July 14th, 1989
License to Kill
Nutshell: After his BFF is maimed by ruthless drug lord Sanchez (Robert Davi), James Bond (Timothy Dalton) sets out to exact revenge. Stripped of his job and his license to kill, Bond continues to doggedly pursue Sanchez, with help from an ex-CIA operative (Carey Lowell) and trusted weapons expert, Q (Desmond Llewellyn).
1989: “License to Kill” was my first James Bond movie. No, not my actual introduction to Bond, but the first time I could elect to see a 007 film on my own, without protesting parents holding me back. “License to Kill” was my Bond film, and I was energized about the prospect of seeing this mysterious, alien (at least to my narrow world view) superhero on the big screen after years spent gobbling up his adventures on television, preferably served up as an ABC Sunday Night Movie event.
I suppose I was so charged up about “License to Kill” back in the day because it was something taboo to me. Permitted a chance to indulge in the Bondian world of guns, gals, and gorgeous locales, I was overwhelmed by the experience, though pleased to see the adventure in a proper widescreen, communal setting, free of cruel content edits and judgmental guardians. “License to Kill” barely had to move a muscle to earn my approval. I was fully invested even before the release of the film.
A few memories stand out from that summer screening. The first is the unnerving maggot sequence, where Bond judo-chops one of the bad guys and plops his body down in a drawer full of the bone-white creepy crawlies. It was a jiggling mess of ick that made quite an impression, combining two horrors (suffering and bugs) into one tidy act of flip-e-doo violence. Consider it weird, but whenever I think of “License to Kill,” I think of a sea of fake maggots. I also recall a sense of cinematic short-sheeting when it came to the actual Bond Girls. Having been raised to expect something along the lines of Tanya Roberts or Barbara Bach, “License to Kill” instead offered Talisa Soto and Carey Lowell, the latter stuck with a Pete Rose-style haircut that, to this day, feels like a wicked practical joke from the Bond producers. While beautiful women (I suppose), they weren’t exactly up to the proper level of sex-bomb body shock worthy of my initial swim into theatrical Bond waters. As shallow as it is to admit that, I can still isolate the deflated reaction. But that’s what Tanya Roberts will do to a kid.
Bond on the big screen, larger than life, angrier than ever, and with Prince Baron himself playing the iconic superspy. I was satisfied.
And then, of course, the film underperformed at the box office, followed by a nasty legal war over the brand that chewed away the next six years. I was offered the Bond annual pass (no blockout dates!), only to have it rudely ripped out of my hands and told to wait. Twas a bummer.
2009: “License to Kill” hasn’t aged well, or perhaps my adult eyes are a bit more judgmental after years spent ingesting and regurgitating all the Bond adventures. It’s certainly not a dismal picture, but a patchy, mediocre one that’s so intent on shifting the tone of the franchise that it forgets how to wink. The goal was to butch up the character, returning Bond to his Ian Fleming roots by encouraging Dalton to grind his teeth and slap around villainous knuckleheads instead of playfully bantering with them. It’s an intriguing experiment, especially after soaking in the boozy Roger Moore era for 12 years and witnessing the uneasy 1987 picture, “The Living Daylights,” try to steer matters into more sobering directions. “License to Kill” has integrity to spare, but it’s a loaded gun of ambition pointed in the wrong direction.
For starters, the screenplay is a head-spinning collision of double-crosses, false identities, and fictional locations. While not impossible to follow, director John Glen (a Bond filmmaking veteran) doesn’t exactly reward the heavy concentration required with a stunning display of dramatic pyrotechnics. Actually, “License to Kill” always appears short of breath, spending more time sorting out the convoluted screenplay than tending to the world-famous Bond playground. Dalton’s game (he’s a marvelous actor), but the film is inert, perhaps unprepared to work with the new Irish Kiss direction of the series. The paralyzed approach seeps into characterization, with the Bond Girls falling into 007’s lap without the slightest bit of organic attraction (really, the seduction scenes are absurd, even for a Bond film), and extends to the return of Q, who sticks out like a sore thumb, trying to inject some gadgets and lighthearted behavior into the parade of frowns, but it all comes off much too artificial. It’s a strained, sexless, and overcooked film, though Robert Davi has his fun as drug lord Sanchez. Some consider this his finest hour as an actor. I can find one role that tops it.
