Zack & Nick's Culture Cast

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What Went Wrong 16 – Licence to Kill

Nick here!  Zack let me do this 007-related What Went Wrong entry!  Lets begin, shall we?

Licence to Kill, the sixteenth James Bond movie, is probably my favorite Bond movie, but it generally met with low regard within Bond fandom.  The film has an unfortunate reputation.  Not only was it Timothy Dalton’s second and last Bond film, but it is followed by six years devoid of Bond movies.  This, of course, was due to lawsuits preventing further entries, but it gives the wrong impression that LtK nearly killed the franchise.  Most damning of all is that Licence to Kill is the lowest grossing Bond film (even after adjusting for inflation).

Licence to Kill received fairly positive reviews when first released.  So, what exactly went wrong at the box office?  Granted, the film was still profitable, but it definitely underperformed.  Even the lesser Bond films such as Die Another Day and Quantum of Solace have made bank.  Why not Licence to Kill?

Well, when looking at the film, the production, and when it was release, there were a lot of factors that hurt it.  To begin with, when this movie was in production, word got out that it was incredibly violent.  While there is some truth to the fact that LtK was more violent than past Bond films, a claim in today’s context is laughable.  However, back in 1989, Bond films had a family movie quality about them.  Sure, there were violence and sex, but Roger Moore’s era softened it, and the films became much more accessible.  Dalton’s previous entry, though very successful, showed a very serious and deadly Bond that perhaps the world was not quite ready for.  This might have resulted in Licence to Kill’s underperformance.

Another factor greatly hurting Licence to Kill is that it had a horrible marketing campaign, particularly in the United States.  And, honestly, the reason behind it is completely stupid.  The film’s original title was Licence Revoked (this, of course, references the fact that Bond relieved of duty in the film).  It was that title for quite a long time to the point that many posters and other marketing materials were using it quite liberally.  However, because MGM (the then-Bond movie distribution studio) thought America is stupid and would confused the phrase with losing driving privileges, ordered a change.  All the marketing already prepared had to be junked.  MGM, in their wisdom, also rejected a marketing campaign by the advertising executive who worked on the previous eight Bond films promotion.  As such, the Licence to Kill had little marketing before it hit theaters in 1989.

The final, and probably biggest reason why Licence to Kill underperformed at the box office is that it was released in the summer of 1989.  Let us look at what other movies were released that summer:

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Lethal Weapon 2
Ghostbusters II
Back to the Future Part II
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

Needless to say, it was an insane summer (arguably the first real blockbuster summer as we now know them).  With all those heavy hitting films, at least one of them was going to suffer from blockbuster burn out.  It happened to be Licence to Kill.  Before 1989, Bond films were summer movies.  Since then, Bond films were winter movies.  The studio learned.

It is unfortunate that Licence to Kill did not meet expectations.  It had a perfect storm to underperform.  The film, itself, really is pretty good.  Dalton gives a knockout performance, Robert Davi is wonderful as the villain, the story is incredibly modern (for 1989), but still very Bond, and it is probably the best fusion of “movie Bond” and “Fleming Bond” to date.  Fortunately, Licence to Kill did not kill the franchise (honestly, can anything kill James Bond?), and, in 1995, Bond returned stronger than ever, and it has not faltered yet.


