Thirteen years after The Deer Hunter, Christopher Walken returned to Vietnam for McBain. He’d visited a couple of war zones during those interim years - an African coup in The Dogs of War, Lebanon in Deadline - and even served as a drill sergeant in the Neil Simon adaptation Biloxi Blues. But this would mark his first return to the subject matter that earned him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 1979. The Deer Hunter, alongside other such notables as Coming Home and Apocalypse Now, was one of a number of films to treat Vietnam with the utmost seriousness, an approach that continued throughout the eighties with Oliver Stone’s multi-Oscar winning Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket and comparatively minor works like 84 Charlie MoPic and Hamburger Hill. Yet running concurrent to these award-winners and critical darlings was another strain of Vietnam film that had little time for politics or (auto)biography or anti-war sentiments. These were films such as Combat Shock or Chuck Norris’ Missing in Action trilogy or The Exterminator and its sequel, wherein Vietnam became nothing more than a backstory for its central action hero/vigilante/psychopath and a convenient excuse for either his excellent combat skills or sheer craziness depending on which side of the hero-villain divide he fell. Indeed, this kind of easy differentiation between the two sums up this particular sub-genre quite nicely: a cartoon world with little in the way of moral shading or complexity, just guns, explosions, more guns and a firm grasp on the ridiculous.
McBain fits easily into this second category. It was written and directed by James Glickenhaus, the man behind The Exterminator, and follows a similar trajectory. The Vietnam War is relegated to the opening sequence only: a ballad plays on the soundtrack, the end of the war is announced, and our platoon of heroes make their way to their chopper to head home. Except, as we’d previously learnt in Rambo: First Blood Part II and the first Missing in Action, some of the Vietcong don’t think the war is over and are holding onto American POWs. Moreover, they’re making them fight in bamboo cages-cum-arenas, which is where we first encounter Walken. Luckily, our platoon spots all of this from their helicopter and so decides on making a quick detour before heading home, one that’ll involve plenty of firepower, a few explosions and saving Walken’s neck. Such heroics come at a price, however, and so we can guarantee that as McBain moves into the present day we’ll be seeing Walken repay that debt…
The present day sees our platoon transformed into modern day heroes - a surgeon, a drugs enforcement agent (complete with nifty speedboat), a freedom fighter - except Walken. He’s currently working as a welder on the Manhattan Bridge and he’s got that spiky Walken hairstyle that seems to indicate a bit of craziness in there, one that’s ably matched by his pause-heavy intonations. It’s a job he’s soon to leave, however, as his freedom fighter pal ends up assassinated at close range (and in close-up, for an image that’s happily broadcast on American news channels!) whilst attempting to overthrow a Colombian dictator. His bereaved sister - played by The Running Man’s Maria Conchita Alonso - arrives in New York via another ballad and a tearful ride on the back of a mule to convince him to fight the good fight. All he needs to do is gather the old platoon together (amongst them Michael Ironside and Steve James), raise some money by tackling some drug dealers (including a young Luis Guzman) and evil capitalists in individual set pieces, and head over to Colombia all guns blazing.
The overall mix is one part sentimentality, one part comic book characterisation, two parts sheer absurdity and the rest occupied by ever escalating violence. In other words, subtlety be damned. During the interview which accompanies this new DVD edition of McBain, writer-director Glickenhaus talks about some very serious issues and how he was addressing them with this film. Yet how seriously can we take a film in which Walken shoots at a pilot from a cockpit in another plane and kills him instantly with that one shot? Or a film in which the evil Colombians are demonstrated as such by the manner in which they thoroughly enjoy killing and/or beating mostly women and children? Or a film in which the continuity has a slackness which suggests that our own heroes do plenty of women and children killing themselves as they set about attaching explosives to various evil Colombians’ jeeps and so forth? Or a film which purports to be anti-violence yet thoroughly indulges in it throughout, whether it be the sheer amount of hardware on display or the immense body count and the over-the-top deaths - why kill a drug dealer in a conventional manner when you can opt for a combination of being shot and a multi-storey fall with a car-as-landing-pad finale?
Yet if Glickenhaus’ claims seem seriously misguided, that’s not to say McBain is a bad film. It’s certainly a silly one, but then in order to enjoy you really do need to embrace that silliness. In this light, Walken’s cockpit-to-cockpit combat is a glorious moment, one that’s so unbelievable you feel like getting to your feet and applauding. Indeed, nostalgists for this particular type of ultra-violent, ultra-ridiculous action movie will find plenty to applaud, whether it be such over-the-top moments or the mere appearance of such action movie stalwarts as Alonso and Ironside - or, for that matter, Walken slumming it in such a picture whilst retaining his own distinctive rhythms and tics. They don’t make them like this anymore - despite Stallone’s best efforts with the latest Rambo instalment and The Expendables - and for that alone it makes perfect sense that Arrow Video should branch out from their recent video nasties and giallo titles and move into the arena of eighties ultra-violence. There’s likely to be plenty for them to choose from too, whether it be further Glickenhaus opuses or other unsung action ‘auteurs’ such as William Lustig or Nico Mastorakis. Arrow have already announced Glickenhaus’ The Exterminator and Lustig’s Maniac Cop for imminent Blu-ray treatment, whilst Mastorakis’ Nightmare at Noon, aka Death Street USA, starring Wings Hauser, Bo Hopkins, George Kennedy and Brion James, would get my vote Whatever gets released, let’s hope they prove as entertaining as McBain.
McBain is part of Arrow’s new Arrowdrome! line, a DVD-only set of releases that will encompass minor cult efforts such as Paul Naschy’s The Man with the Severed Head and Paul Glickler’s The Cheerleaders alongside standard-def editions of many of Arrow Video’s mainline releases with a lighter extras count. The packaging of each will be different from the Arrow Video ‘white box’ approach, but still adopt the reversible alternative sleeve approach. (For a clearer picture check out Arrow Films and Video’s ArrowDrome! gallery on their Facebook page.) More importantly, this new line also comes with at a much cheaper price tag.
In terms of presentation, McBain looks and sounds perfectly acceptable. The original 1.85:1 is maintained and anamorphically enhanced, whilst the original Dolby stereo similarly finds a place. The print demonstrates a little wear in places, but colours are vibrant, detail levels are fine and there is nothing untoward to distract the viewer. (I can’t confirm this exactly, but there is a strong likelihood that the existing Hollywood DVD released in the UK back in 2002 was framed at 4:3.) The soundtrack is similarly any discernible issues and solidly conveys each and every gunshot and explosion. Extras are limited to Glickenhaus’ interview as discussed in the main bulk of this review (totalling 14 minutes) and he also pops up when you first hit ‘play’ for an under-a-minute introduction. A booklet is also enclosed containing a newly commissioned essay by Calum Waddell.
McBain is currently available to purchase from today (September 19th) through Arrow’s website and HMV with a wider release to come on October 17th.