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by Jack Sommersby

"A Third-Rate South-of-the-Border Actioner"
1 stars

Grossed a meager $456,127 at U.S. theatres, it just goes to show Christopher Walken just isn't a box-office draw.

For those who saw 1980’s outstanding The Dogs of War, which starred Christopher Walken as a mercenary who lead a coup against a ruthless West African dictator, they’ll see Walken going through similar motions in McBain, where he plays an ex-Vietnam War veteran leading a coup of a ruthless South American dictator, but the differences in the two movies is considerable. Based on an extraordinary novel by Frederick Forsythe, The Dogs of War sported a fascinating lead character, a first-rate supporting cast, interesting behind-the-scenes details of the months of preparation that went into orchestrating a coup, and consummate directing that propelled the story forth. It still ranks as one of that year’s ten-best, and repeated viewings have only reinforced its numerous strengths. Unfortunately for McBain, just a single viewing calls attention to its numerous flaws, and it’s so generic and lackluster that just the day after seeing it I found it a chore to remember more than five scenes from it. The movie begins in Vietnam, in 1973, when Walken’s soldier Robert McBain is rescued from a POW camp the very day the war has ended; one of his rescuers, Santos (Chick Venerra), tears a hundred-dollar bill in half and gives McBain one of them, telling him to keep it so as to cement their bond. We then forward eighteen years later to the village of Medellin, Columbia, where Santos is staging a coup of Bogota’s corrupt president whose military sadistically slaughters any dissenters; before setting off on what he suspects is probably a hopeless task, he gives his half of that bill to his sister, Christina (Maria Conchita Alonso), and instructs her if he doesn’t survive to seek out McBain, who’s an now an ironworker living in New York City. In a particularly unconvincing bit, after Santos has initially succeeded in his task, when the president’s army threatens to run down seven innocent women and children with their tanks, Santos relinquishes his gun to the president who then shoots him dead on the spot, and a cameraman who’s been filming the coup gets it televised in the States, where McBain, having an after-work beer at his regular bar, watches it in horror. (Would a TV news station broadcast such a killing? I think not.) Christina makes her way to New York to seek McBain out, though how her dirt-poor self of her impoverished village could come up with the round-trip air fare is anyone’s guess; so McBain, knowing he owed Santos for life, regroups his former fellow Vietnam veterans to finish what Santos started, and if that means kidnapping none other than the legendary mobster John Gotti to extort a ten-million-dollar ransom to finance the operation, so be it. The team does eventually make it to Bogotá (an entire hour into the movie), and from here we get a series of action sequences and preachy polemics and whopping coincidences that lead up to one of the most idiotic finales in cinematic history. In a running subplot, the U.S. president is hesitant to lend military support for the coup after Santos has gone on the air begging for arms to be furnished by the U.S., fearing the CIA has somehow been involved and wishes to avoid a rebuking by the U.N. Security Council. But neither the action nor the politics in McBain are worth giving a hoot about.

Then again, one doesn’t exactly expect something of quality from a B-movie writer/director by the likes of the acquired taste James Glickenhaus, whose resume consists of the Death Wish clone The Exterminator, the James Bond clone The Soldier, and the Lethal Weapon clone Shakedown. Glickenhaus isn’t entirely bereft of talent, but before where he displayed an undiluted love for moviemaking, even when you couldn’t really recommend the end results, here he seems to operating on autopilot, mechanically going from one sequence to another almost by rote -- there isn’t an ounce of pizzazz anywhere to be found, as if working on a bigger-budgeted feature rendered him on his best behavior so as to sate the studio who wanted something as generic and unchallenging as they could get so as not to potentially put off complacent, undemanding audiences. Glickenhaus doesn’t put himself out here, and by the thirty-minute mark we can already tell we’re not in store for anything even remotely memorable. (You can practically see Glickenhaus absently checking the requisites of the genre off on a clipboard while the cameras were running.) It’s hard to single out which is the movie’s biggest idiocy, whether it’s McBain in a plane firing a single shot from a handgun into the enemy’s jet cockpit and killing the pilot (gee, no bulletproof glass even in a military fighter?), him somehow easily enlisting the help of a U.S. fighter pilot who just happens to be flying in the airspace, him entering an air duct and crashing through a solid ceiling in the Bogota president’s fortress, and the president’s henchmen inquiring as to Christina’s whereabouts at a café yet somehow not being suspicious of obviously-Americans McBain and his pals sitting at one of the tables. (Funny how we don’t normally find ourselves nitpicking on things like this when the movie is actually entertaining.) Granted, there’s a nice piece of dialogue from a New York drug dealer justifying his occupation with, “Oh, I get it. Dealers of death. Who cares about people who sell drugs to eight-year-olds? Hey, man, you expect them to work at Burger King making $3.75 an hour? I pay them $200 a day. You know, they’re just tryin’ to make a living. Do I look like the kinda guy who could get a job at one of those glass towers?” Then again, the actor speaking this is that stalwart Luis Guzman of Sidney Lumet’s brilliant Q & A, whereas Walken, who’s even more of an actor, is basically sleepwalking. Missing is the spooked intensity he teemed his role with in The Dogs of War with (he lucidly suggested how a lifetime of violence could deaden someone’s soul and yet give him the only drive to go on living), and all too apparent here is the exhausting effort of acting. Both McBain the movie and McBain the character are woefully uninteresting. Luckily, those playing McBain’s comrades, Michael Ironside, Steve James, Thomas G. Waites and Jay Patterson don’t dawdle. They’re not exactly the Dirty Dozen, but they’re reasonably vivid and there’s not a minute when we want less of them. McBain was shot in some luscious locations in the Philippines, but the movie hasn’t much of a visual life: it’s burdened with boxy compositions and mediocre cinematography. There isn’t a single shot ithat conveys “the joy of making cinema.”

Give "The Dogs of War" a look instead.

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originally posted: 06/04/15 09:23:47
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  20-Sep-1991 (R)



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