10 responses to “What Went Wrong 16 – Licence to Kill

  1. Pingback: October Recap! « The Culture Cast with Zack and Nick

  2. Christopher Zeidel November 16, 2012 at 7:32 am

    Back To the Future Part II was released in the Fall (November 22, 1989), so it was not a contender for the summer box office. Licence To Kill underperformed for many reasons. Dalton was unpopular in America, it was released too late in the summer when audiences had already emptied their wallets from the other blockbusters (including seeing Batman several times) and they were burnt out by the summer season, and the extreme and radical approach it took. Audiences were used to the cartoony silliness of most entries by that time and associated Bond with that goofiness. They were not yet ready for a dark, serious, and violent film. I myself think it is one of the worst. Putting the uncensored version on the ultimate edition DVD into consideration (the version where you actually see the guy’s head burst like a balloon as if he was staring in Scanners rather than Bond), Licence To Kill is nothing but a mindless slasher film, and even a Death Wish remake. It follows the plot of Death Wish precisely, in which Bond has a friend who was murdered and he goes against the law to become a vigilante in the same way as Charles Bronson in Death Wish 1 and 2. He spends the entire movie like Charles Bronson, Jason from Friday the 13th, or simply like some mad serial killer on the loose, slashing people away. The production values are too low for a Bond film, and it is very sleazy. It is like a late night sleazy and graphically violent movie on Cinemax; the kind you would see at 2:00am where villains are grind-ed like fish bait, and everyone gets blown and cut apart. Thankfully, Casino Royale (2006) took the serious approach without being a sleazy slasher film.

    • Christopher Zeidel November 16, 2012 at 7:40 am

      The main reason why Licence To Kill did poorly was that it was simply gobbled up by the Batman hype. It just could not compete, and after Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, and Robocop, audiences were burning out on Bond.

      • Nick! November 17, 2012 at 8:26 pm

        Is that not what I wrote? It was a mega summer. At least one of those films were going to suffer. Bond happened to be it. The fact that it was poorly marketed didn’t help matters.

        It is funny that you reference RoboCop. That film is a helluva lot more graphically violent and “slasher-like” than anything in Licence to Kill.

    • Nick! November 17, 2012 at 8:26 pm

      Thanks for your comment. A couple of things:

      1) Licence to Kill was released on June 13 in the UK and July 14 in the US…hardly late in the summer. To note, it under-performed in both countries.

      2) You are right. BTTF2 was a winter release. I must have mixed it with BTTF3 which was a summer release the following year.

      3) Dalton being unpopular was not a reason for under-performance. In fact, that unpopular claim is largely inaccurate. That is retroactive, and inaccurate Internet echo-chamber thinking. He was quite lauded at the time and was considered refreshing after Roger Moore. Additionally, the producers desperately were trying to hold onto him for what would eventually become GoldenEye before Dalton left the role himself.

      4) LtK a slasher film? Low production values? O_o I think you are watching a completely different Licence to Kill. To note: LtK’s budget was roughly the same for many previous Bond films when adjusted for inflation. You are just plumb wrong on that.

      5) People were not ready for a darker Bond? Is that not what I wrote?

  3. Gabriele Funaro (@Funzi159) November 16, 2012 at 8:57 am

    I don’t agree with Christopher, while I agree a lot with Nick, the author of the article! Giving a position to “Licence to Kill”, then you have to consider it a real re-invention of the original character, in this way you watch it with a different eye. It’s not just about the legend of 007, it’s more about taking Bond out of his usual context of super gadgets, beautiful girls and villains who just want to take over the world! Here you have a Bond who is angry, who makes mistakes, who is living on the edge and that is trying to push his limits as far as never before! This is a completely new vision of James Bond, not just a copy of something else, like “Death Wish”, which is another type of movie! In this one, you just see what this man can do without his licence to kill and his perfect “english” charisma! This was a double edged razor, because people were not prepared to see this movie in its evolution, they were still used to “funny Bond movies”!!

    Second point, the story and everything in it is not bad at all. Dalton gave the character such a unique personality proving that Bond can be something even bigger than just a clichè, showing the dark sides of a secret agents and his limits as a human being. For the first time you see Bond bleeding, dirty, with his appearance completely tortured and this is the Bond we had never seen before! Dalton has probably been the first actor to portray 007 as a tridimensional character, and not just as “perfect movie mannequin” who does everything right!

    Concerning the underperformance at the box office, the presence of “Batman” says it all! If anyone today had tried to challenge “The Dark Knight Rises”, it would have failed miserably! This is why this summer they have just put some “meat on the fire” without daring to compete with TDKR. Even “The Avengers” came on theatres before the challenge could have become too serious! So, back in the summer of 1989, the Bat-logo was everywhere, there was really no room for anyone else, and even “Ghostbusters II” underperformed compared to the first movie! “Indiana Jones” performed well just because it was more family friendly than “Batman”, which was extremely dark for the time, but with today’s standards it would sink in a direct race with the Caped Cruisader!

