The Vietnam war is over, but Bobby McBain is still incarcerated by the Vietcong as a prisoner. He gets freed by a US army squadron that was already on its way out, and promises to squad leader Roberto Santos that he owes him big time for this. 16 years later, Roberto leads the resistance army in the fight against Colombian dictator El Presidente. Santos gets killed in a botched assault on the presidential palace, and his sister Christina travels to New York to ask McBain for keeping the promise he made to her brother. McBain does not hesitate and quickly assembles his squad of Vietnam veterans. Together they raise the funds to assemble an army by harassing local drug dealers and corrupt corporate CEO’s. In Colombia, they join the rebel forces in their assault on the Presidential Palace.
In the 1980s, a recurring theme in US-American action movies was the lone hero that goes to a country ruled by Evil (mostly somewhere in South East Asia or South America), does away with the bad guys and frees someone from captivity. First Blood: Part II, Commando, and the Missing in Action series are prime examples of this plot archetype. These hyperpatriotic movies reflected the political view of the Reagan administration to a certain extent. After Reagan’s term ended, this particular sub genre slowly descended into the realm of direct-to-video productions during the 1990s due to a shifting zeitgeist, one may argue. But then came McBain. Filmed in 1991, this movie is a throwback to the old days, and on the surface it’s not too different from your average Chuck Norris movie. Yet there are differences that make McBain stand out from its spiritual predecessors by a wide margin.
The plot is a collection of genre cliche’s, and so are the characters, which are all one-dimensional. Everyone is overacting to the extreme, except Christopher Walken, who goes the opposite way in its portrayal of McBain. One could argue that his performance is disastrously detached and underplayed, but it adds such a counterpoint to all the hysteria that is going on in the movie, it seems to strangely complement it. Realism is completely thrown out of the window, some scenes have an almost comic-like feel to it, and the whole movie feels like a parody on the genre at times. It lacks the self-awareness and irony of a movie of such a kind, though. McBain was directed by James Glickenhaus, who we would not suspect of excessive irony when considering the movies he made before (among them the nasty semi-classic the Exterminator). Two other movies that coincidentally were also made in 1991, and that hit the same notes as McBain, were the equally hilarious The Taking of Beverly Hills and Samurai Cop. So in a way, the presence of movies like those renders contemporary parodies on the genre such as Commando Ninja or Kung Fury almost obsolete.
On the other hand, McBain is a solid action movie. There’s plenty of gunfights, explosions, and also a decent amount of air combat. The movie was shot in the Philippines (but is set in Colombia), and apparently the Philippine army gave Glickenhaus a few nice toys to play with. It’s by no means a cheap production, production values are high, and there are several almost monumental moments of large-scale mayhem. There’s certainly not a single dull moment in McBain.
The movie contains some rather outspoken criticisms of the CIA and corporate greed, which is something that distinguishes it also from 80s mainstream action movies. In a great sequence, McBain and his posse are attacking the local hideout of a New York drug gang, in order to raise the funds for their crusade. They kill everyone without prior warning, and put the gang boss up against the wall. Instead of begging for his life, he reacts highly irritated about their attitude to blame him for all the bad things happening on the street. He then starts a tirade about minimum wages, and the corporate gangsters that make a lot more money than him. McBain actually gets inspired by this, takes a CEO hostage, and hangs him from a crane on top of a skyscraper to get the money. That’s about when the slightly left-wing attitude stops, and our band of American heroes leaves for Colombia to take out El Presidente in a way that would have made John Rambo more than proud.
McBain is a magnified clone of traditional US 80s action movies. The mix of hysterical dialogues, overused cliches, and all-out action is something that should not work, but it does. And I guess it’s one of those movies where you can’t really explain why it is so likable, other than knowing that it just is.