“McBain” is an unbelievably cheesy but hugely entertaining and very glossy action movie from 1991, which was both directed and written by action movie specialist James Glickenhaus (“The Exterminator”). Despite seemingly existing purely to facilitate a body count of staggeringly large numbers, “McBain” takes itself so incredibly seriously that nowhere does it even acknowledge that at the time of its release its name had already been appropriated by “The Simpsons” for the screen moniker of a character who parodies exactly this kind of gung-ho American-Mercenaries-Save-The-World nonsense through his uber-patriotic Arnold Schwarzenegger persona. Glickenhaus was unaware of the Simpsons connection and instead took the name from a character in Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West”, but Matt Groening could never have come up with anything that out-parodies the absurd nature of the A Team-inspired scenario which motivates the still amazingly large-scale explosive action dramatics seen here. Aside from featuring the kind of impressive explosive set-pieces which make it hard to believe no one was fatally injured during their shooting, the film becomes a sentimental romp through the politics of the Colombian drugs trade cartels, with a shoot ‘em up & blow ‘em up set of values scored to the sound of a synth ballad cover version of Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms and a po-faced late-‘80s-style soft rock opus about overthrowing Latin American dictators in order to be able to live in peace and freedom. The whole thing comes across as being intended completely and utterly sincerely in its presentation, while dealing in such a cartoon vision of the politics of the region that unintentional hilarity is frequently provoked. In the end, one simply has to go along for the ride as the eternally etiolated Christopher Walken becomes surely the most unlikely action hero imaginable, still with his fluffed-up angular hair and stilted manner, but now in the role of eponymous hero Bobby McBain, who takes down an entire Colombian dictatorship with just a small band of his aging ex-war buddies and a people’s army of peasants and children, in order to avenge the death of the man who saved his life back in the jungles of Vietnam. It’s massively absurd on every level but rivets the viewer boggled-eyed to the screen throughout, merely because one often can’t quite believe what one is seeing, despite the glossy Hollywood production values.
Glickenhaus explicitly refers back to Walken’s turn in “The Deer Hunter” with an opening prologue set back in the harsh glory days of Vietnam: the war has been declared over and so Roberto Santos (Chick Vennera) and a group of his buddies, which includes among them Frank (Michael Ironside) and Eastland (the mighty Rick James), are glad to be ‘coptering out for good . But on their way back to civilisation, they spy a POW camp hidden in the jungle, and unwilling to flee the scene leaving Americans behind to face the wrath of the Vietcong, they stage their own impromptu rescue attempt. After a bloodbath-orgy of throat-slittings, grenade attacks and machine gun slayings, the small detachment of soldiers manage to free a grateful Robert McBain (Walken) from a bamboo cage in which he was to be forced to fight to his certain death in a confrontation overseen by a cackling Vietcong commander with a necklace of human ears around his neck. When a stone-faced McBain somberly acknowledges his debt to Santos, the architect of his rescue hands him one half of a torn dollar bill and mentions that if the other half should ever find its way to him, then the debt is being called.
It is now eighteen years later, and Santos is the leader of a Colombian revolutionary army made up of poor peasants from the rural areas intent on taking back their country from El Presidente (Victor Argo) and the shadowy cabal of foreign drug runners who allow him to live like royalty in a massive presidential palace in the heart of Bogota, while his people suffer in poverty. Santos’ unlikely plan involves him and three others being smuggled in through the palace kitchens by stowing away in the boot of a presidential stretch limousine. Two of the president’s prostitutes suddenly produce machine guns and before you know it, Santos is live on TV from the Colombian President’s desk, urgently requesting that America send troops in to support their people’s coup. However, the CIA doesn’t know anything about this small-scale revolt and don’t have enough time to authorise any support operation. As El Presidente’s troops move in and start massacring the crowds of ordinary Colombian people who have gathered outside the palace gates, Santos hands his revolver to the President as a symbol of surrender on the balcony of the Complex, only to be immediately executed – shot in the head on live TV. Watching all this in a dive bar in New York is construction worker Robert (Bobby) McBain. It is not long before Santos’ sister Christina (Maria Conchita Alonso) sets out to track him down in order to call in his debt to her fallen brother.
