007 Edition: Licence to Kill (1989)

Licence to Kill (1989)
Dir.: John Glen
TC4P Rating: 6/9
Species: Great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias); blacktip reef shark (
Carcharhinus melanopterus); Sharkey (Frank McRae); manta ray (Timothy Dalton)
James Bond specimen: Timothy Dalton

Sharks and James Bond. Like chocolate and peanut butter. At least, that's the way it seemed for quite a few years. Thunderball (1965), Live and Let Die (1973), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), and For Your Eyes Only (1981) all contain scenes where sharks are used as a menacing element, usually (but not always) kept in tanks by Bond's enemies for reasons of torture or dispatching of victims. In my head, I always lump the truly insane, Connery race-changing epic, You Only Live Twice into this bunch, but always have to remind myself that the deadly creatures in Blofeld's lair are piranhas, not sharks. Same concept; entirely different fish.

Hell, Bond even has a nemesis (and eventual ally, briefly) named Jaws, a giant of a man (Richard Kiel) with razor sharp metal teeth who gets the rare distinction of getting to appear in consecutive films in the series. Living up to his name, he even bites a tiger shark to death in his first film, The Spy Who Loved Me. (And we get "Jaws in Space" in the immediate followup, Moonraker.)

Let's get back to the actual fish. Where this immensely popular film series was once rife with appearances by our finny fellows, sharks have rather gone to the wayside in the last 25 years of Bond films. The Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig films have been totally lacking in sharky menace, and this may be due to public perception of sharks as villains being turned on its head in the mainstream. We know that this isn't true on the video shelves or on cable channels, where there are ceaseless iterations of Z-level shark attack films and even the viral hits from SyFy's Sharknado and Sharktopus series. Perhaps the James Bond films are just too, too huge to risk riling up the animal rights activists, whereas much lower (and sillier seeming) projects can slip by unnoticed.

But James Bond did take one last crack at villains using captured sharks to do their business, 1989's Licence to Kill, the second and final outing featuring Timothy Dalton in the 007 role. In attempting to turn the series in a darker, more realistic direction, frequent Bond helmer, John Glen, is only partly successful. What wasn't successful was the film's box office success, where it continues to rank very low on the list of Bond breadwinners. Because of this, Dalton was done, and there wouldn't be another 007 film for a full six years, the largest break in the run of a series that has continued to churn out super-spy thrillers since 1962. Brosnan and director Martin Campbell would reenergize the series in 1995 with Goldeneye, and it has continued to be an ever bigger success since. (Not that there weren't a couple of duds in there.)

The full plot of Licence to Kill is really inconsequential to our purposes here, but a slight wedge of it would be helpful in establishing some of the characters involved in the film's shark-related suspense. Bond visits Key West, Florida on vacation to act as the best man in his longtime pal Felix Leiter's wedding. Leiter (played here by David Hedison) is basically meant to represent the American version of Bond, and has been a mainstay in Bond films since Jack Lord played him in Dr. No. This is actually Hedison's second time playing the character (one of two actors to do so, the other being Jeffrey Wright), though he was played by John Terry in the previous film to LicenceThe Living Daylights.

Things go awry when slimy drug kingpin Sanchez (played by Robert Davi) has his henchmen spring him from CIA custody (the opening sequence of the film involves his capture by Leiter and Bond, after which they parachute down to Leiter's wedding). Sanchez hides out in a scientific research aquarium run by another slimeball, Milton Krest (Anthony Zerbe aka the mad scientist from KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park), but shortly after the wedding, Sanchez and his thugs capture Leiter, savagely killing his new wife in the process. In the company of a DEA agent on the take, Ed Killifer (Everett McGill, Big Ed from Twin Peaks), as well as a young and relatively baby-faced Benicio del Toro, Sanchez hangs Leiter over a trap door built into the floor of the aquarium. In the tank is a large great white shark they have captured. After first enticing the shark with a side of something on a hook, Sanchez has Felix lowered into the tank, where the great white starts to feed on him.

Yes, it is supposed to be a great white shark, but it doesn't always look that way. In the usual way of Hollywood/British shark movies, shark species were still considered pretty interchangeable, despite their massive differences in size and looks, and the first shot we get of a real shark seems to be more of a tiger shark, as it glides forward through a tank. (The nose is too flat and broad for one thing.) However, the puppet shark head that is used for closeups, and which gets employed several times coming up, is very clearly modeled after a great white. Regardless of which shark it is, the shark character does its job. Felix loses his leg, and is carried back to his hotel suite where Bond will discover Leiter's wife's dead body on the bed, while Felix is also found by James, still breathing, wrapped up in a sheet on the couch. James finds a bloody note tucked into Felix's shirt that reads, in the tradition of bad Bond puns, "He disagreed with something that ate him."