    Great article, I love it!!! And by the way, Timothy Dalton is my favourite Bond!!! 😀

    • Nick! November 17, 2012 at 8:38 pm

      Thanks for your kind words.

      The truth behind the Bond franchise (which you suggest in your comment) is that it stopped being innovative in the 1960s. Since Sean Connery, the Bond franchise has been co-opting whatever was in vogue at the time for action films. Live and Let Die had strong shades of Blacksploitation, Man with the Golden Gun was infused with elements of kung-fu movies, sci-fi in Mookraker, the Bronsan era of over-the-topness with action sequences, and the Craig era heavily inspired by the Bourne movies. The films had to do this in order for the series to survive. Licence to Kill was big time influenced by Lethal Weapon-type movies of the time, with the revenge/drug plot.

      The cool thing is that, most of the time, the Bond producers were able to weave the style successfully into the already established Bond formula.

  4. Ben November 17, 2012 at 2:42 pm

    I love that Licence to Kill is getting some recognition. It was always my favourite Bond film growing up because I hated the “fun” Roger Moore Bond films and how “silly” they’d become. I was shocked to see the other films it went up against that Summer though, it never stood a chance… and what a year for film!

    • Nick! November 17, 2012 at 8:43 pm

      Hi Ben! Good to see you! Yes, that was quite the summer. As I wrote in my Batman franchise retrospective, 1989 probably delivered the first blockbuster summer movie season as we know them today.

  5. Nick January 22, 2013 at 3:38 pm

    In all honestly, “Licence to Kill” is the movie “Diamonds Are Forever” SHOULD have been. While I like DAF, the movie is hampered by a disinterested performance from Connery as 007. The last film kills his wife, and here, it’s never mentioned. Bond could be killing Blofeld for any number of reasons, and even M has a line where he seems aggravated Bond spent too so much time getting Blofeld instead of doing other field work. The later scene, where Bond faces off with Blofeld again has no tension whatsoever. It’s like they’re engaging in parlor conversation. I know the characters are played by different faces, but James, do you REMEMBER this is the guy that just offed your wife?

    This and “The Living Daylights top my list of favorite Bond films, and Timothy Dalton is easily my favorite Bond, with Connery a close 2nd and Craig and Roger Moore tied for 3rd. (Lazenby’s my least favorite. He’s a good Bond, but not as good as any of the other actors portraying him. Brosnan had his moments as well, especially in “Goldeneye”, but from later interviews, it sounds like he was never able to play Bond the way he wanted to, and it shows. He’s part Connery, part Moore, and they don’t 100% work).

    A couple of years ago, A friend of mine went out to visit family in California. He came back and presented me with a collection containing all of the Ian Fleming James Bond novels. I was working a night job at a radio station at the time, so I started with book one, and worked my way up. Since then, I’ve read every single one of the stories multiple times (The only one I never read in it’s entirety is TSWLM, because Bond doesn’t turn up until act 3) and like them all. I liked them so much, I’ve read all the other novels from John Gardner, Raymond Benson, Kinglsy Amis, Sebastian Foulkes, and Jeffery Deaver. The entire James Bond series of books I own.

    When The Ultimate Editions started being released, I started picking them up, and watching them. I’d seen the movies on T.V. before the collections came out, of course. It seemed like on every major holiday, you could count on one of the cable networks running a “Bondathon”, but I reviewed them all. Having read all the books several times, and seeing all the films, there is absolutely no question that Timothy Dalton IS Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Connery was excellent, but Dalton IS the novel Bond. Daniel Craig comes in at a very close 2nd, But Dalton has both the dark-hared look and the chill. Craig has the chill, and he’s fantastic, but visually, Dalton is closer than Craig, and he had the opportunity to smoke, as Fleming’s Bond did.

