Blu-ray Release: July 11, 2023
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 Stereo
Subtitles: English SDH
Run Time: 103:22
Director: James Glickenhaus
A prisoner of war named Robert McBain (Christopher Walken) is rescued in the jungles of North Vietnam by a group of Rangers, led by Santos (Chick Vennera). 18 years later, Santos is killed in Colombia while leading a fight against drug lords and corrupt politicians. His sister, Christina (Maria Conchita Alonso), travels to New York to enlist McBain’s help in overthrowing the regime. With the surviving ex-Rangers from his Vietnam rescue (Michael Ironside and Steve James), McBain travels to Colombia to break the power of the drug lords and avenge Santos’ death. (From Synapse Film’s official synopsis)
Writer/director James Glickenhaus’ career began in the grubby corners of the exploitation market with the vigilante fantasy The Exterminator (1980). While he never fully left the grindhouse aesthetic and mindset behind, he quickly broke out into the near-mainstream with highish-grade B-action movies, like his gritty James Bond variant The Soldier (1982), his dicey, Americanized Jackie Chan vehicle The Protector (1985), and the Peter Weller and Sam Elliott cop thriller Shakedown (1988), which is probably his best movie, overall. Glickenhaus was comfortable making likable programmers during the Reagan era, but wasn’t exactly built for the ‘90s. His first film of the decade, McBain (1991) was also his biggest in terms of budget and scale, but failed so miserably at the American box office that his next film, Slaughter of the Innocents (1993), was relegated to premium cable and his directing career came to a preemptive end after the similarly failed release of his first kids movie, Timemaster (1995).
McBain is a genuinely accomplished piece of work, technically surpassing arguably all of Glickenhaus’ other films without welching on the sleaze factor that sets him apart. It maintains a bit of that amateur luster seen in The Exterminator and The Soldier, especially in terms of the awkward, overly expositional dialogue that Glickenhaus himself wrote. The juxtaposition of attractive photography, adept blocking, and fantastic stunt work against weird editing choices, ungainly performances, and schlocky story content* ends up being a decent Hollywood compliment to similar Hong Kong mercenary movies from the previous decade. Glickenhaus even manages a few surprisingly poetic moments throughout the film, especially during the opening sequence, where he scores shots of US soldiers leaving Vietnam with Ann Corfield’s haunting rendition of Dire Straits’ “Brother in Arms.” The lyrical effect is then brilliantly undermined seconds later by an explosive, elaborate, yet extremely clumsy war camp rescue scene. That is the appeal of a James Glickenhaus joint. The director’s typical mean-spirited streak comes across as kind of tasteless this time around, considering its loose basis in real-world Central American events, but the film’s wildly inconsistent politics are actually pretty charming
What makes McBain so strange isn’t the admittedly odd fact that its title character accidentally(?) shares his name with a Simpsons Arnold Swartzeneggar spoof, but the fact that it has so much in common with John Irvin’s Dogs of War (1980, based on the novel by Frederick Forsyth) that it’s practically a remake. Or maybe a prequel? In that film, Christopher Walken plays a mercenary, who escapes Central America, only to find himself imprisoned and tortured by military police at the behest of an African dictator, who he eventually agrees to help overthrow. It perhaps seems strange that Walken, these days mostly known as a uniquely sinister and/or quirky character actor, would star in two such similar action movies, but he did win an Oscar portraying a Vietnam POW in Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) and appeared in at least one other war drama, Nathaniel Gutman’s Deadline (1987). Still, it is a little mind-boggling that he played a relatively straight-forward pulp action type between career-defining roles in Abel Ferrara’s King of New York (1990), Paul Schrader’s The Comfort of Strangers (1990), Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (1992), and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994).
Walken may be overqualified, but he still delivers, contrasting the action movie bombast with a strong, quiet performance. He’s surrounded by similarly capable actors, all notable names to one cult fandom or another, including Predator 2 (1990) and Running Man (1987) star Maria Conchita Alonso, Luis Guzmán (a few years before he became so ubiquitous), Michael Ironside, Steve James, Jay Patterson, and Patty Mayonnaise herself, Constance Shulman, in a bit part as a very bad surgical assistant. Everyone struggles against the same clunky dialogue and inconsistent character traits, but make it work, especially when paired off or grouped into teams with good chemistry.
* A similar story is spoofed in James Gunn’s Suicide Squad (2021) and Garth Ennis’ Barracuda comic book mini-series (2007). In Gunn’s case, the similarities are probably incidental, since mercenaries supporting a revolution is a relatively generic story trope, but Barracuda includes a Christopher Walken look-alike as its main villain, cementing the assumption that Ennis was familiar with McBain.
As mentioned, McBain was a massive flop and essentially released straight-to-video outside of the US. It eventually found its audience on VHS in 1992 via MCA Universal, who also put out a 1.33:1 Laserdisc the same year. There never was an official American DVD and the first Blu-ray edition was released by German company NSM Records way back in 2013 (it was re-released in 2018). Synapse’s 1.85:1, 1080p Blu-ray does feel like an older HD transfer in that it emphasizes clarity and color over texture and filmic qualities. In motion, these shortcomings aren’t really notable, but you can see a slightly fuzzy quality in the still screencaps on this page. On the other hand, comparing the Blu-ray to the European anamorphic DVDs, that clarity and especially its color upgrade is definitely worthwhile. The occasionally over-amped white highlights appear to be a stylistic choice, not a mastering issue, and contrast quality is otherwise quite good. Additionally, the largest chunks of print-based artifacting typically occur during special effects sequences, so I assume that it is some kind of compositing issue.
McBain is presented with original 2.0 stereo and 5.1 remix options, both in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio. The 5.1 remix is a major hit & miss situation, sometimes blowing the original tracks away with its volume and clarity advantages, but, other times, muffling the already mumbly dialogue. It’s ultimately a nice upgrade, especially in terms of incidental and environmental effects, which aren’t overcooked with directional upgrades, and Christopher Franke’s music. The score alternates between soft rock, moody synth, and exciting action cues. As I mentioned, the use of “Brother in Arms” is quite effective, though other pop music montages, like “Christina’s Song,” co-written by Glickenhaus and Franke, are less successful.
Commentary with director James Glickenhaus – The disc’s one major extra is a director’s commentary moderated by These Fists Break Bricks (Mondo Books, 2022) co-writer (with Grady Hendrix) Chris Poggiali. It’s a low-energy, but very personable track that has plenty of good behind-the-scenes factoids, especially whenever Glickenhaus discusses his inspirations (including musical), because he’s so open and honest about what he borrows from other filmmakers. The many anecdotes about the cast, the Filipino locations, and the state of the industry at the time are also nice. The Simpsons character comes up very early and Glickenhaus writes the naming similarities off as a coincidence.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.