Brannigan (1975) is a guilty pleasure. John Wayne, in one of his last films – he made only Rooster Cogburn (1975) and The Shootist (1976) after this – plays a fish-out-of-water Chicago cop in London, in a movie all too clearly inspired by the success of Dirty Harry (1971), a project originally offered to but rejected by Wayne. But Dirty Harry eventually grossed $36 million domestically ($18 million in rentals during its initial release) against a budget of just $4 million – and at a time when Wayne’s pictures were marginally successful at best.
Wayne responded with McQ (1974), a Dirty Harry clone much less enjoyable than the supremely ridiculous and touchingly elegiac though unrelated Brannigan. Most reviewers then and now unfavorably compare both films to Clint Eastwood’s now very dated Dirty Harry series (all but the first of the five films are virtually unwatchable today). The offbeat setting and obvious though entertaining cultural clashes are a plus, and Brannigan is more relaxed and less imitative of Dirty Harry, even though its premise resembles yet another Eastwood picture, Coogan’s Bluff (1969). Wayne, then 67 but looking much older with his deeply-etched features, big gut and bad toupee, is barely credible as an active police officer, but a few amusing lines of dialogue (“Get Brannigan! Use a forklift if you have to!”) amusingly address these issues while his relationship with co-star Judy Geeson is, thankfully, more paternal than romantic.
MGM holds the rights to this United Artists release. They in turn have licensed their video master to Twilight Time. There are some good extra features, but the transfer itself appears old and/or inadequate. It’s not terrible, but falls into that I-guess-it-looks-a-little-better-than-the-DVD category, as evidenced by the high-def trailer that’s also included. Using inferior source elements, it’s clearly sharper and brighter than the feature presentation.
The movie opens in Chicago (Det. Lt. Lon “McQ” McHugh was based in Seattle) where police Lt. Jim Brannigan (Wayne) bursts through a door, interrupting a small-time counterfeiter hard at work. “Knock knock,” Brannigan says, with exquisite John Wayne deadpannedness. He’s looking for notorious racketeer Ben Larkin (John Vernon, the Mayor of San Francisco in Dirty Harry) but Larkin, threatened with a grand jury indictment, has already done a runner to London, where Scotland Yard Commander Sir Charles Swann (Richard Attenborough) stands ready to arrest and extradite the underworld kingpin.
Brannigan’s boss, Capt. Moretti (Ralph Meeker) puts Big Jim aboard the next flight to London, where DS (Detective Sergeant) Jennifer Thatcher (Judy Geeson), Brannigan’s driver and liaison officer, is there to meet him. However, just as Brannigan arrives in London Town, cocky, confident Larkin is kidnapped by two hoods (one is James Booth from Zulu, the other is Straw Dogs‘ Del Henney) who make huge ransom demands from Larkin’s attorney (Mel Ferrer) – and who show they mean business by mailing one of Larkin’s severed fingers to Scotland Yard. Meanwhile, a hit man (Daniel Pilon) hired by Larkin back in Chicago makes several extravagant attempts on Brannigan’s life.
The cinematic Old West didn’t change much as Wayne himself aged. Conversely, it’s a little jarring to see him in then-present day London madly trying to jump the Tower Bridge’s drawbridge in a yellow Ford Capri. The film tries hard to be a fish-out-of-water Western in modern dress, even to the point of staging a completely superfluous comical barroom brawl (What exactly instigates it anyway?) that, minus the bowler hats and pints of Guinness, could be straight out of McLintock! (1963).
The movie works best watching the British characters react with dismay, disgust, or bemusement to Brannigan’s American swagger (he insists on carrying his flagrantly illegal handgun, all but telling an appalled Sir Charles to buzz off) and vice versa. In other hands Sir Charles might have been a painful stereotype, an English version of John Vernon’s Mayor character from Dirty Harry, but Attenborough nicely underplays his role, alternately amused if puzzled by the oversized American and only occasionally loses his cool, helpless against Brannigan’s inelegant meddling. Geeson, 41 years Wayne’s junior, is well cast: believably efficient and friendly but also clearly doing a job, she and Wayne have better rapport than many of Wayne’s late-career female co-stars.
Douglas Hickox directed. His short list of credits is nothing if not eclectic. His previous film was the horror-black comedy Theatre of Blood (1973), maybe Vincent Price’s best-ever film, and soon after Hickox would helm the vastly underrated prequel to Zulu, entitled Zulu Dawn (1979). Despite good reviews that film died at the box office. Hickox segued into television and died too young, in 1988.
The picture has a few good action set pieces, an excellent car chase undermined only by the sequence’s final stunt, clearly faked via some sort of optical or miniature effect. Though old and fat, Wayne in his old age still could throw a visually spectacular punch, and behind-the-scenes home movie footage shot by Geeson during the filming of the picture’s climax suggests Wayne may have thrown his considerable weight in other areas, influencing how at least his character should be photographed. (The home movies show something else likely never seen on any other Blu-ray extra: actor Mel Ferrer picking his nose.) The locations are used well. Scenes in Picadilly Circus show off marquees advertising The Sting and The Great Gatsby, while the nearby Picadilly Theatre promises A Streetcar Named Desire headlined by Claire Bloom and Martin Shaw.
Disc extras include an audio commentary by Judy Geeson, prompted by Nick Redman. The aforementioned home movies are limited to footage of filming the climactic scene, but they are interesting for showing Wayne’s particular way of filming such sequences. There’s an isolated score track featuring Dominic Frontiere’s frequently derivative music (a scene with Ferrer eluding the police sounds all too much like a cue Jerry Goldsmith wrote for Planet of the Apes, for instance; other cues are reminiscent of Shaft). Julie Kirgo offers some good liner notes, and there’s that better-looking-than-the-movie trailer.
Not a great film but far more entertaining than one might expect, Brannigan’s impact is undermined by a lackluster transfer but still a whole heck of a lot of fun.