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McHale's Navy

Rated PG, 109 min. Directed by Bryan Spicer. Starring Tom Arnold, Tim Curry, David Alan Grier, Dean Stockwell, Ernest Borgnine.

REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., April 25, 1997

The term “brain-dead” flies to one's lips as a description for McHale's Navy, but that's letting the guilty parties off way too easy. True cretinism is morally neutral in that it implies blamelessness for one's actions. Whereas the process of conceiving, producing, and distributing this comedic Superfund site required active, premeditated thought and effort that, in a just world, would be punishable by hard jail time. Apologies are due all around from Spicer, Arnold, and company, most of all to fans of the mid-1960s television sitcom that served as the putative source material. Few plot elements and none of the innocently subversive flavor of the original survive. Time, place, characters, and attitude have all been changed to conform to some arbitrary, nitwitted conception of modern entertainment values. The World War II Pacific theatre is replaced by the Caribbean of the 1990s, and boyish exploits featuring gambling, partying, and “broads” are engulfed by a bizarre, uninvolving yarn featuring a psychotic terrorist (Curry) and stolen nuclear weapons -- the latter two serving mainly to justify the requisite Hollywood bomb blasts and machine-gun mayhem. Borgnine, the original McHale, shows up in a bit part, but looks downright mortified at his involvement in this whole dreadful affair. He should be. Most of all, he should be stricken by Arnold's reduction of his amiably charismatic character to a lame collection of annoying mannerisms and witless palaver. Among the other supporting cast, Grier manages the impressive feat of playing Ensign Parker more buffoonishly than Tim Conway did, while Stockwell is vaguely amusing as the anal-retentive Capt. Binghampton. Granted, the TV series was no artistic monolith, but at least it had a certain artless charm that Spicer utterly fails to replicate. It shouldn't have been possible to screw up McHale's Navy this badly, yet against all odds, he's done just that. By the way, don't assume that because I draw a lot of the Chron's arthousey reviews, my exquisite Merchant/Ivory-damaged sensibilities have rendered me incapable of enjoying bracingly stoopid comedy. McHale's Navy isn't so much lowbrow as damning evidence of a profound misunderstanding of what makes movie comedy funny, engaging, and commercially viable. No originality, no memorable characters, no comic timing, and no good jokes equal no fun for the audience. Commence evasive maneuvers, helmsman.
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