Welcome to The Prime Sublime, a weekly column dedicated to the underseen and underloved films buried beneath page after page of far more popular fare on Amazon’s Prime Video collection. We’re not just cherry-picking obscure titles, though, as these are movies that we find beautiful in their own, often unique ways. You might even say we think they’re sublime. This week, our pick is McBain, starring Christopher Walken as an action hero.
“Sublime /səˈblīm/: of such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe.”
James Glickenhaus doesn’t get the credit he deserves as a director of awesome schlock. That’s probably because he only made eight movies during his filmmaking career, the majority of which have been forgotten in the grand scheme of things. Most people know him for The Exterminator, a Death Wish-esque vigilante movie that features one of the most gruesome beheadings you’re ever likely to see in a movie. But his oeuvre is very entertaining, and some of his lesser-known movies actually attracted some famous actors. McBain — which isn’t about The Simpsons character — is a prime example.
What’s it about?
The film revolves around a group of former Vietnam PoWs, led by the titular character (Walken), who stage a coup in Colombia to avenge the death of their buddy. Before the soldiers overthrow any dictators in South America, however, they must raise the funds for the mission. To do this, they take to the streets of New York and extort money from gangsters.
After blowing some cretins to smithereens in the Big Apple, the middle-aged veterans bring their gung-ho mayhem to Colombia and chaos ensues. And by Colombia, I mean the Philippines, as it was much cheaper to shoot movies there at the time. Things get blown up, people get shot, and chaos reigns.
Joining Walken in the uprising are Michael Ironside, Steve James, TG Waites, and Jay Patterson. You can’t go wrong with that cast, even though this is the Walken show for the most part.
What makes it sublime?
Glickenhaus is a filmmaker who knows how to stage a good action sequence, and McBain is filled with some very enjoyable scenes in that regard. From aerial dogfights to bad guys dangling from rooftops, the movie delivers plenty of high octane thrills and moments of carnage. The movie is a nonstop barrage of badassery after it kicks into gear, and that’s the selling point. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Walken come crashing through a ceiling, and that just so happens to happen here.
McBain also packs a punch when it comes to the violence. While it isn’t as hard-edged as The Exterminator, the movie isn’t shy about showcasing the atrocities of war. For example, there are scenes where innocent villagers are gunned down that are quite disturbing to watch. But the film’s unapologetic and provocative elements are all part of its charm. These moments don’t make for pleasant viewing, but they elevate what is otherwise a pretty conventional actioner in many ways.
However, credit also must be given to McBain for its socially conscious aspects as well. It isn’t exactly a deep commentary on the state of world affairs by any means, but on paper, it might come across as a slice of American jingoism. It really isn’t. There is corruption on all sides in the world of McBain, and I admire that kind of cynical worldview in schlocky action flicks.
Much like Glickenhaus’s other movies, McBain follows characters who are quite lost. He likes fractured heroes who can’t fully adjust to civilian life following their combat days. Perhaps this a commentary on veterans not being able to find their way in regular society again. But his heroes aren’t one-dimensional, and this ragtag bunch is no different. It’s also great seeing Walken play the lead in a movie like this, as he isn’t exactly the most obvious choice for this type of role.
Glickenhaus is also one of the masters of grimy New York filmmaking, up there with other auteurs like Larry Cohen and Bill Lustig. McBain does venture into South America, but the Big Apple exploitation that the director is synonymous with is still present and accounted for here. You really get a sense of the streets and the era, which will appeal to movie fans who love genre flicks set there. The movie does a great job of maximizing its locations, and there is a sense of scale on display that manages to exceed the film’s low-budget constraints.
And in conclusion…
McBain is your average man-on-mission movie in many ways. However, the strong cast, fun characters, and abundance of carnage make for a good time. Fans of action B movies will have a lot of fun with this one, especially if they like their violence delivered with some oomph. It’s also great to see Walken play against type to an extent, even though his general stone-faced bravado makes him a perfect fit for this type of fare. It’s actually amazing that he didn’t make more movies in this vein, but at least he gave us this gem. The Deer Hunter might be his more acclaimed war movie, but McBain is just as good in its own way.