John Wayne’s BRANNIGAN Doesn’t Quite Live Up to its Concept

It has to be said that, if nothing else, the setup for Brannigan is truly inspired: John Wayne, the dude whose poops are probably shaped like tiny Statues of Liberty, punching crooks in London Town?

That is a million dollar pitch right there!

And yet, it never quite pans out the way you’d hope.

As a potential hidden gem, it falters. As a response to the burgeoning supremacy of Clint Eastwood, it falters. As a display of the still sturdy charms of the living anachronism that is John Wayne, it is… not his best effort.

But as someone who is a conflicted admirer at best (that’s right; I read your Playboy interview), credit where credit is due: even when operating at less than his full powers, The Duke infuses just enough charm for this to be a relatively passable (if overlong) shoot-em-up.

Interestingly enough, the script for the film (co-written by Christopher Trumbo, son of Dalton, the sworn enemy of John Wayne) started out as a TV Pilot for a potential series starring Telly Savalas.

Far be it from me to pit the relative merits of Kojak against the star quality of Hondo himself, but you’d think that theoretical upgrade might merit such a transition from small to big screen.

And yet…

For his part John Wayne had already proven that he could adapt to the modern era relatively well. His earlier McQ wasn’t the equal to Dirty Harry, or even a mote in its eye, but the Seattle-set policier had its rowdy charms, and benefited from both a colorful cast of character actors filling out the margins and John Wayne instilling his oddly named copper with a delightfully lumbering attempt at modern grit.

He may have been far from his comfort zone, but director John Sturges knew just how to use him, and the result was a fun little flick, buoyed by Wayne’s winking ‘Can you believe I’m not in chaps?’ swagger.

That swagger is all but missing in Brannigan, which finds an unexpectedly lethargic Duke lurching through a pretty threadbare mystery. Considering the fact he was pushing 70 and already down a lung and some ribs, it’s not surprising that he might not have the spring in his step of earlier times, and that his punches don’t quite land with the beefy impact they once did. But what’s more surprising is that usual cocksure bluster is all but missing.

It’s entirely possible that Wayne was merely saving his energy to match up with Katherine Hepburn in Rooster Cogburn, which was released a mere eight months after Brannigan. But whatever the case, Wayne seems particularly wan here. There’s a shot of Brannigan hitching a ride on an airport shuttle cart which one assumes is intended as a goofy visual gag, but can’t help but evince a slightly melancholy aura at how the mighty have fallen.

That shuttle cart, as it happens, is escorting Jim Brannigan to an express flight to London, where he’s headed on a mission to extradite Ben Larkin, who is… some kind of drug criminal or something.

He’s played by John Vernon, so there’s really no question about his insidious bondafides.

And just by Vernon being Vernon, he winds up being the best thing about the movie, playing his louche, indulgent mob boss to the absolute hilt. He’s utterly hilarious and fantastic, as per usual.

So obviously he disappears soon after, the victim of a kidnapping by unknown parties.

So Brannigan’s initial retrieval mission quickly becomes a rescue mission, and he turns Blighty upside down in his nonstop efforts to get his man.

Like I said, not a terrible setup for a mid-‘70s cop thriller.

But the rather staid execution lets it down.

There’s a sizeable amount of location shooting, but strangely enough, little sense of Brannigan being a fish out of water, nor much in the way of British atmosphere. Despite sequences set in Piccadilly, a chase involving London Bridge, and a reference to a rasher of bacon, there’s not much about this story that would need to be altered if Larkin was hiding out in, say, Los Angeles.

Even the inevitable moment where Brannigan hijacks a car for an ‘other side of the road’ car chase (which culminates in the Duke jumping London Bridge, because if you go to the trouble of filming on location in London, of course you do that), it just doesn’t manage to muster the motor revvin’ dynamism one would hope for.

(I mean, really: how you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm once they’ve made The French Connection…?)

Other than the fun Theater Of Blood, director Douglas Hickox had an undistinguished career, ending up in television. A lively pub fight scored to ‘Let The Sunshine In’ notwithstanding, and unlike Sturges with McQ, Hickox fails to bring the sort of muscular energy that might elevate an otherwise staid programmer into something a little more electric.

(In fairness, though; his first film was The Giant Behemoth. So I suppose it was always going to be downhill from there, anyway…)

But while there are plenty of complaints to be made about how the film takes a clever high concept and screws the pooch, it has to be said that overall, the film isn’t so much bad as it is disappointing. It still has certain in its favor.

If nothing else, we’re certainly blessed with some fine British character actors classing up the joint, none more than Sir Richard Attenborough ‘tsk, tsk’-ing feverishly as the beleaguered Commander Swann, who acts as both partner to and riotously ineffectual foil to Brannigan.

Is it weird to see John Hammond genteelly laying down the law?

Yes, yes it is.

Also due some credit is Judy Geeson, turning the full force of her winsome charm on the role of Officer Thatcher(!).

In fact, what’s most pleasantly surprising about the movie is that it’s the character interactions that work the best. There’s a running thread about how Brannigan was last in London during the war, and how that shared history connects him to several of the minor characters. And Thatcher and Brannigan’s enjoyable interactions thankfully remain chummily platonic and professional (he even meets with her fiancee and apologizes for keeping her on the clock all the time). Swann’s continued efforts to politely ask Brannigan to give up his gun never cease to amuse… even if Brannigan doesn’t wind up using said gun as much as one would hope.

And Ralph Meeker shows up for what was clearly one day of shooting as Brannigan’s Chicago boss.

Still, always a pleasure to have him around.

The bad guys have their moments as well. Having already extolled the virtues of John Vernon, let us turn our attentions to Mel Ferrer, who manages a smarmy chemistry with Vernon as his shady lawyer/partner-in-crime. Their buddy-buddy back-and-forth makes one wish they got more screen time together.

The only disappointment on the villain score, unfortunately, is the paradoxically prolific and yet seldom seen Daniel Pilon.

As Gorman, a hitman hired by Larkin to take out our hero, Pilon cuts a sleek figure, but is let down by the script, which gives him little to do.

His too infrequent and mostly cartoony attempts to take out Brannigan (including a trap that may or may not have inspired a very famous moment in Lethal Weapon 2) cut him off at the knees, and he winds up feeling more pest than final boss.

But as we bring this review in for a landing, let us not end on a negative note. let us accentuate the positive.

We need to talk about the score.

The single biggest feature in Brannigan’s favor is the score by Dominic Frontiere, a bombastic piece of business so funky that I can only imagine John Wayne railing against it having the right to vote. The midpoint of the movie is an extended sequence in Piccadilly Circus tracing the delivery of Larkin’s ransom money, a set piece that seems to go on for forever and never manages to draw out the tension it’s clearly aiming for.

And yet… as underscored by Frontiere, it almost works, on sheer groove alone.

In the end, Brannigan doesn’t live up to the movie you picture in your head when you hear a pitch like “John Wayne as a modern cop stomping around London.” But it’s a film not without its own peculiar charms.

SPECIAL FEATURES: Audio Commentary, Trailers

Brannigan is now available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.

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