Licence to Kill’s 30th anniversary: 007 falters in the U.S.

Licence to Kill's poster

Licence to Kill’s poster

Adapted and updated from a 2014 post.

Licence to Kill, which had its world premiere 30 years ago today, is mostly known for a series of “lasts” but also for a first.

–It was the last of five 007 films directed by John Glen, the most prolific director in the series.

–The last of 13 Bond films where Richard Maibaum (1909-1991) participated in the writing

–It was the last with Albert R. Broccoli getting a producer’s credit (he would only “present” 1995’s GoldenEye).

–It was the last 007 movie with a title sequence designed by Maurice Binder, who would die in 1990.

–And the it was last 007 film where Pan Am was the unofficial airline of the James Bond series (it went out of business before GoldenEye).

It was also the first to falter badly in the U.S. market.

Economy Class

Bond wasn’t on Poverty Row when Licence to Kill began production in 1988. But neither did 007 travel entirely first class.

Under financial pressure from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (which acquired half the franchise after buying United Artists earlier in the decade), Eon Productions moved the home base of the production to Mexico from Pinewood Studios.

Joining Timothy Dalton in his second (and last) outing as Bond was a cast mostly known for appearing on U.S. television, including Anthony Zerbe, Don Stroud, David Hedison (his second appearance as Felix Leiter), Pricilla Barnes, Rafer Johnson, Frank McRae as well as Las Vegas performer Wayne Newton.

Meanwhile, character actor Robert Davi snared the role of the film’s villain, with Carey Lowell and Carey Lowell and Talisa Soto as competing Bond women.

Wilson’s Role

Michael G. Wilson, Broccoli’s stepson and co-producer, took the role as lead writer because a 1988 Writers Guild strike made Richard Maibaum unavailable. Maibaum’s participation didn’t extend beyond the plotting stage. The teaser trailer billed Wilson as the sole writer but Maibaum received co-writer billing in the final credits.

Wilson opted for a darker take, up to a point. He included Leiter having a leg chewed off by a shark from the Live And Let Die novel. He also upped the number of swear words compared with previous 007 entries. But Wilson hedged his bets with jokes, such as Newton’s fake preacher and a scene where Q shows off gadgets to Bond.

Licence would be the first Bond film where “this time it’s personal.” Bond goes rogue to avenge Leiter. Since then, it has been frequently been personal for 007. Because of budget restrictions, filming was kept primarily to Florida and Mexico.

The end product didn’t go over well in the U.S. Other studios had given the 16th 007 film a wide berth for its U.S. opening weekend. The only “new” movie that weekend was a re-release of Walt Disney Co.’s Peter Pan.

Nevertheless, Licence finished an anemic No. 4 during the July 14-16 weekend coming in behind Lethal Weapon 2 (in its second weekend), Batman (in its fourth weekend) and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (also fourth weekend).

Glen and Maibaum were done with Bond, the latter being part of the 007 series since its inception.

Bond 17’s Fembot

Initial pre-production of the next 007 film proceeded without the two series veterans. Wilson wrote a treatment in 1990 for Bond 17 with Alfonse Ruggiero that included a deadly fembot. Scripts with other scribes were then written based on that treatment. But that story was never made.

That’s because Broccoli would enter into a legal fight with MGM that meant Bond wouldn’t return to movie screens until 1995. By the time production resumed, Eon started over, using a story by Michael France as a beginning point for what would become GoldenEye. Maibaum, meanwhile, died in early 1991.

Today, some fans like to blame MGM’s marketing campaign or other major summer 1989 movies such as Batman or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. But Licence came out weeks after either of those blockbusters.

And, it needs to be repeated, Bond couldn’t best Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, which also came out weeks earlier.

In the end, the U.S. audience didn’t care for Licence. The movie’s total U.S. box office of $34.7 million didn’t match Batman’s U.S. opening weekend of $40.5 million. Licence’s U.S. box office was almost a third less than its 007 predecessor, The Living Daylights. Licence to Kill sold the fewest tickets in the U.S. among James Bond films.

Licence to Kill did much better in other markets. Still, Licence’s in worldwide ticket sales represented an 18 percent decline from The Living Daylights.

Blood Is Thicker Than Water

Some 007 fans blame a lackluster U.S. advertising campaign. However, Michael G. Wilson said in 2015 that Eon “really run the marketing ourselves” and the and the studios involved “execute it.” Did that apply to Licence to Kill? Or was Licence somehow an exception?

For Dalton, Glen, Maibaum and even Broccoli (he yielded the producer’s duties on GoldenEye because of ill health), it was the end of the road.

Michael G. Wilson, despite his enormous impact on Licence to Kill, remained in place. Blood (even adopted blood), after all, is thicker than water — or even box office receipts.

