When asked to justify my go-to favorite Bond film, the ‘89 Timothy Dalton vehicle License to Kill, I’ve usually taken a practical approach: “Because they blow up six tanker trucks-worth of cocaine-laced gasoline and an entire monastery,” I say. That is, one of many reasons I enjoy and admire this installment is due to the fact that, in addition to being a solid, unapologetic sampler platter of the era’s hottest stars, political themes, technology, and leisure wear (all signs of a satisfying romp a la Bond) and a compelling story to boot, it also packs a very generous amount of firepower.
Most importantly, though, it’s firepower with a message: that James is pissed.
Watching him exorcise that anger on an astronomical scale is a deeply joyful thing. But the fury that sustains James’ tremendous rampage–one he initiates despite M’s (not unusual) disapproval, and which virtually drives the film’s entire plot–isn’t just, as the script would suggest, in response to his losing about two-and-a-half dear friends in the wake of Robert Davi’s smarmy drug-smuggling. Rather, the thing that really frosts James’ biscuit and seemingly sets him on a mission to destroy a record-breaking amount of stuff is, y’know, everything.
Just beyond License to Kill’s polyester ruffles lurks a film about the ‘real’ world of 1989: one in which women are still struggling for social traction; the U.S.’ “war on drugs” isn’t creating any additional health or happiness; the Cold War’s on its last, lukewarm legs, but people are still suffering; Thatcher, Reagan, and numerous civil wars have pillaged working-class millions around the world to within an inch of their lives and/or senses of sanity; and, in the West, Wall Street and popular culture have throttled the public with an unsustainable ideal of utter excess. As a result, people are understandably sick to death of the ‘80s and ready to move on.
It is at this moment in time and height of manic frustrattion that License steps in with a solution: lash-the-hell-out at what ails you. And, of course, do it in the high-’80s style that brought all of us to this enraged precipice: really, really big.
In the course of the film, James engages in a simply orgiastic series of destructive behaviors, each one of which would have the financial repercussions of several lifetimes’ worth of hard-earned paychecks (less taxes). Whether it’s tossing $2 million cash (and its slimy owner) to the sharks or methodically destroying tanker trucks and a monastery with nearly incomprehensible value, 007’s rampage serves to destroy many of the objects and causes of late-’80s frustrations (oil, drug violence, and flashiness among them) but also does so, with grim irony, in accordance with the excess en vogue.
A short, slightly fetishistic aside about the scale of Bond’s tantrum: say the wholesale price of cocaine in 1989, considered in 2015 dollars, was $67,400 per kilogram. In a single scene, then–one centered on, simply, an underwater act of vindictiveness, and in which a scuba-diving James drives his dagger into television-sized bundles of uncut cocaine, creating a billowing white trail on the water’s surface before magnificently commandeering a cash-stuffed seaplane midair (causing similarly sized bundles of cash to tear open and fall away)–our hero has personally destroyed at least $6 million worth of property, and in under four minutes.
James achieves all this not because those drugs would’ve funded a worldwide threat, or–as far as we know–because he personally opposes their use. Rather, he does it because he fricking feels like it, and, as a viewer who herself is not infrequently tempted to smash things, I couldn’t be happier about it.
In a 1997 review of Goldfinger, Ebert remarked that, “When it comes to movie spies, Agent 007 is full-service, one-stop shopping … He is a hero, but not a bore. Even faced with certain death, he can cheer himself by focusing instead on the possibility that first he might get lucky.” In this way, Bond films have always offered (at their best) the kind of whole-hog lark that can make a humdrum work week bearable, and even attempt to take on and quash our communal anxieties about the world, in their way (from Cold War paranoia to post-Murdoch lack of privacy).
The agent’s continuous survival inspires us, and every heavy punch, kick, insult, and bazooka-hit he lands–offered up as vicarious therapy for the audience–gives us enormous satisfaction. The films satisfy a rather serious emotional need with all their ass-kicking, and, for that reason, deserve separate and sincere appreciation for the spectacle they achieve.
Because sometimes what one really needs from the world of cinema is to see billions of dollars-worth of drugs, cash, vehicles, technology, and infrastructure blown up by an angry Brit. One who really f*@king means it.