Judge Paul Corupe feels lucky to see great direction in this miscast John Wayne urban western.
You've got to ask yourself a question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do you, pilgrim?
As the 1970s dawned, grizzled western hero and quintessential Hollywood tough guy John Wayne was pushing 70, but he hadn't slowed down one bit. With well over 150 films under his belt, Wayne somehow still forged ahead in his usual roles as righteous cowpokes and hard-hitting army colonels. With John Sturges' McQ, however, The Duke was reinvented as a tough-as-nails cop for the hard-boiled 1970s, a role he had yet to tackle in his almost 50 years in the motion picture business. Boasting an intricate plot and some eye-opening action scenes, the film nevertheless lacked the grit of contemporaries like Dirty Harry and The French Connection, and failed to give the aging Wayne a second lease on his career.
Facts of the Case
When Sgt. Stan Boyle (William Bryant, Experiment in Terror) is found with a slug in his back, his ex-partner Lon McQ (John Wayne, The Searchers) is on the case. He immediately busts up drug kingpin Manny Santiago (Al Lettieri, The Godfather) in a restaurant bathroom, prompting police Capt. Kosterman (Eddie Albert, Escape to Witch Mountain) to kick him off the trail and confine him to desk work. Infuriated and indebted to Boyle's widow Lois (Diana Muldaur, The Swimmer), McQ quits and hits the streets as a private investigator, uncovering a planned drug heist that puts the police force and the mob in the same dirty bed.
McQ starts out with a bloody bang as a mysterious figure hits the mean streets of Seattle and mows down several cops, before ducking into a greasy spoon where he is revealed as police Sgt. Stan Boyle. There, he waits for his connection, only to get a bullet for his trouble in a lonely alley. This haunting opening certainly whets the audience appetite for what's to come, but once 68-year-old John Wayne appears on screen as the intended target of a similar hit, McQ suddenly nosedives into oblivion. As an aging and out of condition Wayne slowly chugs around the Seattle docks, taking out street punks with his .44, the excitement of the credits sequence is lost and the film becomes something else entirely—a weird mash-up of 1950s western and 1970s TV cop show, presided over by a particularly tired-looking Duke.
Not that Wayne is bad in the film, he's just out of place—like the role was written for someone else, and he was slotted in at the last minute. The vowel-challenged McQ lives on a houseboat and drives a hilariously over-the-top Trans Am Firebird 400, and the film is chock-full of embarrassing scenes of Wayne putting the squeeze on a flashy streetwise pimp named Rosey (Roger E. Mosley, Leadbelly) and fighting off the advances of Diana Muldaur and a world-weary coke-addicted prostitute played by Colleen Dewhurst (Annie Hall). Very few of these moments are credible at all, especially when Wayne falls back on his unhurried Southern drawl to deliver slang-laced "zingers." The ending is especially ludicrous, with Wayne leaning out the window of his Trans Am taking out bad guys with a Mac 10 machine gun(!). Contrary to what the producers might have thought, Wayne doesn't look tough or cool in this film at all, he just looks lost.
Despite Wayne's presence and an overly complicated plot, McQ is bathed in a sheen of corruption and cynicism that keeps things interesting throughout. Released just two months after Dirty Harry's dirty cop sequel Magnum Force and seven months before Nixon resigned over the Watergate scandal, McQ is not afraid to point fingers and openly question authority. Sending McQ out on his own as a private investigator is a great twist on the usual "loose cannon" cop formula, a move that allows McQ to legitimately work from outside the system and play by his own rules under the tutelage of private eye Pinky Farrow (played by wonderful character actor David Huddleston, Blazing Saddles).
Interestingly, the look of the film doesn't really reflect the harsh portrayal of the streets and law enforcement, with slickly designed shots and lush interiors. McQ was directed by western movie veteran John Sturges, who was only four years younger than Wayne and was also at the tail end of his own career. Sturges is an amazingly competent director with an excellent track record for making entertaining films, and although his film feels like a glossy holdover from the glory days of Technicolor tumbleweeds and ten-gallon hats, McQ's got it where it counts, with some excellent action scenes. The film's centerpiece car chase is nonetheless exciting and well crafted, and puts the Firebird 400 to good use, even though it manages to rip off both The French Connection and Bullitt in the span of about two minutes. Viewers will discover that this early scene is little more than a teaser for the far more original climax of the film, a heated pursuit across Olympic Peninsula with flying cars and a suitcase full of drugs. Sturges' direction is easily the highlight of the film, and it seems all the more alive when Wayne isn't on the screen.
Warner's DVD of McQ looks good, but not great. Colors are deep and solid, although some scenes exhibit a noticeable softness, and occasional artifacts can be seen. Sound is presented in a passable mono, with dialogue and Elmer Bernstein's percussive funk score—which also feels slightly out of place—coming through crystal clear. There are only two extras here, one a typical six-minute Warner Brothers promotional featurette that includes a brief interview with Wayne, and the other a trailer gallery, which features McQ, as well as other John Wayne titles Tall in the Saddle, Fort Apache, Blood Alley, The Sea Chase, The Train Robbers and Cahill: United States Marshal.
McQ sees John Wayne moseying into the sunset of his career, one of a handful of films he made just before his death in 1979, including the similar, but superior, cop drama Brannigan. While McQ does have some great direction and a few action set pieces going for it, it's really the kind of film that would have benefited more from having an actor like Clint Eastwood in the lead. In the end, this film is really more a curiosity than anything.
Guilty of miscasting in the first degree.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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