    One of my favorite parts is when Dalton floats in the water, watching Krest get his comeuppance. He doesn’t need to be there, the job is done, and yet he wants to watch this lowlife, partially responsible for what happened to Felix, pay. It’s a nice moment, and it’s played well by Dalton. Fleming has always said Bond was a ruthless bastard, and indeed, he is in the books. Often in the stories, we get internal thoughts of Bond checking out the heroine and wondering within a moment what she’d be like in bed. Bond is suave, and can be romantic if he wants to, but ultimately, he’s a loner. He smokes, he drinks, he knows he uses women. Only Dalton and Daniel Craig have given us THAT Bond.

    Dalton had a nice outing in TLD, but this one was tailor-made to him, and indeed, it was a needed shock to the system after the reign of Moore. Don’t get me wrong, I like all the Moore Bond films. About the only Bond films I don’t watch as regularly as the others are the last three Brosnan outings, though I find them enjoyable. And I like Brosnan as Bond as well. Everyone, including George Lazenby, brought something to the role that the other actors didn’t. But Moore repeatedly stated that no-one would buy him as an icy killer, so he played up the playboy side of the role, and it was effective.

    But it was time to get away from that side of things. Bond was approaching camp by then, and it was unbelievable that the world’s best secret agent could walk into any bar in the world, and the bartender would know how to mix Bond’s drink. It’s time to start flying under the radar, buddy.

    While it doesn’t feature the standard 007 plot, it follows one closer than most of the critics give it credit for. It amuses me when they complain that it’s not like the other Bond films. Really? What’s different? Does it have a main villain? Yes, and one of the most brutal ones at that. Does the villain have henchmen? Yes. Does it feature beautiful women? Yes. Does it feature exotic locales? Yes. Key West is lovely to look at, especially in the helicopter sequences. Isthmus City is nice and sunny as well. Is the villain going to harm innocent people? Yes…For the most part. While he’s not looking to create a nuclear war, he’s killing people with drugs and threatening to kill innocent people by shooting down airplanes if he’s not left alone.

    Bond even gets several million dollars to play around with and live up a playboy lifestyle for a time. So aside from a “Darker” tone and no world domination plot, This film really DOES have just about everything you’d find in another Bond film. And really, how many people can Bond be sent after to eliminate that are looking for world domination before we start thinking the guy is as unlucky as Jack Bauer?

    The tone of the film is exceptionally dark, but honestly, how can it not be? Aside from Bill Tanner (From the books), Felix Leiter is the closest thing to a “Best Friend” that Bond has. They’ve been through hell together, and yet they’ve both lived to tell the tale. It’s obvious as well that Bond and Della are close. So, to me, it would be hard for Bond to maintain a lighthearted attitude knowing that his friend is in critical condition at the hospital, and his new wife has been raped and murdered by the orders of a a guy living it up south of the border.

    Couple that with flashbacks of having his own wife killed and you’ve really got a powderkeg. You now share a bond with your buddy of having your wife murdered on your wedding day, and there’s not a soul who can do anything about it. The Roger Moore approach would simply have been out of place here. It’s easy to imagine that Dalton’s Bond is almost living vicariously through Felix Leiter, silencing his own demons over the death of Tracy by killing the man that killed Della. He HAS to take Sanchez down. He can’t live with himself otherwise.

    A bonus is watching how Dalton ruthlessly and systematically destroys everything Sanchez has. He blows up his drug operation, destroys the tankers of drugs he has left, makes him waste his stingers, turns him against his associates, and then makes him pay for his sins with his life. And the method of Sanchez’ demise is hands-down the best ever villain comeuppance in the franchise. Using the engraved lighter from Felix to torch Sanchez is brilliant. What makes it even more brilliant is that after the lighter is presented to him, we never see any major focus on the lighter. I totally forgot about it until Bond slips it out of his pocket as Sanchez is about to kill him. And it makes sense that Sanchez’ death is brutal. Aside from Blofeld, Sanchez is really the only villain Bond has been up against that really got him on a personal level.

