Lone Wolf McQuade Review
Although he knew he’d never be either as strong or as cool, Samson only grew his hair and beard so that he would, at least, look like Chuck Norris. FACT.
Well, if it was Way of the Dragon that introduced Chuck Norris to audiences beyond those who attended martial arts tournaments, and The Octagon that properly launched him towards his status as being a bonafide leading man with people coming to see a film simply because he was in it, then it was Steve Carver’s awesome Lone Wolf McQuade from 1983 that made him fully iconic and downright bankable as an action hero admired by more than just the karate kids and the kick-boxers of the world. Carver had worked with Norris a couple of years before on the superb An Eye for An Eye so the two knew what one another was capable of bringing to the movie and this familiarity, if anything, is what bestows McQuade its legendary status as one of the best actioners from the early 80’s.
This was where it all came together. The budget was far larger than anything Chuck Norris had previously been associated with, the cast more wide-ranging. The locations were sprawling and majestic, as befitting a John Ford film, and the production values did not appear to have been skimped-on. The script from B. J. Nelson (which was also his first) attracted big stars such as David Carradine and Barbara Carrera, who had just done the cult-cherished Condorman with Michael Crawford and the underrated Mickey Spillane tale I, The Jury with Armand Assante, as well as outstanding character actors like L. Q. Jones and R. G. Armstrong, and the result was a film that combined the mythical status of the Texas Ranger (something that Norris would massively take to heart in his later TV show, Walker, Texas Ranger) with copious Vietnam metaphor, the intriguing notion of Texan terrorism interlocked with the traditional symmetry of an “eye for an eye” vendetta, and supreme martial arts with the soaring, operatic excess of the Spaghetti Western. It is a cracking melting pot of rugged derring-do, indomitable honour versus despicable villainy and it is all shot through with a gloriously laconic atmosphere of dust, sweat and blood. Carver is having fun with his modern-day Western, for sure, but the film he delivers actually feels quite epic.
If there is a werewolf under your bed, you can bet that Chuck Norris is probably under his! FACT.
As the titular Lone Wolf McQuade, an ex-Marine turned highly esteemed border lawman whose methods only sit right with his chief when the public ladle him with hard-won accolades, our Chuck is outstanding in what has to be one of his most fully rounded roles. Amicably separated from his wife, played pretty badly by Sharon Farrell, he still calls round as often as he can and dotes upon his teenage daughter Sally (played even worse by the dreadful Dana Kimmell), and even if he is unrelenting when it comes to catching bad guys, it is abundantly clear that he has a very tender side. When we first meet him, he is symbolically perched up on a sun-baked high bluff overlooking a foolhardy attempt by the regular State Police to ensnare a vicious gang of horse-rustlers. Seen either in extreme close-up or as a distant silhouette – perhaps reminiscent to our enigmatic introduction to Mel Gibson in Mad Max as he slowly prepares to gun his engines and go chasing the Night Rider – he is the human equivalent of the wolf surveying his territory. Inevitably the cluster of cops come a cropper and wind-up on their knees in the dirt at the mercy of the boastful bandit, Jese (Jorge Cavera Jnr) and his heavily armed posse of confederates. But McQuade throws them the gauntlet and, after appearing to surrender (like that’s ever gonna happen), brings down the wrath of the Rangers upon them with merciless fury via boot, fist and flame-spewing Uzi.
Chuck was already well established as a lethal weapon, but this intro gives him a stature that is at once inspiring and yet gruffly down-to-earth. He is set up as a rogue from a bygone era, a throwback that may get the job done … but always runs the risk of bringing the service into disrepute. We’d been down this road before with Clint’s San Francisco detective Harry Callahan, but this doesn’t feel copied or indelicately shoehorned-in. The very nature of his duty dictates his consummate courage under fire, and his profound skills in the field are exactly what you would expect from an expert Ranger. But it also follows that in a world of technology and sophistication some of his crude methods and his apparent “lack of style” would be considered unsavoury by those seeking to distance themselves from such dirty work. Like most people with essential but difficult jobs, society is lucky to have them around, but really isn’t too keen on shaking their hand in public.
When Chuck Norris throws a hand-grenade at least fifty people die … before it even goes off. FACT.
There’s been a few strange and horrific incidents in the locale, not the least of which is a highway massacre that sees Sally’s boyfriend murdered and herself put in hospital, and the theft of arms from a military convoy. McQuade has an itch in his holster that the infamous local celebrity Rawley Wilkes (David Carradine) is involved in these dark deeds and he sets about conducting a clandestine mission to uncover the truth about what the wealthy and violently egotistical “businessman” has been up to. With the aid of tenacious deputy that he saved from the opening capture, the wonderful L. Q. Jones as his buddy, and recently retired Ranger, Dakota, and his protective wolf, he is soon embroiled in shootouts, chases, running battles in desert strongholds and authority-bucking disputes not only with his own boss, but with the CIA. However, it is all in a day’s work for the adrenaline-seeking Lone Wolf McQuade.
