In the first wave of the James Bond franchise (the first five films) was the cool audacious trend setter for action cinema in the 60’s. Movies like From Russia with Love and Goldfinger flaunted sex, fashion, and stylized violence into theaters and into the imagination of audiences around the world. The box office success was incredible, those first five Bonds set a new standard for big budget film making while also establishing the blueprint for many modern action movies.
However, with longevity comes exhaustion which begets mediocrity. After the first wave, the Bond films started borrowing (aping) off of popular films adjacent to them. It was inevitable, and for many films that followed they work their influences in seamlessly and pay homage rather than parody, Skyfall, for example, gives its fair share of nods to Christopher Nolen’s Dark Knight Trilogy. While the influences in other movies of the franchise feel as out of place as a third nipple; a certain Kung Fu scene right around the height of Bruce Lee’s popularity immediately jumps to mind (see: The Man with The Golden Gun). Regardless of quality, all the Bond films, good or bad, have taken on the feel of time capsules storing pieces of pop culture and cinema of the moment. It’s part of what keeps even the worst films interesting. For the next film on the countdown I chose a movie that best demonstrates the time capsule feel of the Bond films.
Any post first wave film could have worked for this write-up, but, no other movie provides a more singular example than 1989’s License to Kill. It ended the Timothy Dalton era with a soft thud both on the screen and in the box office, and ended the internal struggle, caught between a version of the past and running headlong into the future. The former would win out in the end and we’d get the mixed bag of the Pierce Brosnan era, before eventually finding that future with Casino Royale and the Daniel Craig era.
Dalton’s first film, The Living Daylights, kicked his era off with a promising start. It’s a fresh, modern take on Cold War spy movies that tastefully pulls ribbons from all its influences, particularly first wave Bond films. However, despite the success of Daylights, Bond was starting to fall behind such films as Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, and almost everything guys named Stallone and Schwarzenegger touched.
Not many people know this, but an obscure niche drug called “cocaine” acted as a pretty hefty accelerant to nearly every creative venture in the 1980’s. It’s how we got wonderful movies like Road House*, and TV shows like Miami Vice, you know, the two biggest influences fueling one of the biggest overreaches in the franchise in License to Kill.
It doesn’t take long to see how tonally at odds License is with itself, spinning its wheels between a stripped down gritty action drama and campy spy adventure. It involves Bond going rogue seeking revenge for his friend, Felix Leiter (David Hedison) against a drug cartel led by Franz Sanchez played gamely by the always entertaining Robert Davi. Most of the scaled down effect confines Bond in one general location looking more like someone’s dad rather than an international spy. Still, it manages to be an entertaining movie despite the mess. For example the cold opening has both a great hair raising aerial stunt all done in time for Bond and Felix to parachute into Felix’s own wedding.
Anything involving the drug war was a hot item in the 80’s; it’s the entire basis of most cop dramas of the time. It’s unusual to see the Bond franchise embrace this trend, drug dealers seem beneath the likes of Bond compared to his typical international spy work, but it could have made for an interesting departure for the series had it had more focus and balance. Still, License manages to capture the look and feel of most crime dramas of the time and even attempts to give it a grittier edge. Despite the fact it doesn’t entirely work it still manages to be an entertaining moment in time.
*In fairness to EON Productions, I understand the Patrick Swayze film, Road House, was released the same year as License to kill, but, what are the odds that the year the Bond franchise decides to put a rough and tumble bar fight set piece in their film is the same year Rough and Tumble Bar Fight The Movie is released?