    Ironically, despite all that Bond is also at his most human here. Up to now, Bond has been performing for queen an country. Not here. In fact, country is doing it’s best to get in the way of him completing his objective. To himself alone, Bond is in no danger at all. Sanchez has no idea he exists. He could let Felix recover, fly back to England and let Sanchez do whatever. But he doesn’t. He puts his life, career, and reputation on the line strictly to get vindication for his friend. You don’t see that in the other Bond films.

    And we also get to see him fallible, which we often get a glimpse of in the books. His lust for vengeance jeopardizes the Hong Kong drug sting operation, and foils a secondary plan to liquidate Sanchez of his stingers. That, in turn, makes it all the more necessary that Bond finish what he’s started. The scene where he confronts Pam and she reveals what’s going on and how his personal vendetta has screwed up all the other plans to stop Sanchez really hits home, and Dalton perfectly shows the realization of how badly he’s screwed up in his performance. And from there, the plan changes. Initially, he’s just out to kill Sanchez. But after that scene, he not only goes after Sanchez, he destroys everything the man owns and kills just about everybody that works for him.

    Another standout in this film as opposed to the others is the secondary characters get a real chance to shine here. Desmond Llewellyn had been showing up for one scene since the 60s. Finally it pays off and he gets to be a major player in the film. He had a nice outing in “Octopussy”, but this is his best. He brings the humor to the film that critics seem to think is lacking, and shows that Bond means a lot more to Q than just an agent to verbally spar with. He wants to see Bond succeed. He wants to help however he can, and often appears chagrined when Bond tries to keep him from getting his hands dirty. But when Bond tells him to jump, he only asks how high. And Desmond Llewellyn is game for the whole film. Shame it went back to the norm after this.

    Also, we get to see Robert Brown as M show us much more than the usual fare. Since Bernard Lee’s passing, Brown was starting to fall into the same rut that Llewellyn was in. Show up, give some dialogue, and leave, except for some occasional exposition at the end. Because of his abrupt entrance, we never really had a chance to see him develop a semi father-son relationship like Lee had with Connery, and with Moore. Mostly due to the fact that he was only in two Moore films before Moore left, and was only on his second outing with Dalton.

    Here Brown gets to finally play a person, and not a character. He gets to be really at odds with Bond, and we even get to see that while Bond is his top agent, he’s not above eliminating him if it’s a danger to England, as evidenced by the fact that he pulls the guns off of Bond in Florida because of “Too many people”. The only thing I wish was different is that in Gardner’s novelization of the film, it’s actually M that tells Moneypenny to send Q to help Bond. He still sends Fallon after him officially, but unofficially, it seems that he gets why Bond is doing it and is willing to help him unofficially accomplish the objective if he can. It would have been a fantastic close-out to Brown’s tenure, but I can live with the fact that it’s not that way in the final film)

    And of course, there’s the afforementioned Felix Leiter with David Hedison returning to the role. In past Bond films, he’s just there, seemingly to provide exposition and make Bond look good. Here, he and Della are the sole catalysts in driving Bond to do what he is doing. Plus, we get to see Bond and Leiter “Away from the office” as it were, and just having a good time. Another positive first in a Bond film. (Interesting trivia note. Leiter does get maimed by a shark in the Fleming novel “Live and Let Die”, and ends up with prosthetics in the later books. Hedison played Leiter in the film version of LALD, while he avoided the fate in that film, he doesn’t in LTK)

    The movie does have some faults. Talisa Soto is lovely to look at, and is good in some scenes, but others she misses, and it does provide it’s share of detractors. Carey Lowell fares much better, but she becomes hampered when the script drags her away from playing the tough-as-nails character and turns her into a lovesick teenager later in the film whenever Bond disappears or appears to like a female other than her. But that’s not her fault, it’s a problem with the script. Grand L. Bush and Everett McGill only turn in adequate performances as supporting characters, and I find it odd that McGill is only serviceable here, since he’s much better in “Twin Peaks”. Maybe they were on a deadline and the scenes featuring him were one or two take affairs. Hedison goes a little overboard in the scene where he’s maimed, but overall, he’s good. And the scene at the end is terribly misdirected. He must be high on painkillers because he’s very upbeat for a guy who’s lost his wife and his leg.