What does click beautifully in “License to Kill” is the obligatory grand finale, where Bond saddles up a tanker truck filled with gasoline and takes off after Sanchez, ruining Wayne Newton’s day in the process. It’s a classic Bond conclusion of fireballs, jaw-dropping stunt work, and a general disregard for the laws of gravity; a glorious closing number to an otherwise colorless movie -- a cruel reminder that youthful exuberance doesn’t always translate to adult satisfaction.
“License to Kill” is generally credited as the lowest grossing Bond film of the series. Released during a summer of such powerhouse competition, its failure to connect to audiences is understandable. Still, there was a cracked artistic foundation here that hype and a diamond screen legacy couldn’t cover. And two woefully mediocre Bond Girls. Seriously, who OKed this haircut?
When Harry Met Sally…
Nutshell: Here’s the saga of Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) and Sally Albright (Meg Ryan), a pair of opposites who not only have to navigate a tempestuous friendship, but also question growing feelings of romantic attachment as their lives weave together over a 10-year period of relationship failures.
1989: I chalk up my interest in seeing “When Harry Met Sally” to a developing curiosity with the adult world of romance. It wasn’t a sense of superiority that guided me to the picture (knowing full well my classmates wouldn’t be caught dead seeing such a film), but a strange comfort level with situations way beyond my maturity level. It started with “Moonstruck,” moved on to “Working Girl,” and peaked with “Sally” -- these vibrant, masterful romantic comedies that weren’t suited for me, yet managed to become a few of my most cherished moviegoing memories.
Did I know anything about marriage, or women in general? No way. But director Rob Reiner crafted a comfy ambiance of brokenhearted blues that enthralled me. “Sally” was hilarious in ways I didn’t understand, but half of the experience was the peek behind the curtain of adulthood, where the lines of friendship blurred, Princess Leia had an acting career outside of “Star Wars,” and orgasms could be faked (actually, could’ve done without that revelation). Even if I couldn’t appreciate all the working parts, I was still able to respond to the soothing emotional content of the piece, and the casually luminous work put forth from Crystal and Ryan. Also of interest was the soundtrack of standards by this unknown performer named Harry Connick Jr. Poured like hot butterscotch over the film, the music was a sensational mood-enhancer and urged me to my one and only trip to the jazz section of the local record store to purchase a copy of the soundtrack.
Boy, this adult thing was going to be quite an adventure.
2009: While I still await the adventure to start, I’ll go out on a limb and call “Sally” a classic romantic comedy. Sure, there’s been a thousand movies taking on the game of love, especially with a stabbing New York neuroses slant, but few manage to generate the effortless charisma of “Sally.”
It’s an amazing feat from Reiner, a filmmaker who only recently came into my view as something of an overall disappointment. It was during a recent, rather laborious reviewing of “The Princess Bride” (sorry world, the movie is a mess) that I realized that Reiner has only crafted three remarkable feature films: “This is Spinal Tap,” “Misery,” and “When Harry Met Sally.” The rest are either sleepy matinee diversions or unspeakable acts of stupidity. This revelation was a rather large one for me to make, after decades defending Reiner from anyone who dared to step inside my serpent-filled circle of opinion.
Viewing “Sally” again was a peaceful reminder of Reiner firing on all cylinders, yet the final product is so impressively relaxed and self-aware, it almost makes one wish Nora Ephron would’ve stuck solely to screenwriting for the rest of her Hollywood career. I kid of course. I’ve always wished that.
“Sally” is seasonally evocative, insightful (in a candied, shticky way), beautifully confessional, and bubbles with both wit and slapstick appeal. It’s Woody Allen-lite, but it’s far more inviting in a mass-appeal way that shouldn’t sully the impact of the final product, and Reiner’s restraint here should be applauded. “Sally” is special lightning-in-a-bottle stuff that every member of the production has spent precious years of their lives trying to recreate, but always failing miserably. It’s a lesson in silver screen kismet that doesn’t come around very often, but when it does…lordy. It results in a movie that’s going to be around forever, its batteries recharged every year by a fresh crop of admirers. “When Harry Met Sally” is just one of those Hollywood romance stories that gets the acidic heartbreak and drippy fantasy exactly right.
Coming next week…
Every summer movie season is a war. Here are two of the bombs.