Brannigan (Blu-ray Review)28 Jul, 2014 By: Mike Clark
Available via www.ScreenArchives.com
Stars John Wayne, Richard Attenborough, Judy Geeson, Mel Ferrer, John Vernon.
Though Warner ballyhooed it with my single all-time favorite instance of movie ad copy (“Wayne on Wheels”), 1974’s Seattle-based cop drama McQ fell short of being the campy lark one would naturally hope for after cheeky filmmakers came up with a hook that led to John Wayne donning an urban badge to combat a new (for him) kind of outlaw.
This cinematic nut job, made a year later when Wayne would only have two more screen outings to go) comes closer to being so — though you’d better know going in what you’re getting and not to expect the heavens to part. I once interviewed Brannigan co-star Sir Richard Attenborough when he was suffering just about the worst head cold I ever witnessed, and when I brought up this affable goof, his sinuses momentarily cleared as he shook his head in despair.
Oh, well. John Vernon, of course, is just the kind of adversary Wayne needed to have (in a non-Western, at least), and here he’s a bail-jumper who has fled Duke/Brannigan’s home base Chicago for a rosier time of it in London. Perhaps his skedaddle makes sense in theory but then there’s that pesky Scotland Yard — as personified by Sir Richard in a role as one of the Yard’s finest, who quickly clashes with his visiting Yank partner over police procedures. When Attenborough discovers Wayne packing heat in a London eatery, he lectures his new on-and-off Yank buddy about how this simply cannot be condoned — kind of a gun debate before its time. In this vein, Brannigan/Wayne later even injects himself into the current health care pros-and-cons by asking some lowlife whose arms he’s just pinned back if he wants to have the chance to take advantage of England’s free dental treatment. He doesn’t.
Having by this time apparently run out of young male singers to be paired with (Fabian to Bobby Vinton over the years), Wayne gets a much younger female featured player with whom to apply the patriarchal treatment: blonde Judy Geeson (heard on an enjoyable commentary here with Mr. Twilight Time himself, Nick Redman), who made my youthful self see God a couple times in 1968’s Here We Round the Mulberry Bush. Wayne stopped romancing younger women on screen after Donovan’s Reef, and hardly resumes it here, though you do get the sense that if the characters were, say, 30 years closer … maybe. Meanwhile, Yard hand Geeson has a boyfriend and mostly chauffeurs Wayne around a lot, though his penchant for being on the wrong side of baddie ambushes puts her in harm’s way (to reference a better Wayne movie). Geeson says on the commentary that she took over a role originally planed for Vanessa Redgrave — and wouldn’t that have been a political meeting of the minds?
The baddies include one slick one played by Mel Ferrer, which means it just goes to show that if you live long enough, there’ll be a chance to see Mel show in a John Wayne movie. When Vernon gets mysteriously kidnapped before the extradition can go through, Ferrer is the lawyer who tries to mop up the damage — though you don’t have to have seen every movie in the Maltin guide to sense that he’s not quite on the up-and-up. Other castings that might make you blink are Ralph Meeker (after what appear to be years of demon hooch) as a Chicago cop colleague; Lesley-Anne Down in a hooker role so brief that she’s on screen just long enough for us to realize that she still looked great; and, as a suspect, Del Henney — an actor known to U.S. audiences as the hooligan and former Susan George squeeze who initiates all the trouble that Dustin Hoffman and a bear trap eradicate in Sam Peckinpah’s nail-biter Straw Dogs.
By this time, a comical Wayne brawl in a saloon (or pardon me, pub) was to be expected, and the one here — like the expected cop-movie car chase — contributes to director Douglas Hickox’s inability to avoid a shaky tone. (His best-known movie was Theatre of Blood or, arguably, Zulu Dawn, which must have been something a different kind of experience compared to what he serves up here.) This said, the look on Wayne’s face when he exits the fancy car he has just totaled is worth the price of admission. In fact, it may even surpass this release’s other big moment: a shot, in Geeson home movies featured in the bonus section, of Ferrer picking his nose. I believe it’s a pinkie thrust.
For such a junky, if fan-diverting, outing, this is a handsomer release than expected given the severe limitations of United Artists DeLuxe Color of the day (in a word, ugh); Gerry Fischer either shot the film with more conviction than I’d remembered or someone did a little bench-pressing on the transfer. This is a modest release in a month where Twilight Time is also bringing out Woody Allen’s sublime Radio Days, but it tickled me some due to the outlandish culture clash smack in its center. Basically, this yarn is a crumpet washed down with a cuppa-hot-java. It won’t nourish you but won’t upset your stomach, either (though I guess it did Attenborough’s).