Until this year’s “reimagining” of the 007 franchise in CASINO ROYALE, LICENCE TO KILL (note the British spelling, which was not used in the initial U.S. release) was widely considered the most brutal and violent film of the series. The first PG-13 Bond movie offers a change-of-pace plot by Bond veterans Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson that finds 007 (Timothy Dalton in his second and final Bond performance) resigning under protest from the British Secret Service and plotting revenge against Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi), the South American druglord who fed Bond’s CIA pal Felix Leiter (David Hedison, 16 years after first playing the part in 1973’s LIVE AND LET DIE) to the sharks. Literally.
Some have referred to LICENCE TO KILL as a "Joel Silver Bond movie," and that's a good description, right down to the trendy choice of villain (Central American drug dealer), supporting cast of familiar American character actors (Don Stroud, Anthony Zerbe, Frank McRae, Benicio Del Toro) and the late Michael Kamen as composer. It mostly eschews the elaborate gadgetry for which the Bond movies are well known, and although it’s a first-rate action movie, it doesn’t feel much like a James Bond adventure, despite Dalton’s tough, underrated performance. Director John Glen, helming his fifth and final (to date) Bond extravaganza, handles the special effects and stunts (particularly a wild semi-truck chase on a desert road) with aplomb, and the elaborate story is crisply paced. The Bond Girls are a weakness; exotic Talisa Soto (VAMPIRELLA) has never been much of an actress, and short-haired Carey Lowell (later one of Sam Waterston’s Girls on LAW & ORDER) I can take or leave, although both women are beautiful and contrast each other well.
I have to admit that I like LICENCE TO KILL better than the new CASINO ROYALE. I don’t want to dump too harshly on the new film, since I enjoyed it more than I expected to, but it feels like a James Bond movie for moviegoers who don’t like James Bond. I wrote in 1999 about THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH:
Watching a James Bond movie these days is like visiting a favorite relative at Thanksgiving. You know exactly what's on the menu, and you know you're with good company; in fact, it's that very familiarity that makes it so nice. You know going in that 007 will ask for a martini, "shaken not stirred". He will introduce himself to someone as "Bond. James Bond". He'll visit a casino. He'll make love to three different women: one bad, one good, and one completely peripheral to the main plot. The main villain will chew out one of his henchman, and then unexpectedly kill a second one as a warning to the first. The heavy will also capture Bond, but, instead of killing him immediately, will either talk long enough for him to escape or contrive an intricate deathtrap (usually with a digital number countdown) from which Bond will somehow manage to free himself. And there'll be lots of gadgets, cool cars, exotic locations, chases, fights, explosions, stunts and imaginative methods of killing. And Q, the crotchety old man who supplies 007 with his fancy equipment, will get P.O.ed at him.
While some of the above occurs in CASINO ROYALE, not quite enough does for my tastes. But maybe I’m just being a fogey. What looks to me like a ripoff of the successful Jason Bourne movies starring Matt Damon has certainly struck a chord with audiences worldwide, as CASINO ROYALE is the most financially successful 007 movie ever made.
NOTE: In a technical sense, that’s true, since CASINO ROYALE’s international box office is an all-time high. However, every Bond movie from GOLDENEYE on, even the abysmal DIE ANOTHER DAY, has broken the box-office record of the movie just before it. And, of course, if one were to judge box office on the basis of ticket sales, there’s little doubt that THUNDERBALL or perhaps GOLDFINGER would prove to be the #1 Bond.
Eon Productions’ 21st James Bond movie is, of course, the most radically different of the series. Constructed as a “reimagining” of the 007 legend, CASINO ROYALE, which bears no resemblance to the 1967 movie of the same name, is a reasonably faithful adaptation of Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel and plays as an “origin story” of sorts. James Bond (the craggy Daniel Craig, a rough-looking blond with ears that stick out), who has only recently received his “license to kill” from MI6, is sent to Montenegro to compete in a winner-take-all Texas Hold ‘Em tournament (another sellout to yokel U.S. audiences) being held at Le Casino Royale. His mission is to prevent Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), an underworld accountant, from winning the $150 million grand prize, which he will use to finance terrorist organizations. Bond is teamed up with Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), a more experienced agent who holds Bond’s pursestrings.
At 144 minutes, CASINO ROYALE is the longest Bond movie ever made, and it feels like it. After a fast-moving beginning featuring a pair of rousing action scenes, including an amazing parkour-flavored chase through a construction site, the movie bogs down a bit with the protracted card game and an overlong finale. Much of Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Paul Haggis’ screenplay is pulled straight from Fleming’s novel, including Bond’s shockingly brutal torture at the hands of Le Chiffre. Although CASINO ROYALE is in many ways a fine action movie, I never believed that Craig was James Bond, and the general lack of gadgetry, wry one-liners, the traditional gun-barrel logo opening and even the legendary James Bond Theme (which composer David Arnold holds until the final minute) are missed.