As has been his customary declaration throughout many roles (and something that would go on to become a cliché in the genre as a whole), McQuade insists that he works alone. But when Captain Tee Tyler (the always awesome, and surprisingly versatile R. G. Armstrong – seen in The Car, The Beast Within and Predator) thrusts young Mexican cop, Kayo (Star Trek Voyager’s Robert Beltran), at him even the renowned J.J. McQuade finds that he cannot shake the persistent kid, who dogs his every move and, eventually, proves his worth to the investigation, and becomes a trusted, if rather clumsy accomplice.
I love the way that despite his obvious physical fitness, McQuade is devoted to his cold beer. We don’t see him working out on the speedball, the punchbag or the pads in this film like we normally do – I mean, it’s way too hot for any of that stuff – but there is no doubting that J.J. can outrun, outfight and outwit anybody north or south of the border. And to go along with what was then a new trend to have screen heroes able to pack considerable heat and to use it like a mini-battalion of shock-troops, there are a couple of scenes of him using impromptu targets to blast to hell and back in his scrubby, sagebrush-filled garden. Once again, just like the paradox of a honed and toned hero swigging back the beer at every given opportunity, this doesn’t feel forced or contrived. In fact, Chuck Norris makes McQuade a very real, very indelible personality all round. This is a guy whowould have the Stars and Stripes draped about his hovel of a home, and would have high-velocity rifles all over the place. He would indulge in wild shooting practice before breakfast, and he certainly would have a turbo-charger in his shabby, dust-encrusted Dodge cruiser.
When God wakes up in the morning, he sheds a little tear … because he knows that he is not Chuck Norris. FACT.
David Carradine was a huge star already, but his mystical thousand-yard-stare and Zen-like attitude meant that he was quite distanced from the usual hero-for-hire. Obviously well-known for his role as Caine (or Grasshopper) in TV’s groundbreaking show Kung-Fu, he also had the anti-hero of ace driver Frankenstein in Roger Corman’s cult-classic Death Race 2000 to his name, and he was probably the man who should have taken on the starring role of Jesse James in Walter Hill’s excellent Western The Long Riders, having so much more charisma than James Keach, who actually took the part. But those steely eyes and that calculating manner were perfect for resolute scumbaggery, and Carradine is superb as the devious, ruthless terrorist gun-runner who gets locked into a deadly duel with McQuade’s unflinching, unyielding Ranger. You can see the simmering rivalry that burns between the two, who are, at first, only acquainted by one-another’s reputation, and fully appreciate both McQuade’s initial reluctance to indulge in anything as silly as a show-fight and Rawley’s fierce and gloating desire to make himself the top dog of the territory by just such an exhibition – a genuine show of strength.
He even makes a pastel sweater almost cool to wear to a fight.
As Lola, frequent femme-fatale Barbara Carrera is a bit of stunt-casting, admittedly. She looks eminently sexy, of course, but she gets to play a somewhat bewitched character that you are never quite sure if you can trust or not. Initially attached to Rawley as some sort of moll, she nevertheless finds herself drawn to McQuade’s bit of rough and, soon enough, she is sprucing up his vulgar cabin and adding that lady’s touch that it had been so sorely lacking. What I like about this all-too-contrived set-up is that Chuck acts the way we would if some new dame, no matter how good looking she was, had come into our home and rearranged our gun-cabinet and slung out our beer. However, Steve Carver then proceeds to take the proverbial with a languid and sleazy scene in which McQuade and Lola have fun with a phallic, water-spouting hose-pipe and end up rolling around in the mud like a couple of pigs-in-sh – ahh, you know what I mean. But, given the flamboyant showboating and cuddling-up to winning cliché that this film is so entranced by, this is a moment that is actually quite stupidly enjoyable, and which also, by extension, seems to denote the entrancing power of this entire adventure-yarn as a whole. There is a twinkle in its eye, and the film does as much to create and foster forthcoming genre tropes as it does pander to the already established conventions that it has enjoyed since the days of Gene Autry and Randolph Scott. It is having fun with the formula, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
The film is Western, through and through. Many cop thrillers ended-up being just time-displaced horse-operas, with Dirty Harry leading the way, of course. But Carver’s macho outdoor actioner makes no pretence that it is anything but an alkali-flavoured prairie-tale. Swap the cars and ‘copters for horses and the fancy-moves for six-guns and this could easily be set during the Mexican Revolution. Rawley Wilkes may as well be supplying the banditos under Zapata, and double-crossing them with the Federales at the same time. But as well as the scorched vistas and the saga of man doing what a man’s gotta do, you need authentically colourful support to anchor this sort of bygone respect. To this end, L.Q. Jones is just about the most perfect cowboy foil that anyone could wish for … beyond the ultra-cool Sam Elliott, of course. A veteran of many Westerns, including The Wild Bunch, in which he was part of a barnstorming double-act of human vultures alongside Strother Martin, he has that immaculate, vowel-mangling Texan twang, the cactus-strong Custer ‘tache and a mass of wayward hair that make him the epitome of the frontiersman. It is hard to imagine anything north of Satan, himself, ever causing this guy any concern … and his blinkered, set-in-stone attitude towards a snagged crim called Snow (played by a wild William Sanderson) under his dubious brand of “protective custody” is both devoutly right-wing and immeasurably satisfying. Hardly legal, though.
