What does a fading cowboy do when the West is won? By the 1970s John Wayne’s days riding the range were coming to an end as audiences turned away from the West and entered into grittier genres like the crime-thriller as epitomized by Dirty Harry. Wayne, hoping to remain relevant, decided to take a gamble and enter the world where actors like Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, and Steve McQueen found great success. Brannigan is an interesting experiment – Wayne’s second, and final, attempt at acting sans cowboy hat and spurs – even if it’s evident Wayne’s heart, and health, aren’t into it.
Chicago cop, Jim Brannigan (Wayne) is sent to London to extradite an American mobster named Ben Larkin (John Vernon). When Lark is kidnapped Brannigan must find the mobster before the kidnappers kill him.
This was Wayne’s least successful film, and he stated that after the failure of his other cop thriller, McQ the year before, he shouldn’t have tackled Brannigan. This could be bitterness at his inability to breakout into other genres, or the unappreciated fact Wayne worked through this film in spite of heart problems, a recent battle with pneumonia and the cancer which would claim his life four years later. His illnesses are in evidence even if Wayne’s avuncular charm is in evidence. There’s a wear to him, a tired melancholy that, no matter who he’s flirting with or talking to, the audience knows something’s off.
Then again, it might be easier to blame Wayne’s illness for the fact he’s miscast in this film. Wayne tries his hardest but Steve McQueen he’s not. Too often Brannigan plays like a third-rate Bullitt with Brannigan’s determination to take down Larkin before Larkin’s assassin takes out the detective. No matter the generic story, it’s refreshing watching John Wayne let his hair down (figuratively). Too often, Wayne was the gruff malcontent who wasn’t exactly known for being the life of the party. As Brannigan, the culture clash allows him to let loose. He can’t understand the formality of the Brits, especially Swann (Richard Attenborough) who doesn’t like the fact Brannigan uses a gun (apparently they use politeness on their criminals). The swinging 70’s London isn’t as prevalent as I anticipated, especially when the opening credits are played over 1970s porn music, but Wayne conveys the fish out of water story with aplomb.
The best moments are where Brannigan shows his lack of knowledge opposite Judy Geeson’s Jennifer. The movie prods a romantic relationship between the two, off-putting considering Wayne was 68 to Geeson’s 27 but the character of Brannigan was supposed to be played by a man in his fifties. It’s obvious Wayne isn’t keen on this so while the dialogue is flirty Wayne keeps things above-board. He’s definitely charming and flirtatious with Geeson, but he uses it more as proof he isn’t getting too old as opposed to being on the look-out to score. There’s a father/daughter relationship between the two, more than anything, understandable since Jenny’s father knew Brannigan and is no longer living when the movie kicks off. I’d have enjoyed watching these two solve capers as opposed to what actually ends up on-screen. There’s an easygoing rapport between Brannigan and almost all the Brits. While Swann isn’t a fan of the American’s tactics – his hysterical commanding of Brannigan to give him the gun made me giggle a bit because he’s John Hammond! – a tenuous friendship develops throughout the film.
The main thrust of the film is Brannigan’s capture of Larkin. Outside of a brawl in a pub, everything just felt derivative of other films from the era. Based on what I’ve read the climax is a direct rip-off, verging on plagiarism, of Magnum Force, but the cool cars and chase scenes are also reminiscent of Bullitt. The Duke was always at the forefront, inspiring the trends that defined the Western. Brannigan is just a movie eager to go with the flow, find out what works, copy it, and hope John Wayne’s starpower can lead to something new. It’s nice watching Wayne step out of his comfort zone, but he never seems comfortable in the morning. He always looks like he has a grimace, unsure of how to proceed. This could explain why the story feels unnecessarily complex. It isn’t enough for Larkin to send an assassin to kill Brannigan who, in turn, is trying to bring him home; we need to add a kidnapping and extortion plot, as well. There aren’t many loose ends left untied, none that I recall, but at almost two-hours the plot feels like the worst constructed Jenga tower waiting to topple over.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray includes the requisite isolated musical score which, to me, sounds like 1970s porn music so feel free to use that how you will. The highlight of the disc is Judy Geeson’s audio commentary with Nick Redman moderating. Her anecdotes about working with The Duke are cute. There isn’t a lot of revelatory information, but it’s great whenever Twilight Time gets the actors to reminisce about their experiences opposite the greats. Geeson also brings some home movies as a bonus feature but it’s mostly from the climax and runs about two minutes. The theatrical trailer and the MGM 90th Anniversary trailer are included also.
If you want to see what Wayne could do outside of playing a soldier or a cowboy, Brannigan is for you. The first half is very brisk and Wayne has a great rapport with Geeson and Attenborough. If you’ve watched any 1970s crime thriller you’ll notice all the conventions, just add Wayne, but it’s great watching the Duke at least tread the waters.
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