After the success at the box office of The Living Daylights, the producers had the ambition to take the character to an even more exotic location where the character, up until that moment had never been before; China.
As it happened, the location proved to be too much of a risk at the time, and there were also other economic concerns that forced the filmmakers to take more of a low profile approach. The budget for the last movies had been steadily increasing for the last few titles, and in a move to try and keep costs down, it was decided that the crew would move to a place where costs could be kept to a minimum, while trying at the same time to maintain the same level of high production values the series was known for. The place of choice was Mexico City, and their famous Estudios Churubusco. It would also allow the filmmakers to film the bulk of the movie between the US, more specifically Florida, and then take a short trip across the border to shoot the rest of the movie in Mexico. Not only was Mexico a country that had never been visited by the production crew; the opening scene in Goldfinger had been filmed in Pinewood, but it also afforded the writers to tackle an issue that was on the headlines of every major newspaper around the globe; drug trafficking in Latinoamerica. It was also a daring move in that it would send Bond’s character on a personal vendetta, foregoing his usual emotional detachment and professionalism. The end result being one move ahead of its time.
When the idea of setting the new Bond film in China came to naught, the writers turned to the headlines for inspiration. The fight against drug trafficking, Latinoamerican drug lords, and corrupt oficials was the bread and butter of the main news agencies back then, and a very relevant, hot topic. Writers Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson immediately started working on a story that would pit James Bond, not against a rogue Russian criminal organization, or a madman bent on world domination, but against a Colombian drug lord by the name of Franz Sanchez, who after being captured by Bond’s friend and CIA collaborator Felix Leiter, on the day of his wedding, escapes police custody, and exacts revenge on Leiter, leaving the American agent on the brink of death and seriously mutilated, and killing his newly wed wife. Against official orders by the British goverment, Bond goes after Sanchez, having his licence to kill revoked in the process. In true Yojimbo fashion, Bond infiltrates Sanchez’s criminal organization, and starts sowing the seeds of doubt in the drug lord’s mind, and pitting him against the rest of his organization with the help of CIA pilot Pam Bouvier, and Sanchez’s girlfriend Lupe Lamora.
As you can see, this isn’t your run-of-the-mill, gadget-filled, Bond escapade; choosing to go down a totally different and darker path. Bond’s motivations in this occasion are revenge, pure and simple. In a way the writers and Timothy Dalton are doing here what Daniel Craig would be so lauded for years later in Casino Royale. Dalton and the writers had already made headway into turning Bond into a harder edged, more cold blooded character on the previous movie. Here they touch on his emotional side, giving us a more nuanced and deeper delve into his psyche. Emotionally unrestrained this time around, and pretty much left to his own devices, the character is hurt, feels and bleeds like never before. His outlook after his final confrontation with Sanchez, the ripped clothes and bloodied face, is not the guise in which we usually find the famous British spy, who normally seems unfazed by the dangerous circumstances surrounding his profession.
Unfortunately, one thing happened that put one more obstacle in the way of the production’s schedule. Right about the same time production on the movie started, a strike broke out on the Writers Guild Association that prevented Richard Maibaum from finishing writing the script with Wilson. With the production already on its way, and an ever encroaching release date on the horizon, Wilson was forced to finish writing the script on his own, and do further re-writes as the movie went underway.
For the part of the villain Barbara Broccoli came up with a very interesting choice; American actor Robert Davi. Davi researched the role thoroughly, trying to find out as much as he could about drug lords, the way they behaved, and lived. He got into the role so much that he even stayed in character whenever he’d go out with the rest of the cast, playing the part so well that the owners of restaurants and other public establishments really did take him for a real drug lord. Puerto Rican actor Benicio del Toro was cast as his henchman Dario. The actor was relatively unknown back then, but equally excited to be part of a Bond film. He became good friends with Davi, and they would hang out a lot off-set. He took the role so seriously that he even slashed one of Dalton’s fingers during a crucial scene. American stage, cinema and TV actor Anthony Zerbe took on the role of Milton Krest, the man in charge of smuggling Sanchez’s drugs by sea. Krest was a character from a short Bond story titled The Hildebrand rarity. In fact, Wilson and Maibaum took many elements not only from this short story, but from a crucial moment that takes place in Bond’s second literary outing; Live and Let Die. The passage depicts the maiming of Felix Leiter by the piece’s villain by hoisting him over a trap door, which when opened reveals itself to be connected to a shark tank. The sharks in the tank eat up Leiter’s left leg and arm, leaving him permanently mutilated. Other element taken from the short story The Hildebrandt rarity was the use of a whip made out of a sting ray tail, which in this case Sanchez uses to punish Lupe with when she runs away. For the Bond girls the producers recruited the talents of two American ex-models, namely Carey Lovell in the part of CIA pilot Pam Bouvier, and Talisa Soto as Sanchez’s girlfriend Lupe Lamora. Famous Las Vegas performer Wayne Newton steps in for the part of Professor Butcher, and the son of a known actor in the series, Pedro Armendáriz; Pedro Armendáriz Jr plays the part of corrupt President elect Hector Lopez. Pedro Armendáriz Jr’s father played the part of Bond’s contact and head of the Secret Service in Istambul Kerim Bey on From Russia with Love (1963). Armendáriz sadly was diagnosed with Cancer and committed suicide shortly after From Russia with Love’s shoot had been completed. The rest of the cast came back with Robert Brown as M, Caroline Bliss as Ms Moneypenny, and Desmond Llewellyn as Q, who fondly remembered this movie as the one he got to spend the most time on location. One other crucial piece of casting was that of David Hedison as Felix Leiter, reprising the role he’d already played on Live and Let Die (1973), being one of the few actors to act on more than one Bond movie, and play the role of Felix Leiter twice.
