12 September 2009

Movie review: Brannigan

Brannigan (1975)
Directed by Douglas Hickox. Starring John Wayne, Richard Attenborough, Judy Geeson, Mel Ferrer, John Vernon, Daniel Pilon, Ralph Meeker

It necessarily follows that if I review McQ, I must also review Brannigan, the other John Wayne cop film made at the end of his career. If McQ wants to give the Duke his Dirty Harry, then Brannigan wants to give him another Clint Eastwood–Don Siegel film, Coogan’s Bluff. Interestingly enough, Wayne was only one film away from working with Don Siegel, on what would prove the Duke’s last movie, and one of his best, The Shootist.

It’s almost impossible to look up information on Brannigan on the ‘net without immediately finding a comparison to Coogan’s Bluff—look at me, I’m no exception. The concepts are immensely similar: a fish-out-of-water tale of a cop sent to extradite a prisoner in a world where he doesn’t fit, and therefore makes plenty of trouble for the locals with with a hard-n-quick manner of gettin’ it done. However, in Coogan’s Bluff, Eastwood plays a small-town, “Western” law-enforcer sent to the big city of New York. (Prompting one of the greatest tag-lines ever: “Clint Eastwood is giving New York City twenty-four hours… to get out of town!”) In Brannigan, Wayne is already a big city cop, a Chicago Police Lieutenant. He gets sent to another big city, but a very different one from the Windy City… London. This should be fun. “The Duke is giving London twenty-four hours… to take high tea!”

And Brannigan does end up as a lot fun. It would feel worthwhile if only for its mid-‘70s photography of London, but it has much more enjoyment to offer. It is lighter on its feet than McQ, aware that it won’t change John Wayne’s career and willing to have a good time with his image. Wayne gets a lorry-load of teriffic lines, and the script seems more aware of how to make use of the grand old man of action than the often stodgy McQ.

Fortunately, the movie doesn’t push the “John Wayne in London” angle too hard for the comedy, just enough for it work. It’s great hearing the Londoners pronounce Brannigan’s rank as “LEF-tenant,” and the Chicago cop’s opposite number in Scotland Yard berates him for wearing a gun all the time, but the movie never lets this stoop to the level of parody. The Duke does makes a crack about England’s free health care while pummeling an informant, but it got a laugh from me so I’ll let it slide. If anything, the problem with Brannigan is that it often spends too much time away from Wayne.

Lt. Brannigan is off to extradite general no-gooder Larkin (John Vernon) from England. Brannigan has a serious interest in Larkin, because an earlier arrest attempt ended in Larkin gunning down a rookie, and Brannigan feels he should have protected the lad. This is a bit of info that Brannigan drops into a conversation with perky English sidekick Jennifer (Judy Geeson), and the movie doesn’t need to press it hard. We know Wayne’s got a hankerin’ for laying down some justice, what more do we need?

But the trip to London won’t be a quickie vacation for Brannigan. Larkin’s slick lawyer Mel Fields (Mel Ferrer) is trying to arrange to get his client out of the U.K. before the Chicago cop can get his mitts on him. Fields has also hired an assassin, Gorman (Daniel Pilon) to get rid of the interfering U.S. cop. Brannigan has to work with Commander Sir Charles Swann (Richard Attenborough) on the job, but the job abruptly turns complicated when somebody kidnaps Larkin while he’s getting a massage. Amazingly, it isn’t an erotic massage, which shows that we really must be in London.

There’s a car chase, following United States law requiring a car chase in any cop film from the decade. Although it’s a short one, it is exciting, filled with low-angle photography of the fast-moving asphalt. The chase starts with a great Brit vs. Yank joke (the Duke gets into the passenger seat, expecting to tell the driver to “follow that car!” but of course he’s gotten into the driver’s seat without thinking) and concludes with the Ford Capri jumping the gap in the opening Tower Bridge. (Yes, I’m not a completely ignorant Yank, I do know the difference between the Tower Bridge and London Bridge.)

The film’s highlight is a barroom brawl that pays homage to the classic saloon fist-fight of the Western film, but happens to occur in a London pub. The scene plays mostly for laughs, and Attenborough gets in as many punches as Wayne does. It’s a good encapsulation of the whole film, which takes itself at just the right level of silliness while still delivering on the tough-guy action you expect from Wayne, even an aging Wayne. (It’s a bit obvious that the camera angle is hiding that Wayne’s fist is a full meter away from connecting with his victims’ jaws.)

Wayne is having a good time, and Attenborough is having the right kind of fun across from him. But it’s Pilon who steals the show as the groovy assassin who wears his sunglasses at night. It takes Gorman a long time—almost forty-five minutes—to get around to making his first killing attempt on Brannigan. In a Bond movie of the same decade, the assassin would try to ice Bond two minutes after the villain hired him. Gorman spends his time trying to strangle a hooker before he gets to the actual job of rigging the Duke’s toilet to explode, thus providing the detective a great view out the side of his hotel room. When Gorman gets around to making attempts face-to-face, he at least uses a Mauser, one of the coolest looking guns in history.

Dominic Frontiere, who did the score for the Clint Eastwood Stateside-Italian Western Hang ‘Em High, provides a robust score with ‘70s groove that sounds close to the music that Jerry Fielding was writing for Michael Winner’s movies of the same period. This is especially appropriate considering Winner’s version of The Big Sleep was set in England with a U.S. hero.

Damn, only two more Wayne films left after this one. At least they were both Westerns, and the last one was The Shootist.

Duke: “Well, I’m gonna miss this old town.”

Town misses you, Duke.