The film’s whole approach to the subject matter (which clearly has some relevance today, considering what has been going on in Libya and the Middle East recently) is just about summed up by an ultra-cheesy montage at this point which depicts Christina setting out on her journey to New York in a series of images which show her first collecting the meagre savings (pennies, trinkets, dollars) of the noble poor of her rural village, then setting out through the jungle (by donkey of course, why else has she been named Christina?) and emerging in Manhattan, where she tracks down McBain to his place of work -- which just happens to be astride the Manhattan Bridge where the city can be seen soaring in the background; here she hands him the other half of the torn double dollar bill in a shot unknowingly poignant through its being composed with the Twin Towers framed majestically behind them. ‘I’ve been expecting you,’ Walken deadpans. All this is played out with a soft rock anthem piping away in the background. Surely they have phones in Colombia?
The small bag of meagre savings collected by Christina is not going to be able to finance a full-scale revolutionary coup, so most of the middle section of the film involves McBain drafting his old buddies who have all (rather improbably) done pretty well for themselves since leaving the jungles of Vietnam, but who at the same time feel slightly displaced in modern society, and would like nothing more than to see some action again and to be able to blow some more things up. Former army doctor, Dalton (Jay Patterson) is now a city surgeon who can’t cope with the pragmatic attitude to the job that life in a big city demands (we see him struggling to save a patient critically injured in a drug-related shooting, while a colleague urges him to give up because the hospital could really use the spare parts!); his friend Gill (Thomas G. Waites) is a disillusioned detective; Eastland (Mega cool dude Rick James) is a bodyguard for the chairman of an international arms company, and has had just about enough of its disregard for ethics in who they’re willing to sell to. McBain joins forces with them and looks to former ‘Nam buddy-turned-millionaire Frank Bruce (Michael Ironside) to help finance the operation and provide rocket launchers and state-of-the-art portable satellite tracking technology. The gang set out to secure additional finances by raiding a tenement that’s being used as a drugs den by Colombian pushers led by Luis Guzmán – who tells them to look further up the chain if they really want to find someone to blame. They do so (but only after having massacred everyone in the building) by kidnapping and then hanging a corrupt businessman from a crane suspended above a skyscraper, until he agrees to give them a large amount of his ill-gotten gains.
About two thirds of the film is taken up by all this sort of over-the-top business, in what is really just a slick, modern day update of the classic revenge Western. The last act is where all the action is, with McBain’s gang hijacking one of the light aircraft the Colombians use to ferry out their cocaine via Jamaica, and securing the help of a conveniently placed former ‘Nam pilot who covers their asses as they home in on the airstrip of the Colombian barons’ ‘drugs farm’, while a braless Christina leads another peasant army while wearing a boob tube (?!). There’s a fun Top Gun inspired sequence during which Walken confirms the craziness of it all by actually shooting the pilot of an enemy aircraft with a magic bullet -- firing his pistol from his cockpit and taking out the enemy without shattering either of their windshields! The Colombian army are shown to be total cads to a man by indiscriminately mowing down and blowing up women and children in the opposing People’s Army; lots of lookout towers, tanks and aircraft get blown up along with the disposable people, and the whole thing ends up in McBain personally repaying the debt owed his friend by making a house call on El Presidente.
All this is rather fun, it has to be said. There is zero characterisation (we know nothing whatsoever about McBain’s pre-Vietnam past and nothing about his life during the intervening eighteen years, other than that he works as an iron wielder), and no interest in saying anything serious about what is a fairly sober and complex business, other than pretty much any problem can be solved by Americans in loud Hawaiian shirts and dark shades being sent in to blow things up. However, the style of “McBain” is a world away from the current form of action movie in which the technique is one of hyperkinetic editing and relentless blaring noise. Instead we have long majestic camera sweeps in which large-scale carnage is wrought with beautifully choreographed action/explosion set-pieces which are often quite spectacular and awesome to watch. “McBain” is already a museum piece – they literally don’t make ‘em like this anymore. It’s a fun no-brain-required joy ride through early ‘90s popular action cinema and gets a lovely transfer here in its UK DVD debut. ArrowDrome’s disc comes with a short introduction by director-writer James Glickenhaus, who is also the subject of a ten minute interview on the making of the movie. The disc also includes a free booklet containing an essay on the golden age of American action films by Calum Waddell, and a reversible sleeve.