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‘License to Kill’ (PG-13)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 14, 1989

It's time to find a new Bond. This one is tuckered out, spent, his signature tuxedo in sore need of pressing.

For "Licence to Kill," the 16th installment in the Cubby Broccoli-produced series, the filmmakers and their star, Timothy Dalton, have entered into a sort of grim collusion, building the film to the actor's stern specifications. As a result, Dalton plays a straight-faced, humorless, no-nonsense Bond -- all guns and no play -- and it makes for a very dull time.

The blame falls as much to the creators' conception of their hero as to the actor playing him. It's not that Dalton, who's making his second appearance in the role, isn't actor enough for the job. It's that Bond himself now seems prosaic, earthbound, in serious need of a superhero transfusion. In making the picture, Cubby and company -- which includes director John Glen, who is making his fifth Bond movie, writer Richard Maibaum, who has contributed to 13 of the 007 films, and Michael G. Wilson, who has co-written five -- were achingly aware of just how fierce the superhero business has become and, in reaction, have attempted to create a Bond to stand tall beside caped crusaders and fedoraed archaeologists.

Trying to bring a new relevance to the series, the producers have given their hero's adventures a more realistic context, one sprung from newspaper headlines and real-world tensions. In Bond-movie terms, this means creating a bad guy who, instead of trying to break into Fort Knox, is working to corner the market in cocaine. This time out Bond's enemy is a Noriega-like drug lord headquartered in the made-up Central American capital of Isthmus City, and with the lizard-skinned Robert Davi in the role, they've matched the Panamanian heavy-hitter acne scar for acne scar. A veteran heavy, Davi supplies the movie with a sort of strip joint sleaziness. Early in the film, he finds his sumptuous companion (Talisa Soto) in bed with another man, a transgression that earns her a vicious beating with a sawed-off bullwhip, plus a very special kind of valentine.

A kinder, gentler Bond film? No way.

Actually, what Broccoli and his team have created with "Licence to Kill" is a clunkier, squarer, far less stylish episode of "Miami Vice." As the product plugs flash on the screen, the filmmakers spin your average revenge scenario: Bond's best friends are messed with -- one critically, one fatally -- and Bond gets even. This time it's personal -- so personal, in fact, that Bond goes rogue and, refusing to follow orders, has his commission suspended and his license to kill revoked. But Glen and his writers have given only lip service to creating real emotional resonance in Bond's adventures. (It's a mistake, I think, even to try.) What they actually mean by realistic is more action, and to keep up with the summer demand for end-to-end thrills, the filmmakers rely more heavily than ever on explosions and brawls and less on characterization. As usual, there are large-scale stunts and grandiose sets, but aside from the extended duel between humongous gasoline tankers on a narrow mountain road, the daredevil routines are all workmanlike and unspectacular and the sets cheesy.

Also, although there's grace and agility in Dalton's physical work, in repose he nearly ceases to exist. That Dalton hasn't emerged as a Bond to be reckoned with, a star to juice the character's EKG back onto the scale, is a shocking disappointment. With his deep-clefted, cruelly handsome features, Dalton held out the promise of a return to Connery form, to a time in Bond's movie life when both danger and wit were part of his secret agent accessory kit. But playing Bond doesn't seem to spark anything special in Dalton. Even though this is only his second shot at the role, there's nothing new to discover in him. Dalton plays the part as if it were an unpleasant chore -- he doesn't seem to be having any fun -- and there's an air of condescension in his performance, as if somehow his classical training made the character beneath him. He acts as if he's slumming.

Dalton actually gets the dangerous part, it's the essential wit that's missing. (He seems to think the two are in opposition.) If the previous Bonds were champagne, this Bond is beer -- and flat beer at that. Gone are the sophisticated hedonism and the sexy pedantry about wines and guns and caviar. Watching Sean Connery in the role, and even, on occasion, Roger Moore, men could fantasize about being Bond and leading the life he led, even when the movies themselves weren't very good. But Dalton turns Agent 007 into a brooding blue-collar grunt. Who would want to jump into this Bond's shoes?

With the injection of more and uglier violence, the filmmakers seem eager to put Bond in competition with other monosyllabic action movie heroes. They know where the real money is, and that it has nothing to do with their hero's ability to distinguish between Cristal '79 and Cordon Rouge. They want a Bond closer in spirit to Rambo, a killing machine to put the big summer numbers on the board. They want a lug, and Dalton gives them pretty much what they want.

Connery used to make a joke out of having to sleep with beautiful women -- he was, after all, sacrificing himself for the crown. When this Bond sleeps with a woman, he seems to take no pleasure in it. In contrast to the safety-first sexual attitude in "The Living Daylights," 007 here is given a couple of frisky bedmates. Soto -- who has cracked up preview audiences with her line readings -- is the exotic, bad Bond girl, and Carey Lowell is his American beauty sidekick. Both are genuine knockouts -- actresses, no -- but Dalton doesn't seem to find any greater thrill in these erotic encounters than he does in Bond's other chores. It's all heavy lifting to him.

Not all the film's problems can be blamed on Dalton; his presence merely brings them into focus. Perhaps the one original wrinkle is written into the role of a televangelist (Wayne Newton) who, speaking in code, acts as the on-air middleman in the deals being negotiated by the drug lords and their costumers. Squishing with unctuous sincerity and God-bless-you sentiments, Newton steals the show. He's perfect, and the role may immortalize him -- as what, I'm not exactly sure. But what does it say about a movie when Wayne Newton is the only performer with true star presence?

"Licence to Kill" is rated PG-13 and contains mild violence and implied sex.

Copyright The Washington Post

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