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Maybe he should have ridden into that sunset a little earlier: “McQ”

October 14, 2015

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So, here’s an obscure little artifact: a gritty ‘70s urban thriller called McQ starring John Wayne. Never heard of it? Well, don’t fret. You don’t exactly having a gaping chasm in your cinematic knowledge base. I mean, there’s a reason why when you think of John Wayne’s iconic roles, the irascible Seattle PD Lieutenant Lon McQ doesn’t exactly leap to mind. A big part of that is because this movie sunk without a trace from the cultural landscape. And a big part of that is because when I say “irascible” what I mean is “seemingly irritated to be there.”

So, yeah, McQ. Basically, Lieutenant Lon McQ is a hard-bitten cop on the means streets of Seattle, which is…well, it’s kinda weird. I mean, logically I know that Seattle existed as a city before the 1990s, it’s just hard to imagine it. I guess I just figured that grunge happened and then Seattle appeared from the Pacific Northwest fog like Brigadoon with an airline industry.

Yep, there it s.

Yep, there it is.

McQ opens with a dude blowing away cops. Oh no! Do we have a radical like the ones in Magnum Force? Or a lone-wolf assassin like the Scorpio killer in Dirty Harry? Aha! No, we see that the killer has a badge on his belt. He’s then executed by another dude with a shotgun. Tough break, I guess.

Enter McQ. We can tell he’s our ‘70s cop hero, because he lives on a houseboat and groggily answers the phone. Cops in the ‘70s never had proper houses or normal home lives. They all lived on boats or in motorhomes or kept exotic pets. I guess it made them more relatable to a general public that, if pop culture is at all accurate, was having coke-fueled orgies in waterbeds when they weren’t pampering their pet rocks watching the news cover Watergate.

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…and wearing whatever-the-hell kind of shirt that is.

Well, it turns our dead assassin was McQ’s old partner on the force, and damn it, he’s not going to let anything stand in the path of justice for his bud. You know, the cop-killer. See, here we have the first problem in the movie: we know McQ is being duped, and we’re forced to follow the dupe for the better part of two hours.

When McQ runs afoul of his superiors by beating the hell out of a local drug kingpin he (wrongly) suspects is behind his friend (the cop-killer)’s murder, he quits the force rather than take a humiliating desk job (despite the fact that, you know, cops do work at desks sometimes). This frees him up to get justice done his way (for his friend the cop-killer).

When Dr. Pulaski is your femme fatale, your movie has a problem.

When Dr. Pulaski is your femme fatale, your movie has a problem.

And his way is, well, pretty inefficient. First off, he dips into his pension to pay a snitch a cool 10k for info that doesn’t really lead him anywhere. That seems like a lot for a snitch. And that’s 1974 dollars. We were in a recession. That could buy you, like, all the gas in the country at that point.

Two things that should not be in the same shot in any reality.

Two things that should not be in the same shot in any reality.

But McQ also works a cocktail waitress named Myra (played by Colleen Dewhurst), and, ah, this is where the movie gets disturbing. McQ and Vera share a tender and –oh Christ—seductive scene together, wherein Myra basically comes on to McQ, and McQ says, “You look real good.” And then they have sex. Look, I don’t want to be ageist here, but watching the 50-something Dewhurst clad in her housecoat deploying her feminine wiles on a pushing-70 John Wayne is one of those things you can’t unsee. It takes up residence in the dark reaches of your soul where only hate and madness reside. You can forget about it for a while, but it will always be there, waiting, until it reaches out and you remember it and suddenly your horking up your lunch, and your fiancé is wondering why you’ve suddenly curled in a fetal position and begun weeping.

Put another way: imagine your grandparents getting ready for sexy time. Yep, that’s what this scene is.

AAAAAAAAAHHHGGGGG!!!!

And then they bone.

Eventually (a long eventually) McQ figures out that the whole scheme is about cops stealing drugs from the state’s evidence destruction facility, and his buddy was in on it. So, yeah, he figures out what we’ve known since scene one of this movie. This leads to a chase and shootout with the corrupt cop at the center of things (played by perennial ‘70s guest star Clu Gulager) and the aforementioned drug kingpin who wants his cut of this action.

"Hi. I was in The Virginian."

“Hi. I was in The Virginian.”

If the Internet is to be believed, Wayne made McQ after passing on the role of Dirty Harry, and seeing that movie tap into an unexpected vein of support for kick-ass, take-no-shit authority figures. And McQ is loosely fashioned to be that kind of cop. He sucker-punches an attitude-spouting punk early in the film. Later, the movie one-ups Harry Callahan’s .44 revolver by arming McQ with a then-new Ingram MAC-10 submachine gun (the movie really loves this gun, but not enough to get the caliber right).

He even looks grumpy while shooting a machine gun.

He even looks grumpy while shooting a machine gun.

The problem here is that the initial idea to approach Wayne for the role of Harry Callahan was a pretty bad one. What made Dirty Harry so energizing a figure was that he was a youngish cop. Only a little older than the punks and the hippies and the progressives that (in the movie’s worldview) wanted to defang the police and cede more of society to the criminal element, he was still young enough to be part of the new generation, but he had rejected it.

Wayne, on the other hand, is part of the old generation, synonymous with World War Two and Western movies and a bygone era. Wayne’s Dirty Harry wouldn’t have been the lone practical man in a world gone soft and foolish, but a grumpy holdout from an earlier time. It would have totally changed the dynamics of the movie. Harry Callahan would have been less an update on the hardboiled detective and basically what happens when you give your angry racist grandfather a .44 Magnum.

Somehow the image of John Wayne wearing a bracelet is inordinately disturbing.

Somehow John Wayne wearing a bracelet is inordinately disturbing.

Also, there is the purely practical: Wayne was old. Looking every minute of his 67 years, a solid decade past having a lung removed due to cancer, and too alcoholic to work reliably, Wayne simply wasn’t a man of action any longer. He could barely run, let alone throw a credible punch. When he fired his gun, he did the old Western-movie thing of twitching the gun as if he was shaking the bullets loose.

"I'll just stand here and wait for the punch...take your time."

“I’ll just stand here and wait for the punch…take your time.”

In this McQ is a deeply sad movie, a movie icon’s last, desperate grasp at relevance. Doubtless, Wayne wanted to show himself as still bankable while starring in a vehicle for his Republican beliefs, but even here, McQ barely takes any stance on anything other than the fact that corrupt drug-dealing cops are bad. Not a hugely divisive issue, that.

So, that’s McQ. Probably it’s better off forgotten.

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