When you bring up John Wayne, it’s inevitable that his name will conjure images of old-fashioned Westerns. He’s synonymous with the genre, an in-the-flesh embodiment of cowboy cinema. That’s why I was surprised when I sat down at a Christmas party with my grandfather to watch one of his favorite John Wayne pictures to find that it wasn’t a Western at all. It’s not even set in America, let alone the Old West. Brannigan is a fish-out-of-water action comedy about a hard-boiled Chicago detective brandishing pistols in a stuffy, crime-ridden 1970s London. Of course, John Wayne plays the titular police detective with the same worlds-away-from-Chicago cowboy swagger he’s most closely associated with, but the setting is still jarring. In some ways, though, it makes you appreciate Wayne’s screen presence even more to watching him operate outside of his element.
Besides casting a Western cinema legend in a non-Western role, Brannigan hosts several other glaring self-contradictions. Tonally, its mix of severed-finger, bullethole-ridden, sexual assault-threatening violence pairs ridiculously with its sarcastic, seen-it-all-before humor. This contrast can be best observed in an over-the-top pub brawl when Brannigan punches a goon so hard that he slides across the entire length of a bartop in a surprise tangent into Looney Tunes physics. Genre-wise, the film can’t decide if it wants to be a suspenseful heist film or an outright comedy. It can’t even decide which storyline is its main concern: the plot that has Brannigan chasing after a notorious crime boss being held for ransom or the plot that has Brannigan being chased himself by an assassin prone to using bomb & shotgun booby traps like an especially vicious Kevin McCallister. Or are both of these stories merely a backdrop for a blood-soaked comedy about Old World stuffiness vs. New World cavalier?
My favorite aspect of Brannigan‘s self-contradicting nature is where it sits on exploitation cinema’s temporal landscape. Although it’s a major studio film, it feels like it’s caught somewhere between the welcome-to-the-real-world harshness of New Hollywood, the righteously funky world of blaxploitaion (except with a white man as the lead, of course), and the as-yet-created humorously violent world of 80s action cinema. John Wayne establishes himself here as an early action star. His super-sarcastic, know-it-all one-liners play like a precursor to characters that would later be played by folks like Arnold Schwarzenegger & Sly Stallone. Brannigan doesn’t just burst into a room; he bursts into a room & dryly intones “Knock, knock” while brandishing a pistol. Then there’s the fact that every criminal in the world apparently knows legendary supercop Jim Brannigan by name, even though he works for Chicago’s municipal police department. That detail would be later repeated in every Commando, Cobra, and Hard to Kill to follow. He’s even provided a cute, tiny, foreign sidekick, another staple of the 80s action genre, although this time she’s never threatened to become a love interest despite all of Brannigan’s incessant leering. She does, however, spontaneously reward him with a kiss on the cheek over a dinner for two. Why? She explains, “You’re just so damn solid.” Indeed.
John Wayne badassery aside, Brannigan is a well put together action flick. Its lush shots of drive-bys, gun holsters, and sexy workers showing leg – all the leg – are all surprisingly intricate enough for a film that didn’t have to try too hard to succeed. John Wayne is entertaining enough on his own to carry the film, but a lot of effort still goes into detailing the organized crime end of London’s underbelly. Pubs, saunas, brothels, and late night stakeouts provide a nicely detailed background for Wayne to perform against and the car chases & counterfeit money production play like a precursor to Friedkin’s masterful To Live & Die in L.A.. Even without Wayne, Brannigan would still be a decent, humorous action flick with a great villain & hero, and a satisfying (albeit slow-moving) plot. Wayne’s hard-drinking, gun-toting supercop who calls everyone within earshot “Partner” is 1000% more cowboy than he is Chicago detective, but his performance is still what makes the movie special instead of merely decent. I’m far from a Western fanatic, so this oddly humorous & wildly violent action pic ended up being my favorite performance I’ve ever seen from Wayne. It’s easy to see why my grandfather holds it in such high regard despite it being far outside headlining star’s wheelhouse & being generally regarded as trash.