McBain is a prime slice of 80s action nonsense (it may have been released in 1991, but it couldn’t be more eighties unless it rolled up its sleeves and wore espadrilles). I’m not going to beat around the bush here. This isn’t a review. I’m just going to describe the film’s plot because it’s too hilarious.
Opening with a reasonably lavish action scene set during the American withdrawal from Vietnam, a group of soldiers are being picked up from the jungle by helicopter and spot what they think are POWs being held in a Vietcong camp. They elect to land and liberate the prisoners in an orgy of silent knifings, M16 fire and explosions. Just in time too as the evil VC are forcing them to fight to the death in a bamboo arena. The latest combatant is Robert McBain (Walken). Santos, one of the liberators, saves McBain’s life, tears a $100 bill in half and tells him that if the two halves are ever reunited he can repay the debt.
After this slam-bang opening, we catch up on Santos after the war in his native Columbia. The country is led by a despotic General who has grown rich off the drug trade. Santos leads a rebel incursion into the presidential palace taking the General hostage in the hope of sparking a popular revolution. However despite pleas to the President, US support is not forthcoming and Santos is executed on television. In New York McBain watches this on TV and while I’d like to say it makes his hair stand on end, it’s Chris Walken and it always looks like that (Walken fans are obsessive about the great actors haircuts).
Back in Columbia, the peasants of Santos’ village pool all their money and valuables and send his sister Christina (80s action stalwart Marie Conchita Alonso) packing to New York in search of McBain. She is sent off on (and I am not making this up) a donkey.
Christina and the donkey plod into a stirring montage of the noble suffering of the peasants cut to a power-ballad featuring such lyrics as “this is my song of freedom / this is my song against terror and fear / we are the power, we are the people / this is my song of revolution”.
Soon she is in New York City (minus the donkey) and tracks down McBain to the Brooklyn Bridge where he is a welder. Without due consideration of health and safety his colleagues point to the very highest strut and let her walk up without a hard hat. Once she reaches McBain she hands him her half of the $100 bill (how different this film might have been had she dropped it here) and Walken regards her gravely and says “I’ve been expecting you”. McBain then takes her to a diner were he responds to her tales of oppression and suffering in Columbia with a rambling and barely comprehensible speech about Woodstock, it’s clear from her expression that she has no more idea of what he’s talking about than the audience. It’s fair to say one of the best things McBain has going for it is Walken’s frankly psychotic line readings – the man could read out the breakfast menu in a NY diner and make you shit your pants.
McBain decides to get the guys together for one last job, they are all up for it except for millionaire Michael Ironside. “What? Do you miss the smell of napalm” he says, not unreasonably I thought.
So McBain has his team (Ironside will come around) but no resources. Undaunted they embark upon a mission to liberate the tired and oppressed poor of Columbia, by rolling up on a NY crack house and brutally killing some of the tired and oppressed poor of America and stealing the dealer’s money. Here there is a great cameo here from ever wonderful Luis Guzman, playing a dealer. Unimpressed with the carnage McBain has wrought around him he complains that McBain feels he is morally superior to him because the thinks he deals drugs to 8 year-olds, “you see any 8 year olds out there? All I see is assholes from New Jersey”. Turns out he’s a fellow Vietnam vet so McBain gives him a pass.
Their assault on NY’s petty street dealers doesn’t really net the millions they are looking for, so McBain then kidnaps a John Gotti-esque gangster and dangles him off a tall building whilst pretending to be from the Israeli secret service. Rather wonderfully Walken has decided that to concinvingly impersonate a member of Mossad means wearing a hat, sunglasses and doing an English accent. It’s fantastic.
Needless to say, money is gained and McBain and his crew head to Columbia to start a revolution. It is worth noting at this point, that McBain is not some sort of retired super soldier, he’s not Liam Neeson in Taken, he’s just a New York construction worker. Do not fuck with NY construction workers is the moral of this film.
So it’s off to Columbia (actually The Philippines) to wear Hawaiian shirts, kick ass and chew bubblegum. This journey by private jet leads to one of the most astonishing moments in all of action cinema. Hearing that a crack team of mercenary construction workers are heading his way General Asshole scrambles a fighter jet to take them down. What does Mccain do? He literally winds down the cockpit window, pulls out his 45 automatic, and shoots it down! Why didn’t Maverick think of doing that?
In truth, McBain rather runs out of steam in its second half. Once they reach Columbia it becomes apparent that the team members are barely characterised and do not have anything to do. There is not any real sense of peril or threat. However, the Vietnam opening and the section in NY are more than worth the budget price of the DVD (so long as you like dumb 80s action).
Efficiently directed by James Glickenhaus who made one of the original smash hits of the pre-VRA video library era, the notorious vigilante film The Exterminator (review of that gem here). Glickenhaus also produced many of Frank Hennenlotter’s films. McBain was the last film for cinematographer Robert M. Baldwin who shot Frankenhooker (another favourite) and Basket Case 2 among others.
Scarily in the interview included on the budget Arrow DVD release, Glickenhaus appears to believe his film is a serious statement which is frankly worrying. Then again the very obvious seriousness with which McBain is made is part of its charm. Try doing this with tongue in cheek and you end up with Sylvester Stallone’s Execrable Expendables.