A Bond 25 possibility

Rami Malek

No actual spoilers unless you consider a plot summary from a press release to be a spoiler. If so, move on.

So we don’t know a whole lot about Bond 25. Actor Rami Malek said he was going to be the villain but not much else. There was also a plot summary in a press release last week. One portion of that summary read:

The mission to rescue a kidnapped scientist turns out to be far more treacherous than expected, leading Bond onto the trail of a mysterious villain armed with dangerous new technology.

What follows is strictly speculation. But it’s well known that Eon Production never throws anything away.

One of its unused story lines was a 1990 treatment co-written by Eon’s Michael G. Wilson for Bond 17, which would eventually become 1995’s GoldenEye.

That treatment also featured technology as a McGuffin, specifically robots.

“The robotic devices refered (sic) to in this outline are complex and exotic machines designed for specific tasks and environments,” according to the treatment. “They are to be designed especially for the film for maximum dramatic and visual impact.”

One robot even masqueraded as a woman. “Nan is a lethal security robot!” is an actual line in the treatment.

Now, in the case of the Bond 17 treatment, the villain’s main plot was to take over Hong Kong from the British and Chinese. The British gave Hong Kong back to the Chinese in 1997, so that’s pretty much off the table.

Collaborative robots work in close proximity with humans.

However, robots have gotten ever more sophisticated since the Bond 17 treatment was written. New, so-called “collaborative” robots (known as cobots) are designed to work in close proximity with humans.

Today’s factory floors, besides having robots, have  artificial intelligence, “connected” devices that communicate with each other and tons of automation.

So there are a lot of possibilities if you want to make robots and other automation systems as part of some menace. Warning: I’d still avoid putting in a fembot into the plot.

Again, strictly speculation. That is all.

UPDATE, May 2: I should cited this example before. Boston Dynamics is developing four-legged robots capable of performing many tasks. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see how they could be misused by a criminal mastermind.

1990: Bond 17 treatment attempts a new direction

Timothy Dalton

In the spring of 1990, Eon Productions attempted to begin a new direction with its James Bond series.

Veterans such as screenwriter Richard Maibaum and director John Glen were gone following 1989’s Licence to Kill.

Michael G. Wilson, co-scripter of the previous five Bond films and stepson of Eon boss Albert R. Broccoli, worked with Alfonse Ruggiero, a television writer-producer whose credits included the crime drama Wiseguy.

For some, Licence to Kill came off as a bit drab. Locations were Key West, Florida, and Mexico. Its villain, Franz Sanchez, was a drug lord. A particularly powerful drug lord, but still a drug lord.

For Bond 17, Wilson and Ruggeiro appeared to want to make things more exotic, for what was intended as Timothy Dalton’s third adventure as Bond. Locations included Japan and Hong Kong.

Also present were robots.

At beginning of a treatment dated May 1990, there was this note: “The robotic devices refered (sic) to in this outline are complex and exotic machines designed for specific tasks and environments. They are to be designed especially for the film for maximum dramatic and visual impact.” More about that later.

The villain of the treatment is Sir Henry Lee Ching, “a brilliant and handsome thirty year old British-Chinese entrepreneur.” His plot is take over Hong Kong from the British and Chinese. His extensive business empire supplies key components for missile guidance, communications, navigation and weapon systems.

The female lead character is Connie Webb, “a beautiful American adventuress in her early 30’s.” She’s a former CIA agent who has gone free lance.

The robots involved primarily are industrial robots that malfunction, causing great calamity. Then, there’s the most sophisticated robot.

Sir Henry has a mistress named Nan. At one point, he emerges from a lovemaking session. “Through the open door Connie spots Nan laying prostrate on the bed behind a curtain of white flowing gauze.”

Later, Bond is reunited with Connie. But Nan appears “in form fitting corset and spandex shorts.” They decide they need to tie Nan up. However, Nan knocks Bond across the room. Connie tries her luck at subduing Nan. It is revealed….

“Nan is a lethal security robot!”

Of course, The Avengers television series had John Steed and Emma Peel deal with the Cybernauts in the 1960s. A few years later, the Austin Powers comedy films would have the International Man of Mystery coping with fembots.

This particular plot would not be produced and financial troubles at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contributed to a 1989-1995 hiatus for the 007 series.

However, the 1990 treatment shows that Eon was growing nostalgic for the Aston Martin DB5. Bond ends up driving one that has been revamped by Q. Bringing back the car was an idea that Eon retained.

The DB5 would show up later in the decade in GoldenEye and Tomorrow Never Dies. It appears to be the personal car of Pierce Brosnan’s Bond.

Daniel Craig’s Bond would win a left-handed drive DB5 in a poker game in 2006’s Casino Royale. He drives a right-handed drive DB5 (supposedly the Goldfinger car) in Skyfall and SPECTRE.