MOVIE REVIEWS : Revenge . . . and Romance : 'Licence': A Darker Version of Bond

Time marches, age withers and everything falls into decay . . . except James Bond, still spruce and deadly after all these years.

The series has been with us since 1962 and, like many another old timer, tends to repeat itself. Yet, every once in a while, it pulls in its stomach, pops the gun from its cummerbund, arches its eyebrow and gets off another bull's-eye. The newest, "Licence to Kill" (citywide), is probably one of the five or six best of Bond.

At first, it's hard to suggest why. "Licence" (the title is deliberately anglicized) milks the formula as before: a mix of sex, violence and exotic scenery, with Bond on a one-man raid against an archetype of evil, while seducing women and taking in sights. Here, the locales include the sea-spray expanses of Key West and the garish palaces of Mexico City disguised as a fictitious "Isthmus City."

Yet the overall tone has gotten more burnished, somber. The new movie sends the new Bond, Timothy Dalton, on a desperate one-man vendetta against an apparently omnipotent South American cocaine czar. And it isolates him, kills or maims three of his best friends, strips him of his rank, his government, his very license to kill. It leaves him with almost nothing but his wits--and dear old chic-weapons expert Q (Desmond Llewelyn), who pops up ex officio with another bag of lethal cameras and exploding toilet accessories.

It even strips away a little libido. As Timothy Dalton plays the role--with wolfishly sad eyes--this is a more wounded and sensitive Bond than we've ever seen, the sort of Bond the late Laurence Olivier might have imagined. (The look is there, but not the lines.) Bond's appetite for sex seems more distracted, tentative. His women--Carey Lowell as a helicopter pilot and double agent, Talisa Soto as the drug czar's faithless mistress--are more self-sufficient. His armor has sprung a leak.

Where Sean Connery was wry and self-confident and Roger Moore natty and self-mocking, Dalton projects something strange for a hero identified with impeccable sadism: inner torment. The walk is tense; cigarettes pour out fumes of Angst ; the smile carries a hint of pain.

Connery always seemed to be enjoying the world hugely--and he carried the audience along with him, made them enjoy it as much as he did. Roger Moore didn't seem to be enjoying the world so much as ignoring it and, instead, enjoying himself--or perhaps some internal reflection. Dalton, by extreme contrast, doesn't project much enjoyment at all. He projects pain. And pain, obsession and revenge are what "Licence to Kill" is all about.

It's not a film about an urbane adventurer, moving with eerie confidence through a violent, chaotic world. It's a film about a bereaved friend, half-crazed with grief, relying on his instincts and professionalism to carry him through a situation rotten with peril. Like Stallone's Rambo or Eastwood's Dirty Harry, this Bond has been stiffed by the world and abandoned by his government. He is a loner, driven by overwhelming personal hurts--confronted with a cool, sexy foe who, in some curious way, almost recalls the old Bond.

Previous villains in the series tended to be older, more urbane, wicked paterfamilias figures. Instead, Robert Davi, a heavy in "Die Hard," makes Franz Sanchez--who's modeled on modern drug kings like Carlos Lehder of Colombia's Medellin cartel--a sexy adventurer who metes out rough justice with style and merciless sarcasm. And he has a code: loyalty matters to him more than money. Against this new-style villain, Bond, the dark angel, twists what seems to be Sanchez's only good quality--his insistence on loyalty--against him, trying to strip away his friends one by one and convince him of their treachery.

It seems to isolate Bond as well as Sanchez. Yet it leaves him with everything that counts: the gimmicks, the archetypes, the formulas, the old jokes of a full 27-year and 16-film tour of duty. Like all Bond movies it has its set-pieces, chief among them a roaring, rousing Mad Max-style climactic, exploding chase involving three Kenworth trucks, jeeps and a small plane set on a desolately beautiful Mexican mountain road. It's planned and staged with the exquisite carnage of a silent comedy car chase, with gags topping gags, and surprises leaping over each other--just as one flaming truck leaps over the plane.

Produced and co-written by old hands Albert Broccoli and Richard Maibaum (whose tour dates back to 1962's "Dr. No"), directed and co-written by new veterans John Glen and Michael G. Wilson, the movie whips up a combustible brew of old and new. Is it just updating the new cliches: the incessant car crashes, gruesome sadism, heavy hardware, feistier heroines? (Just as there used to be obligatory sexpots-in-distress, Carey Lowell almost seems an obligatory lone wolf.) Perhaps--but all those movies stole from the Bond films, too, often draining out the crucial elements that make them fun: self-kidding humor and exotic locales.

"Licence to Kill" (MPAA-rated PG-13, despite extreme violence and suggestions of sex) has the usual bursts of illogic, the gratuitous sex or violence. But gratuitous sex or violence have always been fixtures of Bond's world. Often the formulas grate on you. Here, they ignite. This is a guilt-edged Bond; there's a core of darkness and pain in the glittery world exploding around it.

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