Keeping a low profile
Production Designer Peter Lamont was unsure at first about the feasibility and cost saving nature of moving an entire UK based filming crew to a country famous for its high crime rate, difficult filming conditions, and appalling air pollution levels. He was ultimately convinced by producer Cubby Broccoli that this was the right move, and the whole crew moved there to start scouting for locations. The air pollution levels would prove to be the biggest cause for concern for two senior members of the crew that ended up having serious health repercussions. Cubby Broccoli found the conditions unbearable, and had to return home and give up supervising the shoot as he’d always done since Dr No (1962). It also proved to be near fatal to Peter Lamont as he had to be rushed to a private hospital for a check up, and was diagnosed with a very serious heart condition. Fortunately, after a short period under treatment, Lamont was able to resume filming.
As soon as the crew got to the Churubusco Studios they saw the bad state of disrepair and maintenance the sound stages were in. It would take a large crew, and many working hours to get them back into some sort of workable shape. Fortunately for the British crew, the Mexican crew proved to be more than up to the task, and quickly got things up and running. There was also the problem of supplying building materials for the sets, which the crew had to be always careful enough not be overcharged for. For this they had to rely on Mexican crew members who could speak English and act as a go-between between the English crew and the suppliers.
Fortunately, with very little money, the help of a hard-working local construction crew, and the use of some stunning locations provided by both friends of the producers, as was the case with Villa Arabesque, the di Portanova state in Acapulco, which serves as Sanchez’s house, and Mexico City itself. The di Portanovas were good friends of the Broccolis, and allowed the crew to use their holiday residence which had a swimming pool for every room, an underground dining area and discotheque, and a funicular monorail that took the residents all the way up the mountain, or all the way down to the nearby Las Brisas beach. Everything was built with white marble, which proved to be quite a challenge for Cinematographer Alec Mills to light. Other stunning locations were those of the main Post Office in Mexico City, which serves as Sanchez’s personal bank on the fictional city of Isthtmus. The Gran Hotel Ciudad de Mexico serves as the hotel “El Presidente” in the movie. But the weirdest of locations must be that of the Otomi Ceremonial Center, up in the mountains in Toluca. This remote and secluded location was pointed out to the crew by the locals while scouting for locations in and around Mexico City. It was apparently sort of a monument built to the memory of the local Indias by a former President. It had been abandoned since then, but the crew was able to use it for Proffesor Butcher’s Olimpatec Meditation Center which serves as Sanchez’s cover for his underground drug-manufacturing labs. The crew was also able to build a fake underground entrance using a foreground miniature of a platform that rose up in the air allowing a helicopter to land underground. The platform was built to resemble the floor and design of the Meditation Center’s main courtyard.
All in all, and with the exception of a few hiccups encountered along the way, the shoot was able to carry on more or less undisturbed. Some problems, though, proved to be more of the supernatural kind.
Air, Water, Fire and Ghosts
As per usual, the movie was a showcase of amazing stunt work and special effects. Between the many action set pieces, we have two airborne stunts that, once again, required the unique talents of skydivers B.J Worth and his partner Jake Lombard, who take over for the scene in which Bond fishes Sanchez’s plane out of the sky by lowering over it, attached to a helicopter’s winch cable, and tying said cable to the plane’s tail. It was a very dangerous stunt that was tirelessly rehearsed on a mocap airplane placed on a gimble on land, before going up in the air to do it for real. Being as enthusiastic as he was about doing as many of his stunts as he could, Dalton insisted on doing all the shots with the mocap, much to the horror of Broccoli, who insisted Lombard perform the stunt himself. The aerial stunt, however, was performed by Jake Lombard himself, with close-ups of Dalton being taken from the footage shot on the plane mocap. Another piece of amazing stunt work was the scene in which Bond, being pursued by Krest’s frogmen after he jumps into the water, is forced to make a hasty, improvised escape by shooting a harpoon to the base of a seaplane taxing overhead, grabbing on to the harpoon, waterskiing behind it while dodging Krest’s henchmen bullets, jumping onto the plane mid-air after it takes off, getting rid of both pilot and co-pilot, and flying away with a $5 million bounty. The scene was achieved with the combined efforts of Ramón Bravo, who took care of the underwater photography unit, barefoot ski expert David Reinhart doubling Dalton for the waterskiing sequence, and B.J Worth’s team and Corkey Fornoff to take care of the aerial unit.
