A look at how in 1991 James Glickenhaus gave us the quintessential 80s action movie… starring Christopher Walken of all people!
1991 gave action fans Terminator 2: Judgment Day, a groundbreaking modern action blockbuster. And it gave us McBain, a movie that went into the opposite direction, and invoked the spirit of 1980s hits such as Missing in Action, Rambo 3 and Commando. The film has not yet made its way into the canon of old-school action classics, but in this article we’ll argue that it absolutely belongs there.
McBain was written and directed by James Glickenhaus, who made a handful of low-budget gems in his relatively short career as director, such as the Jackie Chan actioner The Protector and the sleazy exploitation flick The Exterminator. He was also the co-owner of Shapiro-Glickenhaus Entertainment, a film distribution company that brought many cheap and charming horror and action flicks to the home video market in the 1980s and early 1990s.
UAMC Reviews ‘McBain’ (1991)
Err, wait. Wrong McBain!
Bobby McBain is freed from the Vietcong by a US army squadron, and promises to squad leader Santos that he owes him big time for this. 16 years later, Santos makes a botched attempt to depose Colombian dictator El Presidente, and gets killed. His sister travels to New York to remind McBain of his promise. He assembles a squad of fellow veterans, and after a weaponized fundraising spree through the underworld of New York, they join the rebel forces to free Colombia.
In the 1980s, a recurring theme in US action movies was the lone hero that goes on a rescue mission in a far away country ruled by Evil, and violently disposes of entire armies. Much has been written about how these films allegedly reflected the political view of the Reagan administration, and we’ll not throw ourselves onto this minefield in this article. It is noteworthy, though, that after Reagan’s term ended, this particular sub-genre slowly drifted into the realm of direct-to-video productions.
James Glickenhaus at his Genre Best
We can only wonder how Glickenhaus got the idea to make a film like McBain in the early 1990s, but one theory goes like this: In 1986, he watched the whole Cannon Group back catalog in one weekend, and fell into a coma afterwards. When he awoke five years later, he was infused with the ambition to create a medley movie dedicated to all of them, and McBain was born, an unthinking tale of patriotic heroism and full-scale mayhem!
The film is far from taking a one-sided political stance, though, as it also lashes out against incapable government officials and the CIA, as well as starvation wages and corporate greed. Nothing is subtle about McBain, the strange internal logic of 1980s action movies is completely pushed over the top by Glickenhaus, and the whole film is a chaotic assembly of genre cliches. In addition to ripping off classics like Missing in Action and Commando, the movie also is part vigilante flick, and to top things off even features an air combat sequence a la Top Gun.
Realism is completely thrown out of the window, some scenes have an almost comic-like vibe to it, and the whole movie feels like a parody on the genre at times. Glickenhaus also manages to create lots of fun for the audience with likable characters, corny jokes and bloody shootouts. It has all the elements that made Commando so great, just in a much less refined way.
Christopher Walken: Ultimate Action Hero?
Another unique feature of the film is the casting of Christopher Walken in the main role as Bobby McBain. Walken’s lanky physique and reputation as more of a method actor than a brawler seemed to make him less suited as an action hero, but his natural charisma and haunting gaze made more than up for this. Plus, he sports the same flat top haircut as John Matrix in Commando!
In McBain, he looks pretty bored for the most part, but even a Walken on autopilot owns every scene he’s in, and gives a unique touch to even the most profane lines. He also puts his own spin on the action scenes. Being a prolific dancer he elegantly hops up stairs and light-footedly jumps from one cover to the next during the assault on El Presidente’s palace. The rest of the cast all play it fairly upbeat. Especially Michael Ironside is great as always, and seems to be enjoying himself in his role as macho arms dealer with a ponytail and midlife crisis.
But, How Ultimate is it?
Apart from just pouring a ton of insanity over the unsuspecting viewer, McBain also shines brightly in the action department. Even though the attitude of the film resides firmly in B-movie territory, it is not a cheap production. There’s no originality to be found, but there are some monumental moments of large-scale destruction as the rebels and army forces duke it out with massive explosions, machine gun staccatos, and an enormous body count. It looks like Glickenhaus had a whole tank and jet fighter squad of the Philippine army (where large parts of McBain were filmed) at his disposal, and also seemed to have been granted permission to eradicate one of the country’s islands off the map.
Everything we love about the classics from the 1980s is compressed into McBain, a last great hurrah to old-school action cinema. There’s not a single dull moment, and time will fly for you with this film, as Glickenhaus takes us from one crazy sequence to the next in this cheerful inferno.