Wednesday, August 10, 2016

McBain (1991)

A more than mildly barmy action film, McBain was a box office failure upon its release in 1991, but has subsequently gathered a cult following.  Neither fact is surprising - as an independently produced film, McBain simply didn't have the budget to compete with contemporary studio-backed action blockbusters.  However, an action film which features Christopher Walken and his ex-Vietnam buddies tackling their mid-life crises by invading Colombia and helping local left-wing guerillas depose the right-wing regime and its drug baron backers, was always going to attract lovers of schlock movies.  Indeed, if it wasn't for the presence of a semi-name cast, headlined by Walken in the title role, featuring Maria Conchito Alonso as the female lead and boasting B-movie favourite Michael Ironside in a sympathetic role for once, the film could easily be dismissed as the sort of direct-to-video action clunker you'd typically find in the bargain bin at your local petrol station shop.  An impression reinforced by the fact that the writer/director is James Glickenhaus, best known for the low-budget vigilante flick The Exterminator.

But what lifts McBain above the level of simply being an average modestly budgeted action film is the air of the surreal which pervades it - everything, from the casting to the bizarre plot developments seems off-kilter.  Whether that was actually the director's intent, I don't know, but the end result is a weirdly entertaining film. The scenario is pretty standard: having had his life saved by fellow special forces guy Santos in Vietnam, Bobby McBain (Walken) vow to repay the debt one day.  Flashing forward to the film's 1991 present day, when Santos is executed in his native Colombia whilst attempting to overthrow the corrupt and brutal El Presidente, (having been let down by the CIA who had promised US support for his uprising), his sister goes to New York to find McBain.  Walken's McBain, now working as a welder on a bridge, seems motivated as much by the existential ennui which has enveloped him in civilian life as he is by any desire to repay his debt of honour to Santos.  His Vietnam buddies, variously working as a doctor, a cop, a body guard and an arms dealer are equally disillusioned with their post-war lives.

So, naturally, they decide to help the revolution in Colombia, first by raising funds to buy arms by extorting money from local drug dealers.  Which is where the weirdness really starts to set in, with Luis Guzman's street level drug boss giving them a lecture - after they've mown down all his lackeys - on how the drug problem is all down to the evils of the capitalist system. It's because all the poor non-whites in New York can't even get low paid jobs at Burger King that they work for him (he also pays better).  He suggests that if they want real money, they should extort it from the local Mafia boss.  Which they do.  This is one of several pieces of 'social commentary' which are, none too subtly, worked into the film.  In an earlier sequence, one of the vets is working as a body guard to a company chairman during a stormy shareholders meeting during which the board of directors are revealed as venal and corrupt, the film inviting a direct equation between corporate greed, organised crime and El Presidente in Colombia.  Whilst not subtle, it isn't the sort of thing you'd usually expect to find in this kind of action film.

Taking advantage of the fact that Ironside is now a multi-millionaire arms dealer who not only can supply the rebels with hi-tech arms, but can also provide a C-130 transport and fighter escort to deliver them, Walken and co effectively invade Colombia.  Wearing loud Hawaiian shirts, naturally.  In the process of doing this, Walken shoots down an F5 jet fighter with a pistol, fired from inside the cockpit of the light plane he's traveling in: incredibly, neither the side glass of the plane's cockpit, nor the fighter's canopy are broken. although the F5 pilot is apparently fatally wounded.  It just gets more bizarre from there, with the rebels defeating overwhelming odds to capture an airfield for the incoming planes to land on, then shooting down the rest of the Colombian air force with their newly supplied Stinger missiles.  Alonso and two of the vets capture the main TV station and she makes an impassioned plea to overthrow the forces of El Presidente live on air.  In the meantime, Walken is leading an assault on El Presidente's palace, which mainly involves driving an explosive laden tanker into the gates. It all climaxes with Walken killing El Presidente and the regime being overthrown by the rebels.

None of this really does justice to the movie's fundamental strangeness.  Part of its problem lies in a clear confusion over what its central message is meant to be. On the one hand, it seems to be condemning corporate capitalism and extolling the virtues of what is clearly a leftist revolution, yet also seems to be making a case for the virtues of free enterprise over state intervention - the CIA lets Santos down and throughout the film the US administration are shown as being incapable of action, whereas Walken and half a dozen Vietnam veterans succeed in overthrowing the Colombian government in a matter of days.  Mind you the film's grasp of US foreign policy toward Central and South America in the nineties is pretty much non-existent: the Colombian regime shown was precisely the sort of governments then President Bush the Senior and his predecessor Reagan had happily been supporting against left wing rebels.  To confuse matters even more, despite the film's apparent anti-corporate sentiments, writer/director Glickhaus later left the world of film making to work in corporate finance.

Despite its many lunacies, McBain is, on a technical level, quite slickly made, with decent photography and competently staged action sequences.  The performances are variable - Walken appears to have lost interest completely part way through filming, but still provides glimpses of his manic energy and strange diction - but hampered by a cliche-ridden script with a tin ear for dialogue. Unfortunately, the film tends to undermine any real tension by regularly staging utterly ludicrous sequences clearly designed to manipulate the audience's emotions and heighten the drama - Alonso climbs all the way to the top of the bridge Walken is working on in order to meet him, for instance, when it would surely have been simpler to wait at the bottom until he came off shift.   Later, there is a scene where a young revolutionary nobly sacrifices himself by destroying an army armoured car by sticking a grenade down its barrel -the scene is so ludicrous and cliched it evokes laughter rather than  the intended gasps of sympathy from viewers.  There are similarly cliched sequences littered throughout the film: Walken's doctor buddy saving the life of a seriously injured child with a ball point pen barrel and a pen knife, for example.  We also know the regime is evil because they mow down women and children (not to mention running them over with their tanks), whereas Walken and co only ever shoot characters clearly flagged up as villains.

But, in spite of all of this, you'd have to possess a heart of stone not to enjoy McBain.  In part, its pleasures lie in the fact that it evokes memories of other, better, movies as it unfolds.  The whole business of Alonso gathering the peasants' valuables in order to fund her trip to New York to find Walken is clearly inspired by The Magnificent Seven, while the business of Walken and friends extorting funds for the revolution from organised crime and drug dealers reminded me of another Walken film, Abel Ferrara's King of New York, which had been released the previous year, and featured Walken's gang boss raising funds for a local hospital through shaking down rivals.  The Colombian invasion sequences (filmed in the Philippines) are somewhat reminiscent of the early Schwarzenegger  vehicle Commando, in which he also invaded the base of a South American dictator, taking on and defeating a small army in the process.  Most of all, though, McBain is enjoyable simply because it is completely and utterly, barking mad. 



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