But the action set piece that takes the cake here is the amazing truck chasing sequence that ends the movie. Barbara Broccoli who, along with his stepbrother Michael G. Wilson had been getting more and more involved in the movies, first as a casting director, and also in this picture coordinating the truck chase sequence. It was a mammoth action set piece that took several weeks to shoot, on a solitary stretch of a twisty abandoned road in Mexicali, called the Rumorosa. It was a very dangerous stretch of road, which had a very disturbing history behind it. Apparently, the authorities had abandoned it years ago, and diverted the main road because of the high number of strange car accidents that had occurred there over the years. The local legend went that a minivan filled with nuns had died after a fatal car crash on this particular stretch of road, with a bunch of unexplained crashes, and weird occurrences happening on the exact same area the following years. While shooting there, the crew were witness to strange incidents like trucks turning on by themselves, crashing against rock faces, and all sorts of mishaps with electronic equipment and such, which added to the already stressful and difficult weather conditions, with extremely hot temperatures, and air pressure variations that proved difficult for the aerial unit to shoot the flying sequences. Almost all the special effects units were present for the sequence; with largely Chris Corbould taking care of special effects regarding explosions and such with the tankers, second Unit Photography team headed by Arthur Wooster shooting the bulk of the sequence, Paul Weston as Stunt Coordinator with Simon Crane doubling for Timothy Dalton for the very dangerous stunt of Bond jumping from the plane onto the truck, Rémy Julienne, who got in touch with, and had Kenworth alter several of their signature trucks with different rigs for specific stunts; one truck that could be used to do wheelies, another one specially rigged to stand on its side, and do a side wheelie, and another one that had a hidden compartment behind the driver’s seat with a back seat driver doing all the driving for the most delicate driving stunts, and John Richardson and his team on hand for the model work of the plane and flaming truck flying off the ravine. The crew had a few close calls, with equipment mysteriously exploding in the middle of the night, Corkey Fornoff in a woman’s dress and wig to double Carey Lovell for the aerial sequences being flown off-course due to the ever changing air pressure conditions, landing in the middle of a field, and being detained by the local authorities…but no incident was more freakish than that being captured by the on-set crew on camera. For the final sequence in which Sanchez, doused on gasoline, is lit on fire by Bond using the lighter given to him by Leiter and his wife, the crew captured a huge flame hand coming out of the resulting explosion. It’s a disturbing image, that strangely enough, cannot be seen on the film itself, but only as a still image captured on the day.
Financial and critical success
Even though the movie enjoyed fairly healthy financial success in the UK, and throughout Europe, it did not perform as well as expected in the US market. It did get mostly positive reviews across the board, with critics praising its more adult and grittier tone, phenomenal stunt work, and a very grounded and solid performance by Timothy Dalton. Unfortunately this was the Summer of 89, which was packed with sequels and blockbusters galore, with Tim Burton’s Batman, Back to the Future Part II, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade leading the way at the box office, which left little room for the latest, and grittiest Bond offering to date. It also didn’t help that the movie was rated 15 in the UK, and several violent scenes had to be trimmed in the US to give it a more favourable rating. In spite of that, and contrary to public belief, the producers were ready to get on with the franchise with Dalton as their leading man. Unfortunately, numerous failed script attempts to bring Dalton back, and the financial and rights issues in which MGM was entangled, would prevent Broccoli and Co to make another Bond movie for another six years, by which time Dalton was ready to give up the mantle.
Licence to Kill is a terrific Bond movie, but it is a very different one too; much in the same way Casino Royale would be years later. It takes the character out of his comfort zone, giving him emotional free reign, and showing a darker side to him, that not even Connery had the opportunity to explore during his tenure. Dalton is definitely more settled and comfortable in the role this time around, rising to the challenge. Everything about it works to perfection. With a darker Bond, we also get a more violent and sadistic villain to play with. Robert Davi is clearly having fun with the role, giving the audience something unique when it comes to the typical Bond villain. He’s no megalomaniac who wants to rule the world, but rather become a worlwide cocaine baron, with his fingers in every pie. As for the rest of the cast, they do a good job; with Carey Lovell getting to be more of a resourceful aid to Bond than a sexual conquest. In fact, as with the previous movie, Bond’s sex life is kept to a minimum; focusing more on the action, and less on the women. The stunt work, and special effects, as per usual, is astounding. Due to Broccoli’s refusal to allow John Barry to compose the movie’s title song, the producers settled on American Composer Michael Kamen to compose the soundtrack. It has that “Lethal Weapon” sound to it, that is so characteristic of the composer, but that works very well on this occasion. It sets the right tone, and it’s a wonderful companion for the action scenes.
It’s a pity that Dalton never got the chance to make a third movie. Had he had the chance to continue, he’d probably be more fondly remembered. As is, he played a terrific Bond. More in tune with the character as presented in Ian Fleming’s literary work. A trait that would sadly not be further expanded upon until the release of Casino Royale. If you’ve never given it a chance, please do.
Thanks for reading.