Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Brannigan
As mentioned a number of times before, Hollywood loves to chase trends. If that were not the case, there were be far fewer cheesy movies to love, dissect or deride. One of our major operating theses here is that the trend-chasing of the 1980s led to an unprecedented number of genre films both cheesy and great. But that era was not the beginning of major potion pictures chasing a a previous box office success. This week’s film, Brannigan, is from one of the trends Hollywood chased in the days right before Star Wars: the Dirty Harry rip-off. The Don Siegel-directed original was something of an anomaly in the crime thriller genre. Clint Eastwood’s Detective Harry Callaghan was one of the first major screen cops to break the rules while getting results. Before its 1971 release — and the release of The French Connection that same year — the Hollywood Production Code maintained police officers must always be portrayed as stalwart protectors of law and order: the Joe Friday archetype, you might say. When the Code gave way to the ratings system, stories of dirty cops began to filter into the world. Dirty Harry just happen to be one of the best in the new sub-genre.
And I have no problem saying its is leagues better than The French Connection.
To borrow a line from Vic Mackey on The Shield, studios wanted their own “different kind of cop.” So did actor John Wayne. Nearing the end of his life, he saw the cowboy flicks and war pictures he enjoyed making were in decline. Having turned down Dirty Harry, he wanted in on the new subgenre. Brannigan is one of two Dirty Harry inspired rips (the other being McQ), but it is by far the cheesiest of the pair.
Wayne plays Chicago Police Lieutenant Jim Brannigan. Known for his questionable tactics and tough manner, his captain is eager to get him on a plane to London. His assignment: escort fugitive mob boss Ben Larkin (John Vernon) back to the States. The simple extradition case becomes a city-wide manhunt when Vernon is kidnapped and his finger sent to Scotland Yard. While arrangements are made to secure Larkin’s release, Brannigan comes to London for the gangster, assisted by Detective Sergeant Jennifer Thatcher (Judy Geeson) and Yard Commander Sir Charles Swann (Richard Attenborough). His methods are quite uncouth when compared to the British form of investigation. And, for most of the film, they do not get results as Brannigan leads his police contacts into car chases, pub brawls and a number of other situations which would make sense in a Dirty Harry parody.
As an example: Brannigan soon finds himself the target of a paid assassin known as Gorman (Daniel Pilon). The hitman’s first attempt to kill Brannigan leaves him shooting at Thatcher because he somehow mistakes a 5’4” woman for John Wayne. A pattern quickly emerges in which Gorman keeps missing Brannigan. His assassination attempts get more elaborate, but his failures more ludicrous.
Which is part of the charm of the film. Like Clint Eastwood’s Sudden Impact, Brannigan‘s set pieces feel jokey despite the utter seriousness of Wayne’s performance and the direction of British filmmaker Douglas Hickox. Even the material which seems to be intentionally funny — Brannigan’s tendancy to be an ugly American around London — never seems pitched as comedy through Hickox’s lens. It leads to a fascinating disconnected as the characters seems even more at odds with an atmosphere more akin to Get Carter.
Wayne, for his part, delivers a dependable Wayne performances. He swaggers and assumes authority in all of his scenes, which often makes things funnier as the British crime drama is a more subdued affair than Wayne might like. Nonetheless, he is quite enjoyable as the boorish American out of his depth in a land of manners where even the crooks seem more respectable. Attenborough, playing up the more fussy and reserved aspects of the British sterotype, makes a fine foil for Brannigan in their scenes together. He’s particularly great in the pub brawl, where he finally has to join in the fisticuffs and seed Brannigan’s “enhanced” interrogation techniques can, indeed, get results.
But again, it is potentially satirical content like this play as seriously as Get Carter, which gives Brannigan its verve. McQ, directed by Ice Station Zebra‘s John Sturges, also attacks the dirty cop subgenre with seriousness, but without the fish-out-of-water plot, or Hickok’s uniquely foriegn take on the material, McQ fails to be funny or entertaining. In fact, those criticism tend to be true of Sturges films. Like a Sturges film, its more of a slow burn when compared to Starcrash or The Color of Night, but it offers some wonderful location footage of 1975 London when its not out to fit Wayne into a role he is uncomfortable playing or giving Gorman another chance to be the worst assassin in film history.
Brannigan is available for rent on the usual streaming services and on Blu-ray