I have heard people get upset about Felix's fate in this film (he lives, by the way), but it is not nearly as bad as that which occurs in the second of the original Ian Fleming Bond books, Live and Let Die. In fact, this film drew inspiration directly from that book, using elements that were never used in the film adaptation of the same name. Chiefly, having Felix Leiter getting attacked by a shark while losing an arm and a leg in the process. That's right... Felix gets it even worse in the book, but just like in this film, he lives to tell the tale. And the punning note is in the book as well.

Getting back to Licence, Bond has a buddy who has a name just dripping with foreshadowing and also entirely locale appropriate, Sharkey (played by Frank McRae, a familiar face from Cannery Row and Red Dawn). Sharkey, in addition to being an agent, also runs a charter boat service that specializes in shark fishing. Sharkey and Bond sneak back to the aquarium after Bond proclaims, "Let's go shark fishing!" As Bond makes his way across from grated flooring above the water, he is startled and pushed back by the head of the great white shark coming up through the grates. Bond collects himself and makes his way up a ladder into the air, while Sharkey remains on their craft to eye suspiciously the lurking shark. Bond passes a series of small aquarium tanks inside and we briefly get the one shot where Dalton and a real shark are in the same frame, a small blacktip reef shark swimming benignly about for some local flavor.

Suddenly, Bond is intercepted by Killifer (McGill), who is skulking about carrying a briefcase containing two million dollars. Killifer triggers the mechanism for the trap door containing the great white, but he is tripped up as Sharkey opens another trap door. Killifer falls towards the open tank and grabs onto a rope. With the great white snapping just below his dangling legs, Killifer offers to split the money with Bond, but James throws the briefcase at him, causing him to lose his grip and give the great white (not really a great white) a fairly decent meal. Eyeing the carnage, Sharkey shakes his head in disgust and says, "What a terrible waste... of money."

A short while later, M arrives from London and Bond is ordered to Turkey for another assignment. Bond refuses and quits MI6, and has his "license to kill" revoked by his boss. Ordered under arrest, Bond escapes, swearing vengeance against Sanchez. Later, at the hideout, a submersible craft used by the drug runners to carrying out their business encounters what looks like a manta ray swimming along the ocean floor. They are ordered by Krest to ignore it, but this will turn out to be a mistake. The manta ray is really a clever and very improbable disguise worn by Bond to take control of one of their other submersibles so he can sneak into their hideout.

After getting into all sorts of mischief that I won't detail here, he ends up in the boudoir (naturally) of Sanchez's abused girlfriend, Lupe Lamora (Talisa Soto). Finding no interference from her, as Bond makes to leave, he spies the now dead Sharkey hanging on the back of his charter boat, alongside a pair of small sharks that were caught earlier. Bond steps out of the bedroom and shoots one of the thugs controlling the charter boat through the stomach with a speargun, yelling, "This is for Sharkey!"

For the first time since The Spy Who Loved Me, the use of sharks and shark references (though fairly lazy at that) actually figure fairly prominently in the plot of a Bond film. All of this shark nonsense occurs in the first 46 minutes of the film. The locale switches for the next portion to a casino in Vegas, but even though Bond and company return to Key West after that and engage in even more underwater action, the shark stuff is done for the film.

The remainder of Licence to Kill is all about Bond undercover as he earns the trust of the drug lord Sanchez somehow and then shatters his plot to hide cocaine inside gasoline and take over the drug trade in a still pretty rousing action finale using tanker trucks (and clearly influenced by the Mad Max films). Just don't ask me how in hell they got that one truck to balance on the wheels on one side like that (to avoid a missile); not just the truck but the tank as well. (Really... it's pretty crazy.)

I didn't even get to anything involving Carey Lowell, as a girl that Bond recruits to help him, and of course, to eventually get in the sack. Lowell, early in her career, is fairly stiff here as an actress, but man, is she cute. I fell in love with her instantly when I saw this movie in a theatre upon its release, and I was happy to learn that I still think she is a cupcake. Bond thinks so too, especially when she strips down to a still amazing swimsuit/lingerie (I have never been sure which) as they set up Krest for a violent fall. It's a one piece, but you won't remember that. And the looks that Dalton gives her as she reveals her swimsuit (and pretty much the rest of her) are about as dirty and leering as they get.

But this is the funny part. My memories of Carey Lowell in this film involve her being in the scenes where the great white comes up through the grates (maybe it is actually a "grate white"?) and where the trap door is opened, not Sharkey. I saw the film twice back then, but it has been many years since I saw it all the way through. Clearly, time has eroded my memory of the film, so it was good to get everything back in place again. 

Another image that had changed in my mind was the actual shot of the shark sticking its head up from the water. I had obviously supplanted it with other more recent imagery of sharks (possibly from documentaries) rising from the water, so when I watched Licence to Kill again, the picture just didn't seem right. It almost felt like there was some Lucas-style post-tampering going on here. Of course, there wasn't, because they would then use modern CGI to amp the shark up a tad and the whole thing would probably look even worse. Sorry, but I will take the shark puppet head any time.



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