    Also, it has a few overboard gadgets, like the laser camera, which thankfully never gets used except for the gag, and the “Signature gun”, which is readily disposed of. The rest of the “gadgets” seem much more realistic, which is a welcome change from submarines that look like icebergs and snorkels in the shape of alligators. I also got a kick out of the fact that after using the broom radio to talk to Pam, Q chucks it into a bush. He’s always exasperated in the films when Bond destroys the latest car or gadget, and frequently chides Bond for his destructive nature, so it’s humorous to see Q so caught up in the moment that even he wastefully destroys a functioning gadget.

    While the sideways tipped truck was a trifle ridiculous, I’ll give it merit in the sense that the stunt driver performed the trick hardly and fancy effects. The wheelie sequence was over-the-top, but not any more than a lot of the other things we’ve seen, and by that point, I was so involved in watching Sanchez pay that I didn’t bat an eye. If I can ignore the fact that Roger Moore could hold onto a landing rope from Zorin’s blimp for what seems like hours without letting go, I can forgive a tanker wheelie.

    But for every fault, there’s a bright spot. Sanchez is one of the most realistic of the Bond villains, which in a way is much more freaky than guys with metal hands and lethal hats. Plus, he’s played well by character actor Robert Davi. As a bonus, he’s a much more physical villain than many of the others. With villains like Goldfinger, Stromburg, and Hugo Drax, they were quick to let others do their dirty work, and were in no shape to take on Bond in physical combat. Here, Sanchez frequently does his own dirty work, and he’s physically a closer match than most of Bond’s adversaries. He only leaves Bond at the grinder because his associates are forcing him to leave. His fight with Bond on the back of the gasoline tanker is a terrific showdown between the two. They’re so wrapped up with killing each other that they only stop when the truck crashes. He even gets the upper hand on Bond for just a moment, before Bond retakes it by distracting him with the only thing Sanchez would want to hear…..Why. And as I’ve said before, the method Bond uses to eliminate him, and provide justice for both Felix and Della is complete brilliance.

    Another bright spot is the people Sanchez surrounds himself with. No butlers with metal hats or monsters with metal teeth. Here, the villain is surrounded by people that you would expect him to be surrounded by. And Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Zerbe, Anthony Starke, Wayne Newton and Don Stroud all play their characters memorably. Plus, three of them have standout deaths. An exploding head, a grinding, and impalement by forklift. Pretty gory stuff in comparison to what we’ve seen before.

    Which brings us to the final thing that makes Licence to Kill better than many, if not all the other Bond films. Bond gets dirty. It’s something that we rarely saw with Connery, and never at all with Roger Moore. He gets beaten, he gets bloody, and it adds to the realism. When Bond gets spilled off the back of a crashing tanker truck, he looks it. The same stunt in the Moore years would have had Moore standing up, unscathed, dusting off his dinner jacket.

    Ultimately, Dalton was just ahead of his time. Everyone has been raving (and rightly so) over Casino Royale, but frankly, Dalton gave us the Bond that Daniel Craig is giving us 17 years before Craig’s first outing. Sadly, we just weren’t ready for it. I will always wonder what “Goldeneye” would have been like if Dalton had come for just one more outing, though I can’t blame him for giving up on the franchise after 5 years of waiting. Brosnan did fine, but the film was obviously written for Dalton, and it would be interesting to know if A., Dalton could outshine the performance he gave in LTK, and B. if the world would have been ready, at that time, for Dalton’s gritty portrayal.

    Worst Bond film? Not by a long shot. I’d be hard-pressed to name a “Worst” film. I like them all. But it’s certainly as good as “From Russia With Love”, or “Goldfinger”, or “For Your Eyes Only”. It’s even as good as “Casino Royale”, but it’s weakness against CR is that it’s a bit dated and some of the performances are lacking, whereas there were no weak performance leaks in CR.

    The bottom line is this. When I want to be entertained by a Bond film, I can select any off the shelf. But when I want to see James Bond as Ian Fleming wrote him, I take “Licence to Kill” or “Casino Royale” off the shelf every time.

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