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007 Could Use Friendly Bonding Agent

Times Arts Editor

Old James Bond just keeps rolling along, now wearing his fourth disguise (Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton) or, if you prefer, proving that reincarnation really works.

The mixture as before also keeps rolling along: a few slightly worn fetishes, like those agitated martinis, plus men who get along with a single initial (M, Q), plus an abundance of brand-new action, each concatenation larger although not inevitably more entertaining than the last.

The fact is that Bond has become a bit of a bore, and appears to be bored with his women and his lot. There is a sense of waste about the current proceedings, “Licence to Kill,” because Timothy Dalton is a very good and serious actor.

He lacks Connery’s mischievous grin and earthy earnestness and Moore’s lazy drawing-room insouciance. (What Dalton might lack that Lazenby possessed, memory does not recall.) Humor, broad humor certainly, does not flow easily from Dalton’s lips. He hints of a dark side that would probably go better with John Le Carre than with Ian Fleming. Yet he has an intensity that might serve the series nicely if the emphasis were ever to shift back from the special effects to the central figure.

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What Bond needs now is a little more Bond and a little less boom. You have only to look at “Lethal Weapon 2" to note the way a warm central relationship can take some of the curse off the explicit and excessive violence.

Both films make you uncomfortably aware of the ever-larger dollops of violence the film makers presume are required by audiences badly strung out on violence and requiring bigger fixes with each outing.

Whether this is an accurate reading of the audience is a good question. My guess is that “Lethal Weapon 2" will do as well as it does thanks less to the mayhem than to the charm and sympathy engendered by the partnership of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover.

It is all make-believe of the most commercial sort. This is not quite “The Brothers Karamazov” that Richard Donner has directed. But the film, in its larger-than-life way, portrays a friendship well within the bounds of believability.

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The difference, and it is crucial, is that “Licence to Kill” gives you some stunt sequences to be amused by, but it really doesn’t give you a damned thing to care about . And even a crowd-pleasing mind-blower as “Licence to Kill” is intended to be needs to provide the illusion that here is someone to root for, or root against.

“Lethal Weapon 2" has its own creative problems, including an attack on South Africa that is so arbitrary and heavy-handed that the most passionate opponents of apartheid are likely to wince because the attack is so wide of the mark and thus itself so easy to attack.

Then again, passion is what the original “Lethal Weapon” and its sequel have both had: the Gibson character’s private turmoils (established the first time out, paid off in the second film), the ordinary-man vulnerability of Glover, including his pride in and concern for his family.

Passion--as opposed to spectacle, which it has in quantity-- is what “Licence to Kill” lacks. Ah, yes, Agent 007’s best pal has been maimed and widowered by the villain and 007 has turned in his badge in the interests of revenge. Yet it is all a series of tableaux, as if there had really been no time to pause for moments of quiet feeling because the explosives crew was ready and waiting to get on with the detonations.

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What you have is less a drama than a diorama and it seems a pity, because in James Bond the late Ian Fleming (who died in 1964) created a series character as well suited to his time as Jane Marple’s to hers or Philip Marlowe to his, a hot Cold War warrior who fitted all sorts of fantasies of freedom in an increasingly tied-down society.

Fleming himself had increasing trouble sustaining the series without resorting to ever more ghastly villains and ever larger naughtinesses. Yet Fleming invested Bond at last with a wife he loved, and with the soul-withering anguish of her death.

Bond ought not to invade “The Brothers Karamazov” either, but it might give the series a richer lease on life if he played first fiddle to the special effects again, instead of second, and if he had a partner--any partner--about whom he and therefore the viewer could care.

A nice relationship goes a long way, as “Lethal Weapon 2" demonstrates.

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