Synapse unleashes Christopher Walken on Colombia
“He fought one war. Now, he’s fighting another. This time he won’t lose.”
James Glickenhaus is a pretty special guy.
From The Exterminator to The Soldier, to McBain, and his masterpiece Shakedown, the man wrote and directed some 1980s and 1990s action film staples that have stood the test of time in genre circles. (I’ve still not tracked down his Jackie Chan film The Protector, but I’ll prioritize that stat). Having been a partner at Shapiro-Glickenhaus Entertainment, he was also a creative force in bringing to life such other classics as Basket Case, Maniac Cop, and (another favorite of mine) Red Scorpion. These are cult films that may not have mainstream recognition but which will live on forever as beloved cult titles for fans around the world.
McBain? Well, I had an absolutely great time delving into the film (a first time watch for me) and its commentary track with Glickenhaus being interviewed by Chris Poggiali (who recently co-authored kung fu cinema love letter These Fists Break Bricks)… but the film itself isn’t the most inspired work of Glickenhaus’ catalog.
What is clear is that McBain is a message movie; an action film representing a particular kind of fantasy that I generally very much appreciate: the jaded Vietnam vet, feeling like they lost the war, having a chance to notch a win. I do tend to love action cinema as wish fulfillment, and cinema in general as a ticket to time travel or fantasy. It’s just that some films transport you to another world or another reality and others don’t quite hit that mark. A good comparison point for 1991’s McBain might be 1985’s Rambo: First Blood, Part II, or Chuck Norris’ Missing In Action films. But where Rambo, (“Do we get to win this time?”) captured the pop culture soul of our nation and allowed people to believe a muscle bound hero could wrench back victory from the jaws of defeat, McBain isn’t as heightened or fantastical, and in a weird way feels less successful as a result. It feels like McBain is saying if a few frustrated ex-soldiers would just take up the cause and fight the good fight, they could orchestrate a regime change with just a little grit and shoe polish (and a couple of rocket launchers complete with instruction manuals).
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We meet McBain (Christopher Walken) at the very end of the Vietnam War. His brave friends are already on a chopper out of the warzone when they spot a P.O.W. camp. They’ve got one last chance to free some fellow soldiers, and they take it. This is a pretty compelling opening and a fairly iconic action set piece where the men spring McBain from certain death and a life-long bond is formed.
Cut to 18 years later. McBain’s friend Santos (Chick Vennera) is now a Colombian revolutionary attempting to bring down a corrupt president who has allowed the drug trade to rule over the people. Santos is murdered graphically on live television and his sister Christina (Maria Conchita Alonso crushing it, as usual) seeks out McBain for help to repay his debt to Santos and to bring freedom to the people of Colombia.
McBain is a union man; a welder. He’s got a pretty nice, albeit blue collar, home in 1991 New York City. It’s frankly fascinating to see. His veteran friends are all experiencing frustration in their post-war lives and we get vignettes of each of them demonstrating that they’re kind of ready to get back in the shit and kick some ass again. A couple of my favorite character actors of the era such as Steve James (American Ninja) and Michael Ironside (Scanners) show up. And so, it’s time for our ragtag group of friends to scrounge up some revolution money by shaking down some drug dealers. After they murder a few of those guys and get a lesson in economics from single scene stealer Luis Guzman, they realize if they want any real cash they’ve got to extort it out of the mafia. Once Ironside’s character finally comes around and joins his old pals and brings some of that sweet, sweet arms dealer money he has accumulated, their revolution is funded and it’s down to Colombia for some Coup action. There’s a bit of an aerial battle, Christina rallies the people, and soon enough our rag tag heroes have viva’d the revolución.
McBain is a bit of a paint by numbers action movie in some regards, but there’s certainly enjoyment to be had. I’m personally a sucker for that era of filmmaking. I adore the cast here, with many of them doing very strong work. And Glickenhaus was able to bring in Christopher Franke for the score (Franke was part of Tangerine Dream and it shows here). There’s practical stunt work galore and McBain also took advantage of the era of genre films shot in the Philippines to get some great production value out of those experienced crews and killer locations.
I just get a little leary of the unique type of American exceptionalism that implies all Colombia needed was a welder from NYC and a few of his pals to bring their rocket launchers down for a weekend to liberate their country. McBain is earnest and tries to accentuate the idea that a person can be brave and step up and really make a difference with their life. And that is commendable enough. I just happen to be an American who has grown up watching our interventions in other countries lead to endless presumption, appropriation, and almost zero victory or progress. So if I step back from the fantasy of the good guys kicking the asses of the corrupt bad guys, I see a troubled premise that I can’t quite get past.
My understanding is that our friends at Synapse have the distribution rights for many of Glickenhaus’ works, and that just makes me happy. You can purchase many of his other titles from them as well. McBain is a title I’ve known about for ages but had never tracked down, so I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to check this Blu-ray release out. The film looks fantastic and I found the commentary track to be a strong one. Glickenhaus seems to be a pretty fascinating individual who has gone on to amass a fortune in business since leaving Hollywood behind, but has also been able to leave an indelible mark on cinema through his body of work.
So while McBain isn’t his crowning achievement in terms of storytelling, I think action cinema fans will be quite happy with an opportunity to see this unearthed film looking fantastic and complete with a strong commentary track. Come for the cast, stay for the Tangerine Dream score, and leave with a mildly icky regime change taste in your mouth.
And I’m Out.
McBain hits Blu-ray July 11th, 2023 from Synapse Films.