John Wayne wasn't just John Wayne anymore. He was the Duke, an icon and a star. He came to represent something bigger, something Wayne thought people needed to look up to. Because of that sentiment, he turned down some roles that he thought were too much against type. The two big ones? The Major Reisman part from The Dirty Dozen and the role of a famous rogue cop named....Dirty Harry. Wayne regretted not taking the part made famous by Clint Eastwood and went about fixing the issue. The result? Two cop movies, starting with 1974's McQ and following a year later with Brannigan (soon to be reviewed).
A longtime detective on the Seattle police force, Lieutenant Lon 'McQ' McHugh (Wayne) has seen everything there is to be seen. After years on the force, he's sick of the politicians and the glad-handing and all the garbage. He's interested in putting the crooks away, but now one attempted murder hits too close to home when his partner, Lt. Stan Boyle (William Bryant), is shot in the back with a shotgun with no witnesses. Boyle's chances aren't too good, but McQ intends to do something about it. Who shot his partner? The clues are there, and McQ begins to suspect there's a whole lot more going on than meets the eye. He begins to find evidence that could point to any number of trails worth following, from a high-level drug supplier to corruption within the police force. Can he piece it all together before those people he's chasing get him instead?
I've been a huge John Wayne fan for as long as I can remember. If he's starring in a movie, I'll give it a shot. Mostly, they're winners but occasionally there's a dud here and there. I'm looking at you The Conqueror. In this last portion of his career -- mostly the late 1960's and into the 1970's -- Wayne was making movies he wanted to make, movies he figured his fans and audiences wanted to see. Are they classics? With the exception of True Grit and The Shootist, no. On the other hand, they're F-U-N, movies like Big Jake, The Train Robbers, Chisum, The Cowboys and several others. So regretting not taking the Harry Callahan role (a big thank you from Eastwood), Wayne dove headfirst into the renegade cop genre. The winners? Us. McQ and Brannigan aren't classics, but man, are they ever fun.
The rogue/renegade cop movies of the 60's and 70's were everywhere, ranging from Bullitt to Dirty Harry to Magnum Force to The French Connection with plenty more in between. The crime thriller as a whole was at its absolute best. But a John Wayne take on the genre? Yes. Yes. The script gives him some nice touches to show he's a cool cop, like his houseboat, his Pontiac trans am, his efforts to stay involved in his daughter's life, even though ex-wife Julie Adams just couldn't take their marriage anymore. By 1974, Wayne was 66 years old, a little thicker around the midsection and sporting a toupee but you know what? He makes it look effortless. That no-nonsense, all-business attitude plays well as the frustrated cop role. Rules? Meh. Hippies? Don't bug him about them. Getting the crooks behind bars? NOW you're talking.
It doesn't matter the genre. It doesn't matter the script really. It's John Wayne, and he's going to make the most of it. The cast across the board is pretty cool. Eddie Albert gets to glare and snare as Kosterman, McQ's commanding officer who's sick of his take no prisoners attitude, and has some great scenes, two pros going toe to toe. Diana Muldaur plays Boyle's wife, always close with McQ, while Colleen Dewhurst plays Myra, an informant, waitress and drug addict who McQ milks for dirt. Among the cops on the case, also look for Clu Gulager, David Huddleston, and Julian Christopher while Roger E. Mosley plays a pimp/snitch, quite the one-two punch. And last but not least, Al Lettieri does what he does best...in be a slimy 1970's villain, this one a drug supplier with a checkered history with McQ so you know that's going to end well. Some fun parts to back up the Duke throughout.
If you're a fan of Bullitt, the Dirty Harry movies, or assorted other 1960's/1970's cop movies, you'll like this one. Director John Sturges does a good job using his on-location shoots in Seattle to give the story that sense of authenticity, and composer Elmer Bernstein turns in a cool, funky, jazzy score...that's still very clearly an Elmer Bernstein score (and that's a good thing). There's a really cool car chase through and around Seattle's highways about halfway through (just like Bullitt), and the shootout finale on oceanfront beach is very well-done as three 1970's boats, um, I mean "cars," tear after each other. Oh, and John Wayne gets to unleash a heavy-duty automatic machine gun.
Is it a classic? No way, but it is a heck of a lot of fun with a story that never really slows down and has some fun with twists you think you'll see. More than enough to recommend, and John Wayne is having some fun from beginning to end. What would it have been like if Wayne took the Dirty Harry role? We'll never know, but it seemed to turn out generally okay for everyone involved. I guess. Right, Mr. Eastwood?
McQ (1974): ***/****