Chuck Norris does occasionally miss … but the bullets are too afraid not to hit their targets. FACT.
Unexpectedly, but highly welcome, is a very Bondian aspect to the movie, as well, which just seems to make it that bit more delectable. With McQuade clinging on to the roof of a speeding truck, penetrating a defended hidden arms stockpile in the middle of the desert and then finally infiltrating his enemy’s fortress in a do-or-die mission of rescue and retribution, the action and incident are ramped up to pure 007 levels. Throw in a couple of hair’s breadth escapes and a few lingering, taunt-heavy encounters with his arch nemesis before the big showdown, and Lone Wolf McQuade seems determined to deliver on every count. And if Rawley Wilkes is a veritable Scaramanga, then the perverse flamboyance of it all is embellished with the inclusion of the wheelchair-bound, videogame-loving dwarf who runs the shady casinos in town, has his fingers in some very dubious pies and watches over things like some curious little Blofeld. Called Falcon, and played by ex-Ewok Daniel Frishman, this bizarre little chap looks like somebody who has strayed in from TV’s The Avengers or even dropped in fromTime Bandits, but he brings an unusual and stylistic flourish to the proceedings and helps the story to feel more textured and colourful. Watch out for the scene when Kayo impresses the Ranger with his computer-hacking skills – not even Daniel Craig’s Bond or Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt could break a top secret military code that quickly!
If the story of two deadly men set on a collision course with death amid the sweat and dust of the Tex-Mex border was not enough to convince you of the Leone/Corbucci influence that dominates above all else, then the outstanding, emotionally overwrought and evocatively spiralling score from Spaghetti veteran composer Francesco De Masi is sure to seal the deal. This is terrific stuff, with harmonica played by Franco De Gemini (who performed similar duties for Morricone and Leone on Once Upon A Time In The West and the violent 1984 adventure Mad Dog), electric guitar, weird fuzzy synth licks, solo whistling from Alessandro Alessandroni, exciting orchestral set-pieces and, most pertinently of all, the fabulous voices of a choir, who bring a beatific and tragedian mood to the score, especially with the haunting solo female vocals that float over the landscape like the ghost of the Man with no Name caught upon the Sonorran winds. I’ve tried to find out who this voice belongs to, but even the score CD neglects to credit her. The setting is so sun-bleached and parched and the conflict so archetypal that only this kind of music could properly embrace the film with the appropriate passion. It is also cool to note that Masi provides a nice John Barry-esque suspense cue for the scene when McQuade and his buddies go snooping around the secret airfield-cum-arms-cache. Connery did a lot of covert sleuthing to some very similar phrases. The Roman De Masi had gotten quite a number of Italian oaters under his belt between 1964 and 1973 – pretty much the full gamut in which successful Spaghetti material thrived – although several of his more quirky and unusual scores were for films that sadly never gained a full release, such as A Fistful of Knuckles and The High Cost of Dying. His consistency and distinction was certainly comparable with that of Morricone during his heyday, and it is a marvellous stroke of luck that he wound up scoring McQuade for Steve Carver in what would, in fact, turn out to be something of a swansong to the Spaghetti style. His love of the Western and the glowering, glorious nature of a hard-bitten man against the landscape as well as his own brother would provide the backbone for McQuade’s odyssey.
