NEW YORK — HOLLYWOOD movies are usually geared to be popular and uncontroversial, so they can provide clues to what's going on in the American consciousness. A look at the new James Bond picture, ``Licence To Kill,'' shows a development worth noticing: the Contras of Nicaragua no longer have the respectability they enjoyed during the Reagan years. Bond's main adversary is a Latin American criminal who purchases Stinger missiles from the Contras so he can threaten to down an American airliner if the Feds don't lay off his drug-running operation. The film assumes that the Contras would sell their weapons to any high bidder, and that they wouldn't care if the bidder happened to be a psychotic criminal.
The bad guy only uses his Stingers during the final shootout with Agent 007, but the other key ingredients of his crookedness - drugs and money - are practically the stars of the movie.
This is another sign of the times, also visible in ``Lethal Weapon 2,'' a midsummer hit that arrived slightly earlier. In that picture, two Los Angeles cops chase a South African who uses diplomatic immunity to shelter his narcotics dealing.
South African officials and Contra-supplied Latins may be new on Hollywood's roster of stock villains, but as characters they're just facile variations on the Nazis, Commies, and other politically aligned antagonists who plagued heroes in bygone melodramas.
Like them, the new breed of heavy serves not only as a foil for the good guy but, more significantly, as a reflection of American xenophobia - a trait that plagues all manner of movies from Indiana Jones epics to back-alley exploitation flicks.
Bond is a ``foreigner'' himself, of course, but ``Licence To Kill'' minimizes Britishness by transplanting him to the Florida Keys and other locations near the United States, and by teaming him with a former CIA operative. He even resigns from Her Majesty's Secret Service at one point, becoming (just like the ``Lethal Weapon 2'' heroes) a vigilante on a purely personal vendetta. The movie also flaunts its America-first leanings with pointless inside jokes, including plays on the names of former President Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy.
The other hallmark of ``Licence To Kill'' is its violence, which is surprisingly vicious for a warm-weather entertainment with a PG-13 rating. Bond has always been a casual killer, of course, even in the days when Sean Connery played him with a savoir faire that hasn't been equalled. But his nastiness has been escalating, and it reaches an awful height in his new adventure.
One example is a moment when 007 has his antagonist completely subdued and dangling helplessly over a hungry shark. Instead of tempering law enforcement with mercy, Bond cheerfully tosses a heavy suitcase (stuffed with the villain's ill-gotten cash) at the bad guy, deliberately plunging him to a horrible death. All of which gives a chuckle to Bond's sidekick, who promptly remarks, ``What a waste - of money!''
Violence and xenophobia apart, ``Licence To Kill'' is at least as lively as most other current movies. One comparison is with ``Batman,'' which - according to one of my teen-age children - doesn't have enough ``bat-traps'' in it (a bat-trap being a fiendish device found in the ``Batman'' comic books for killing the hero). By contrast, ``Licence To Kill'' has plenty of Bond-traps, from the aforementioned shark to that old favorite, a conveyor belt leading to a deadly machine.
None of them work, of course, and 007 is sure to return for plenty more sequels. They may well feature Timothy Dalton; so I'm happy to report he's more human and less wooden in ``Licence To Kill'' than in ``The Living Daylights,'' his last outing. As unlikely as it seems, Mr. Dalton actually appears to be growing in the Bond role, which is potentially stifling because its own popularity has so rigidly defined it.
John Glen has directed ``Licence To Kill'' with the same dogged energy he brought to four earlier Bond epics. The supporting cast includes such veterans as Desmond Llewelyn, who has played the character called Q in all but two of the Bond pictures, and Robert Brown, who's played M since ``Octopussy'' in 1983. Also on board, in his film-acting debut, is singer Wayne Newton as an evangelist who's as oily as he is phony.
Footnote: In one more sign of the times, ``Licence To Kill'' is the first movie I know of with a Surgeon General's Warning at the end because of the on-screen use of tobacco products.
While this is a step in the right direction, I have two further suggestions: Leave those tobacco products on the cutting-room floor in the first place, and slap a Surgeon General's Warning on the whole movie - since its eager violence pollutes the filmgoing atmosphere at least as much as James Bond's cigarettes!