Monday, December 10, 2007

Too Much Politics

Has there ever been a serious analysis of John Wayne’s late career DIRTY HARRY knockoffs? Maybe a graduate student somewhere wrote a thesis entitled something like, “The Death of America as witnessed by John Wayne: McQ and BRANNIGAN in the shadow of Watergate”. Sounds pretty snappy to me.

In McQ Wayne plays a Seattle cop who beats up punks and uncovers police corruption. In BRANNIGAN he plays a Chicago cop who travels to London to extradite a subject and gets involved in a kidnapping plot. He doesn’t do much in the way of beating up punks, but it’s a good bet that if a punk wandered by he’d be taken care of.

Interestingly, referencing Watergate in relation to McQ actually makes sense as its story of citywide corruption being uncovered by the title character does make sense in light of what was in newspaper headlines at the time. Wayne plays Lon McQ, a Seattle Police Detective investigating the murder of his best friend and partner. He finds himself in the middle of a wave of police corruption and the drug dealers who are searching for a missing stash, or “junk” as characters are continually calling it. McQ actually resigns from the police department relatively early and spends much of the film as a lone gun, becoming more disgusted with what he’s turning up in this world that he thought he knew. “Too much politics,” he mutters as he tosses his badge and gun down. Directed by THE GREAT ESCAPE’s John Sturges, it moves along very much like the work of an old pro who knows what he’s doing. There’s a very good cast of familiar players like Eddie Albert, Clu Gulager, David Huddleston, Julie Adams, Colleen Dewhurst, Al Lettieri and especially the underappreciated Diana Muldaur as the partner’s wife. The Seattle setting, much of it shot on location, is well-utilized but best of all are a few pretty terrific chase scenes, capped off by a final chase along the beach on the Washington Peninsula which is a true beauty.

Yes, there’s plenty of DIRTY HARRY throughout, but there’s also a little bit of BULLITT (a credit sequence that sets up the plot before the main character shows up which features an easy-listening version of the main theme) and THE FRENCH CONNECTION (during one chase McQ drives under a freeway instead of under a subway, in pursuit of a subject). I’d have a problem with all this if it wasn’t so damn cool. And there’s a fantastic Elmer Bernstein score which practically blares out ‘SEVENTIES!’ but is purely and simply kick-ass. The expected double-crosses that the plot contains are never all that surprising after many years of similar cop movies and it’s hard not to notice that Wayne is a little too old to be living on a houseboat and driving a Firebird—seriously, he’s zeroing on seventy and he drives a 1973 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. I also challenge anyone to do a McQ drinking game where the requirement is to do a shot every time we see Wayne walk down a hallway. He seems to spend half the movie doing that.

The actor was already gone by the time the 1980-set NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN takes place but listening to Wayne’s McQ talk about disillusionment in the context of the early 70s, I found myself thinking of Tommy Lee Jones’s Sheriff Ed Tom Bell and wondered if maybe he’d ever seen McQ. Surely somebody like him must have seen every movie Wayne ever made. What did the Duke’s loyal western-loving audience think of McQ, anyway?

The much lighter BRANNIGAN, directed by Anthony Hickox, followed a year later. Wayne plays Chicago Police Detective Jim Brannigan, sent to London to aid in the extradition of gangster Ben Larkin, played by John Vernon as a stuffier version of his POINT BLANK character. However, Larkin is kidnapped just as Brannigan arrives and he has to work with the English cops to find him and deal with the contract on his life that has been put out.

The opening credits run over exciting shots of Chicago as a Dominic Frontiere score plays(not as cool as Bernstein’s McQ theme, but not bad) and this is followed by a brief appearance by KISS ME DEADLY’s Ralph Meeker as Brannigan’s captain. The first scenes play up how maverick an officer Brannigan is and it’s almost a shame that the entire film didn’t take place in Chicago since Wayne never seems quite as much of a loose cannon as we’ve heard about. Casting such a familiar face like Meeker in a small role almost makes it seem like this is a sequel to a BRANNIGAN set entirely in Chicago. It even brings to mind that BEVERLY HILLS COP sequel never made that would have followed Axel Foley on a case to London.

The kidnapping plot is actually fairly intriguing at the start, but the movie soon focuses as we simply follow Wayne around more than anything. It’s still pretty enjoyable but it seems a wasted opportunity that we don’t get more of Wayne and Vernon facing off against each other. We do get a decent chase scene, a brawl in a pub (“highlight is amusing brawl in pub”, says Maltin) and a track-the-suspect sequence which goes on way too long. Richard Attenborough is fun as the London officer in charge of the case—he’s the one who faces off with Wayne more than anyone, but it never gets too heated. Judy Geeson is very cute as the detective assigned to Brannigan even though we’re never sure if the relationship is supposed to be a flirtation or what—how much younger is she supposed to be, anyway? Lesley Anne Down also briefly appears in an early role. We get a lot of footage of Wayne traveling all around London as well as a plot point used in SPEED years later and an exploding toilet long before one turned up in LETHAL WEAPON 2. But in the end the movie comes up a little short. An anticipated confrontation never pays off as we'd like it to and when the credits roll it feels like there's a big slam-bang setpiece missing that either never got filmed or we simply never got to see.

I say McQ wins this round. It just feels more full-bodied in its story, action sequences, music and overall seventiesness. In both films Wayne of course seems too old to be doing this but even if I’d been there at the time I sure wouldn’t have told him that. It's pretty clear that he still would’ve been able to kick the crap out of me.


Anonymous said...

I just have one word: Flapamba.

Anonymous said...

I love the movies you write about Mr. Peel. I watched some of McQ again only the other night and it was highly enjoyable as a 70s policier in its chameleon way, and with that fantastic cast, but sadly my eyelids got the better of me. Wasn't Wayne offered Dirty Harry, which was originally written with an older man in mind - Sinatra, I'm told.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Anonymous--Flapamba? Is that something Elmer Bernstein uses in his McQ score? This is going to be a mystery.

Wyndham--Glad you like what you've seen of McQ. I think both of those actors were mentioned for Harry Callahan at some point. By the end of Eastwood's run in the role he actually was age-appropriate for the character as it was originally conceived. I really should check out THE DEAD POOL again soon.