The famous turbo-charged resurrection scene is an absolute standout. I can easily understand how some people could find this skin-of-the-teeth escape from an involuntary premature tomb comically over-the-top – which, of course, it is – but Chuck’s grinding scream of defiance and the demonic red glow of his cruiser’s buried lights emanating from beneath the shovelled dirt is the stuff of B-movie legend. Carver deserves some credit for taking the plunge with this electrifying excavation as it serves to heighten the situation and the tone of the film in time for the no-holds-barred finale, that comes along in the fine old tradition of Sam Peckinpah and John Sturges … with more than a hint of ‘Nam’s Special Forces commando raids. No-one other than James Bond or Sylvester Stallone has made a point of storming the enemy’s stronghold as much as Chuck Norris.
After the nuclear apocalypse, the cockroaches were even more terrified … because Chuck Norris had survived, and he was hungry. FACT.
The finale, as with many Norris vendettas culminates with a full-on assault upon Rawley’s hacienda-cum-fortress, and this gun-blazing, grenade-hurling, chop-sockying conclusion down Mexico-way is a cathartic anthem of violence that does everything such a long-anticipated confrontation should do. With a couple of by-now respected allies, including resourceful (and virtually indestructible) Fed, Jackson (Leon Isaac Kennedy), McQuade brings the hurt to Rawley and exacts some righteous just desserts for the kidnapping of his daughter, who just can't seem to stay out of trouble. The face-off between the two is brutal, damaging and choreographed without falling prey to over-the-top hokiness that would come to typify many such final confrontations that the 80’s would fling our way in which the hero, who we knew had some special skills, would finally go up against a villain who had nothing in his arsenal other than a devious sneer. Once again, Chuck would pave the way for the action-icons to come. He would be forced to fight someone who was just as skilled and as deadly in the martial arts as he was. Perhaps we have Rocky to thank for this. I mean Rocky Balboa is all about finding the courage, the physical strength and the spirit to fight your meanest, most skilled enemy. With Carradine carving the air between him and Norris with all manner of fancy Kung Fu and Wushu stances, supplying the mystical dexterity with which to oppose the down ‘n’ dirty, scrap-happy brawling of the Ranger’s far less decorative karate, this becomes almost a class battle, elegance going up against brute force – McQuade, once again, revealed to be somewhat primitive and outdated. Literally, the blast from the past.
Gracefully poised fingers meet pile-driving fists and feet, and the skirmish which actually begins with the pair of them driving at one-another in a warped game of chicken in a JCB and an armoured car, then devolves into the sort of thing that martial arts fans of the era would have been anticipating with as much zeal as the highly ballyhooed smackdown between Sly Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme in Expendables 2. To be fair, this isn’t a patch on Chuck’s supremely cathartic battle with Soon Tek Oh’s vicious VC prison-camp commander in Missing In Action 2: The Beginning, which would come soon after McQaude, but as early cinematic genre bouts go it still delivers enough of the goods to be satisfyingly rousing. As a technical piece it lacks the precision and originality of Chuck’s fight with Bruce Lee in Way of the Dragon or his confrontation with Richard Norton’s exotically costumed Ninja enforcer in The Octagon, but then this is down to the context within which it is fought. McQuade is a dog-soldier – a pit-bull with a badge. He will get the job done with as much pain and damage inflicted as he can, but he isn’t about to waste precious time with “performance” pugilism. Rawley Wilkes, on the other hand, wants to make the Ranger’s downfall the centrepiece attraction – even if most of the potential audience are just corpses littering the deck of the hacienda – and this means that he wants to savour every second and every impact of the destruction he intends to bring down upon his scruffy opponent. Blows thunder in, and there are a couple of holds, throws and takedowns, but it is with the galvanising flashback that McQuade has (of an incident that has actually only happened about two seconds earlier!) that fully ignites the Texan storm of bone-juddering payback.
When Gandalf roared “You shall not pass!” Chuck Norris merely replied, “Try me.” FACT.
For action fans, Lone Wolf McQuade offers something for all tastes. There is gunplay and violence aplenty, vehicular mayhem and chases, a laconic hero with a loyal wolf-dog who lives by his own code of honour, some skin-of-the-teeth escapes, impressive martial arts, a big final battle with numerous explosions and lots of bodies flying through the air …and those quintessentially classic scenes of the tough guy having to recover from a beating and then re-train himself for the coming storm of righteous payback, the cosily traditional ass-chewing from a rankled boss who doesn’t approve of his reckless and renegade ways, as well as much boo-hissy treachery and a couple of shocking executions of trusted confidents. And for real fans of the Norris, you get to see the big guy with a star pinned to a variety of snazzy denim shirts, blasting from the hip with a ferocious sawn-off shotgun and firing-up a turbo-charged Dodge police cruiser that Mad Max would positively kill for.
I ask you … how could you not love this movie?
Lone Wolf McQuade is tremendous entertainment from start to finish, and pretty much essential for all fellow Chuckle Brothers.
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