Synopsis – A man’s story of leaving New York in 1967 to bring beer to his childhood buddies in the Army while they are fighting in Vietnam.
My Take – Back in 1967, amidst the Vietnam war, Chickie Donohue did not go to fight for his country or against communism, instead in order to rally against all the increasing negativism, left New York on a ship bound for the war zone to track down his neighborhood friends at their military posts and hand-deliver beers, all in order to instill a positive image about how their folks back home care for their outcome.
This Apple release brings Donohue’s true story to life in the hands of writer-director Peter Farrelly (Green Book) and co-writers Brian Hayes Currie (Green Book) and Pete Jones (Hall Pass) who re-imagine Chickie’s dubious trip to the front lines and back with Zach Efron filling in the role.
Though director Farrelly, long celebrated as an iconic comedic filmmaker with his brother Peter, doesn’t break any new ground here, especially considering how the Vietnam War has been overused as a basis of many other stories and themes, yet from start to finish, it’s impossible to not feel-good watching the whole scenario unfold.
While it touches on heavy themes surrounding the role of media, propaganda, military deception and ineptitude, the film is mostly light, with a well-meaning, charming lead actor to keep us engaged in the remarkable true story. Yes, it could’ve been better, but nevertheless the film manages to strike a good balance between the seriousness of war and the somber aspects of it, to the comedic madness of risking one’s life running across a battlefield to share a can of beer.
The story follows Chickie Donohue (Zac Efron), a Merchant Marine from the Inwood neighborhood of New York City. A hard-drinking slacker, who is kind of a joke to his family and friends as he doesn’t really take life seriously and has no perceivable ambition. He is, however, a staunch defender of his country and the military personnel fighting a war that no one seems to be able to define. Especially the boys from the neighborhood.
On one typical evening at the local tavern where The Colonel (Bill Murray) tends bars, hones patriotism, and honors those who have served in war, Chickie blurts out his intention to head to Vietnam and hand-deliver a beer to each of his buddies stationed there.
His drinking cohorts support his idea, yet fully believe this is simply the next thing that Chickie will never follow through on. To everyone’s surprise, and despite pleas from his anti-war sister (Ruby Serkis), Chickie loads up a duffel bag with dozens of cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon and heads out. That seems to be the extent of his plan because he basically has to charm and luck his way through each progressive stop once he has secured a spot on a container ship headed that way. But once he gets there, Chickie soon finds himself changing his naive view of the war.
The film plays a bit like a road trip, where Chickie interacts with multiple characters along the way. Some in the military mistake him for undercover CIA, which he uses to his advantage. Although the film doesn’t work much in a comedic way, Chickie’s adventure is a good watch for sure, you get stuck in the story mostly because of how ridiculous his self-assigned mission is, and what kept me engaged was to see how he smoothly navigates the country while chaos reigns.
The film volleys between an absurdist drama and the dangers of war, and it works, primarily because this tale seems impossible to swallow, especially as our lead dodges bullets on the battlefield and witnesses’ explosions in urban centers. While some aspects of his journey seemed to be a little far-fetched, others seemed to be right on point.
The film moves at a solid pace, with Russell Crowe having a really good part as a cyclical war correspondent he meets in Saigon and who becomes his companion during Tet. There’s also a touching part of the film where the good-natured Chickie befriends a Vietnamese crossing guard, which helps drive home the fact that even if he is hopelessly naïve. Yes, war is hell, confusing and people have different opinions, but here, director Farrelly aims to make a point to make about how Chickie and his pals are ignorant early on to the reality of the Vietnam war, instead mock Chickie’s sister for being anti-war.
Keeping that in mind when all the info is presented to Chickie he begins undergoing his own transformation. The imagery of war and what its true colors were is what I loved most about the film. It sucks you in with such a wholesome plot that quickly turns dark and somber. However, I do agree that some episodes, such as him witnessing a C.I.A. sanctioned murder, feel invented and could have been excised from the slightly bloated running time.
Performance wise, Zac Efron is terrific as the lead. Over the past few years, Efron has shown incredible range while proving to be a solid leading man with movie star charisma, here, he transforms into Chickie. A character that is not too bright, and director Farrelly concedes to his mission’s idiocy by making most of the men annoyed with his hare-brained scheme.
In a supporting role, Russell Crowe is excellent as always, dominating every scene he was in, while Bill Murray leaves a strong mark in a role that is little more than a cameo, despite his billing. In other roles, Ruby Ashbourne Serkis, Jake Picking, Kyle Allen, Archie Renaux and Will Ropp are effective. On the whole, ‘The Greatest Beer Run Ever’ is a decent war drama with enough humor and touching moments.
Directed – Peter Farrelly
Rated – R
Run Time – 126 minutes