it up nicely:
“I still think it’s one of the best Bonds, certainly the best that I directed.”i
Sadly audiences at the time were more inclined to agree with henchman Milton Krest, who in the quote of the movie, notes, “I don’t like it. He can finger me!”
You said it, Krest, not me.
Paul Harrison is a doctor of archaeology, former academic type, screen-writer, and producer. He can often be found out dancing like nobody’s watching, or pretending he’s an X-Man at the gym. Snikkt.
Favourite Bond Movie: Duh! Licence to Kill.
Favourite Bond Actor: Strangely, Connery.
Favourite Bond Girl: Jane Seymour, closely followed by Berenice Marlohe (call me!).
First Bond Movie: At the movies…Octopussy! I know, what a drag. First one I remember seeing as a kid? I think ‘You Only Live Twice’ on tv, which is still amongst my favourites.
How I discovered #Bond_Age_: I think this random dude (circumstances point to @007hertzrumble) started tweeting me. Turned out he was pretty cool.
First #Bond_Age_ Live Tweet: Cannot remember!
[ii] Proctor notes that the term seems to have originated in comic book culture and migrated into film with them, most notably with Batman Begins; http://sequart.org/magazine/18508/ctl-alt-delete-retcon-relaunch-or-reboot/
[iv] 2012 Blu Ray special features: Licence to Kill documentary. We should probably note that the plot from Yojimbo was rumoured to be inspired by noir classic, ‘The Glass Key’ (1942).
[v] Again, see Proctor’s excellent article above for more on the ‘reboot’ phenomenon.
i See above