Watching the Detectives: John Wayne is McQ

Stan Boyle, a friend of Lon McQ’s, is found badly wounded and the veteran cop is convinced local villain Manny Santiago is behind it, so he goes looking for a little payback. When he’s chastised by his superior, Ed Kosterman (Eddie Albert), for assaulting Santiago, McQ quits the force and searches for evidence that will prove Santiago was behind the murder (Boyle dies in hospital), but he discovers far more than he bargained for.

A John Wayne film directed by John Sturges is an exciting prospect but sadly the finished article failed to live up to its potential. Had they made a western together instead of a modern-day thriller things might have been different but Wayne is too old, too fat, and too out of his element in McQ for it to really work. Wayne’s westerns of the ‘70s had him, for the most part at least, aging gracefully, with his roles in Big Jake, The Cowboys, and The Shootist fitting the actor perfectly. Yet both the contemporary films he made that decade, this and Brannigan, have him playing a cop, when a man his age would have been pensioned off. Brannigan is the more fun of the two, it at least knows it’s silly and plays on that, but McQ plays it straight and is much the worse for it.

The idea of not one, but two, women throwing themselves at McQ is just one element that doesn’t sit right with me. Far worse though is the scene where McQ supplies Myra, played by Colleen Dewhurst, with drugs. There is something so fundamentally wrong with this that it’s quite unpleasant viewing. I’m all for actors playing against type, but Wayne isn’t doing that, McQ is very much an old fashioned western-style hero, even delivering lines like “Badmouth Boyle again and I’ll kill ya!” which makes that scene feel all the more out of place.

It’s not all bad though, Sturges may have been near the end of his career but he could still craft a decent action sequence. There’s a pretty good car chase, only let down by the fact that Wayne looks uncomfortable in the Trans Am he’s driving. The big finale on the beach is a classic western shootout, with horses traded in for cars and a Wayne swapping his six-shooter for a MAC-10 submachine gun.

Plot wise McQ makes little sense (why on earth would anyone hide drugs in McQ’s car?), the performances are adequate at best and the action only sporadically exciting, and yet I’ll quite happily watch this again (and I’ve already seen it several times over the years). Wayne has captivated me since childhood, and I’ll happily watch classics like The Searchers and Rio Bravo regularly and lesser films like McQ every few years. I do draw the line at The Conqueror though…

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