Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Paging Doctor Feelbad: Licence To Kill The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, Her Lover

Almost before we'd got used to him, Dalton vanishes in one of the grimmer Bonds to date. I always remember this being one of the harder Bonds to cope with, and I was right: it's not often in a Bond film that a man is fed to a shark, or to a cocaine grinding machine, or exploded in a pressure chamber, or forced to watch a televangelist.

Not that you should ever be too concerned when a Felix Leiter is put to death; he'll be back soon, having regenerated into another body.  Is he a Yankee Timelord?  Does that explain it?

Apocryphally, Licence To Kill was going to be titled Licence Revoked, but nobody felt the American cinemagoer would know what 'revoked' meant, so the film is named after something Bond doesn't have for most of the performance. It's as though they'd called A View To A Kill A Vestige Of Self Respect instead. Strange that there'd be so much contempt for Americans when the film never leaves their continent.

Anyway, Licence Refurbished is not a very enjoyable film as Bond films go. They got rid of most of the gadgets, but kept Q in (why? why?) and although it's fun to play spot-the-reference to another film (Demented Oriental assassins? why, we haven't had any of those since Moonraker. A bridge through the Florida Keys? Isn't that meant to be being saved until Arnie can get here for True Lies? What's a Fratelli from the Goonies doing masterminding cocaine smuggling? And doesn't Benicio Del Toro look young? How come he isn't mumbling? Can you really drive an 18 wheeler on only 9 of its wheels?) the film itself is hard going.

Along the way, we do learn things, but it feels like we've gone down some dead-end in the 1980s. The cocaine smuggling is something to do with 'the trade deficit' so it must be the late 80s at least. But where are the Japanese? Weren't we meant to blame them for everything in the 1980s? Ah, nostalgia...

Back then, you could leave your car curbside at the airport and walk straight to the check-in counter, and you could still smoke on planes. (Is that the bird from Saved By The Bell at the check-in counter, or am I hallucinating again? I'd try to remember her name, but Paul Verhoeven did his best to extinguish all memory of her with Showgirls, so that is that.) We're still in the BBB era (Before Bad Boys) which means that the only role for a black man with a name is to be killed so that the hero can have something to be cross about; in this particular case, Bond sees Sharky hung up, dead, and is so angry that a minute later he's inventing wakeboarding.
What is it about Bonds doing extreme sports just before they retire? First it was Moore with the snowboard, then Dalton with the wakeboard, I'm pretty sure Brosnan did something akin to kitesurfing in Die Another Day, and the day that Daniel Craig puts on a tuxedo and rolls down a Cheshire hill in a Zorb, in pursuit of some cheese, is the day his Bond career is over.

There's at least one endearing leitmotif from the Dalton period - people falling from great heights holding onto stupid things. In The Living Daylights Necros tried to use a shoe as a parachute; in Licence Rebooted the unnamed cocaine smuggler thinks a door will arrest his drop. I suppose it's another sign that Bond + vehicle = sudden death for everyone involved.

What can we salvage from this mess? Well, the fight in the Barrelhead is good - Bond has never had a fight with a man brandishing a swordfish before. Pam Bouvier is a proper woman rather than a simpering Bond girl, and that's so out of the norm that all the way to the end I expected her to get killed so that Bond could cop off with the more acquiescent Latina instead. There's a clue to why Britain ended up so destitute - Q throws cellular broomhandles away like they're worthless, and, of course, there's the greatest single thing in any film - yes, I'm talking about Bond waking up to see an enormous ceramic fish with a human face staring back at him.

Apart from that, there's not much good here. Sanchez (his middle name is Dirty, right?) gets all the best one liners (I don't think "Don't worry, it's only money" is topped by any other dialogue in the film) and the gadgets are even more old fashioned than the ones they were dicking around with two decades ago. Oh, and Michael Kamen's score is horrible, horrible, horrible. I don't know how something so minimal could be so distracting, but it's like a lifeless fish, flopping around in all the wrong places. That was something they should have fed to genetically engineered maggots.

And speaking of maggots, the night after I watched Licence Recompensed, I put on The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, Her Lover, which is possibly the most awesome thing from 1989, but certainly not the nicest. It's got terrific sets, Michael Nyman (that's the right Michael, that's the one you want) doing the music, it's got Helen Mirren, it's got Trigger from Only Fools And Horses, it's got Ian Dury with a limp, and it's got two freezer trucks full of rotting food. This is how you make a film.

"This is how you eat crayfish" explains the spectacularly vile Mr Spica, the character that could give a million Harry Potter fans the heebie-jeebies.  (Funny how Gambon went from cutting the belly button off angelic kitchen boys to being the bearded protector of Hogwarts.  Well, the other bearded protector apart from Robbie Coltrane, but never mind.) As I watched, high on cough syrup and bilious from too much dinner, I happened upon one of those truths: the eponymous Thief is actually James Bond, just a bit older. Lecturing Tim Roth on the correct way to eat prawns, or telling off his minions for having terrible table manners is just the sort of boorish thing that Bond will end up doing in ten or fifteen years, bitter at forever being passed over for promotion in favour of 006, who spends his time at base simpering up to M rather than constantly threatening to resign.

Perhaps that makes the incredible Helen Mirren a knackered Bond girl, although I don't think even Sean Connery was up to rattling some bint under a pier and then making her life hell for twenty years with a wine bottle and a toothbrush. No, that Bond would just have shot her.

Whereas Licence Repudiated doesn't ever really kick into top gear (the televangelists could have been a lot more mental, and the random let's abduct Bond, tie him to a table and then get blown up by the army scene never elevates itself to greatness) TCTTHWHL is always going at full pelt, which makes it a bit hard to watch too. Unless you like seeing somebody getting a fork jabbed in their eye. I've done a course on food hygiene and that meant the joy others get from the naked Helen Mirren was to me nothing more than torture - I just kept saying to myself "it isn't safe, not with all that meat around".

The only bad thing about TCTTHWHL is that you're not entirely sure what's going on - it starts in media res and never really makes it clear how Spica got to be who he is, or what year it is, or anything much to do with the shit-smeared man we encounter to begin with. If it had been a Bond film then everything would have run like clockwork the whole way through, we'd never be confused, we'd never see a man murdered by having paper stuffed into him, and we'd never see Dumbledore eat somebody's (lovingly cooked) cock.

It's the costumes I like the film for, honest. Not the cock. Not the cock.


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