Tuesday, September 28, 2010


Initially, prominent Hollywood action director John Sturges and leading man John Wayne had planned to make "The Sons of Katie Elder." Wayne's declining health, however, prevented them from collaborating on that superb western that Henry Hathaway eventually helmed. Instead, Sturges and Wayne got together to make the urban police thriller "McQ," and "McQ" (***1/2 out of ****) ranks as one of the best of the modern-day police thrillers in the tradition of both "Bullitt" and "Dirty Harry." The Lawrence Roman screenplay, inspired by Roman's previous epic "Slaughter on 10th Avenue," is top-notch stuff with a genuine mystery attached to an otherwise highly serviceable thriller about a rogue cop. Veteran detective Lon McQ (John Wayne) has a vendetta to settle with the chief villain, Manuel Santiago, and McQ believes that Santiago put out a contract on his partner Stan Boyle. Yes, this formulaic plot is as creaky as "The Maltese Falcon," but Sturges and Wayne always pay off in spades.

This atmospheric actioneer is worth watching for several reasons. First, cinematographer Harry Straddling, Jr. lensed a really cool, careening auto chase across scenic Seattle. Second, everybody has memorable lines of dialogue. Third, Elmer Bernstein delivers another thumping orchestral score. Fourth, Hal Needham staged the first ever tumbling cinematic car stunt on the beach at the end. Fifth, John Wayne gets to wield the rapid-firing MAC-10 submachine gun in its motion picture debut. "Lon, it's not licensed," the firearms guy reminds him. "Jack," McQ replies, "neither am I." Remember Dirty Harry had his .44 magnum, so Wayne winds up with a variation on his old "Stagecoach" repeater. Sixth, Eddie Albert, despite one sudden haircut goof in an interrogation scene, stands out as McQ's fire-eating superior Ed Kosterman who blames everything on 'radicals.' Kosterman keeps his eyes glued on McQ from start to finish. Eventually, Kosterman assigns a cop, J.C. (Jim Watkins of "Cool Breeze") to shadow McQ because McQ has a history of police brutality. McQ is a "Die Hard" type cop. He does what he needs to so he can get what it wants. It's not often that you see John Wayne play a character who intentioned lies. Western television star Clu Gulager is on hand, too, in a first-class cast that includes "McCloud's" girlfriend Diana Muldaur, perennial tough guy villain Al Lettieri, Colleen Dewhurst, Julie Adams, and portly David Huddleston.

The complex plot opens with McQ's long-time partner Stan Boyle (William Bryant of "The Guns of Will Sonnet") putting three bullets each into two uniformed cops during the early morning breakfast hours. What McQ doesn't know is that Boyle is the one did the killing. Boyle doesn't give either man a chance to return fire. Later, at a rendezvous outside of a coffee shop, Boyle hands his murder weapon, a 9MM automatic pistol with a silencer, over to the mystery man who lets him have it with a shotgun blast in the back. The mystery arises over who did the killings. Captain Kostermann (Eddie Albert of "Roman Holiday") insists that radicals are behind these murders. Predictably, McQ believes that his arch nemesis Santiago (Al Letierri of "The Godfather")is to blame. As it turns out, Kostermann and McQ are both wrong!
Meantime, McQ wants Kostermann to assign him to Stan's case. "Personal involvement clouds clear judgement," say Kostermann and refuses to put in on the case. Kostermann reminds McQ about an incident in the past. "Lon, I know you. I'm not gonna stand for you making up your own rules. You're not going to pull that Mickey Peters thing again!" McQ is adamant. "Peters was a hood and everybody knew it!" Kostermann reminds him what happened to Peters. "Yeah, and you weren't satisfied with throwing him up on the roof! You had to go up there and throw him back down! Six months in the hospital! Four lawyers screaming about his civil rights!" McQ replies without flinching: "Well, it kept him off the streets, didn't it?" 

 Nevertheless, this doesn't keep McQ from making a complete ass of himself as he stakes out Santiago's premises. A tip from a black pimp, Rosey (Roger E. Mosley of "Leadbelly"), provides him with information about a team of gunmen that Santiago has imported. McQ also learns about two million dollars in cocaine and heroin that is scheduled for incineration at an undisclosed location. He follows it to a local hospital, has a mild run-in with a security guard, and then catches Santiago's men after they have stolen the drugs and are wheeling it out the door in a laundry cart. Just as McQ catches onto them, they blast away at him and scramble out of the parking lot in a laundry truck. McQ pursues in his sporty car and takes several short cuts across Seattle to catch up to the truck. Ironically, the minute that he catches up with the laundry truck, another laundry truck that is identical to the one McQ is following cruises into traffic. Now, McQ has two laundry trucks in front of him. One truck careens out of traffic and McQ tags it. He cuts the truck off and pulls it over. As it turns out, McQ stopped the wrong truck!!!

Nothing is a picnic for our hero. Later, he is trying to pull out of an alley and two 18-wheel tractor-trailer rigs box him in and slam repeatedly into his Green Hornet until it is a shambles and he is squished up in it. The villains, it seems, have been trying to separate McQ from his car since the outset when a car thief tried to swipe his car at the marina. No sooner has McQ left the Seattle P.D. than he persuades a local private eye, Pinky (David Huddleston of "Bad Company"), to help him get a P.I. license so he can take advantage of Pinky's cover. "I see it, do-it-yourself gumshoe," Pinky observes.

John Sturges, who helmed "The Magnificent Seven," "The Great Escape," and "The Satan Bug" maintains the suspense and tension throughout this 111 minute thriller and sets up one primary red herring in the Roman screenplay that pays off in the finale. Mind you, "McQ" is no "Dirty Harry." It doesn't address the legal complications of our flawed justice system, and the chief villain is a corporate type drug smuggler with a large company that he can hide behind as well as an expensive attorney who doesn't miss a trick.

Sure, John Wayne looks a mite long in the tooth to be playing such an athletic role, but he carries himself well enough and he has a genuine character to play. Incidentally, Wayne had a chance to play "Dirty Harry," but he turned it down. He doesn't have a bank robbery scene like Clint did in "Dirty Harry," but he has a scene where he nails a fleeing hit-man named Patty Samuels dead in his tracks on a Seattle dock with a well-nigh impossible shot. "That was the greatest shot," raves a dock hand, "that I ever saw." Interestingly, this scene resembles a scene from Sturges' "The Magnificent Seven" where Brett (James Coburn) fired at a man on horse just as the rider reached the skyline. Brett blew the horseman out of the saddle. Chico rhapsodizes about the shot, but Brett explains that he was aiming for the horse but not the rider!

"McQ" is an above-average thriller that every John Wayne fan must see!

An excellent book to peruse if you are interested in John Sturges, his life, and his films is Glen Lovell's top-notch biography on Sturges entitled "Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges." Mr. Lovell spent 10 years writing and researching this seminal text about Sturges.