January 2, 2015


McVicar (104 minutes) 1980 – starring Roger Daltrey, Adam Faith, Cheryl Campbell, Steven Berkoff, Brian Hall, Jeremy Blake, Leonard Gregory, Peter Janfield, Anthony Trent, and Ian Hendry. Directed by Tom Clegg. Originally released through Vestron Home Video.

John McVicar was Britain’s most wanted criminal in the late 1960s. Famous for his armed robbery exploits, he was finally nabbed and sent away to prison for 23 years. Obtaining a college degree behind bars, he was subsequently released in 1978 after serving eleven years and went on to be a broadcaster and a freelance journalist. His recent articles have tackled subjects as diverse as the World Chess Championships and the Russian Secret Service. Nowhere in the film “McVicar,” co-written by the ex-con himself, does it showcase the man being any brighter, charming or conniving than the average bank robber. What the movie does highlight is the fact that The Who’s frontman, Roger Daltrey, finally learned how to act on the big screen after a series of stilted, silly performances in the early 1970s.

After his goofy, deer-in-headlights turns in “Tommy” and “Lisztomania,” Daltrey must have felt the sting of the laughter and cast about for meatier roles. Set up under the funding of the rock group’s movie division, Who Films, “McVicar” presented him with numerous situations to scowl, sneer and appear generally peeved. The screenplay, however, makes Daltrey’s efforts seem smug and tonally inappropriate because, frankly, the McVicar character comes across simply as a self-absorbed, average thief who should’ve gotten just what he deserved.

The first hour of the movie takes place in the prison system. Under the kinetic force of Daltrey’s title song, “Free Me,” McVicar is transferred to a tighter security facility. The place isn’t San Quentin or The Tombs. It looks adequately accommodating. So when McVicar instantly institutes a riotous mutiny just because the cons would have to wear prison issue uniforms and work a little during the week, his actions elicit the thought, “poor baby.” The guards at the penitentiary are quite chipper and hardly overbearing. “C’mon now lads we’re all gonna lose on this,” the chief officer tells the barricaded rioters. You almost expect them all to sit down for a cup of tea. The brutes respond by tearing the administrative offices apart, and then they sing a good-natured pub ditty. This movie about hardened criminals makes the whole thing look like a Bing Crosby Catholic school fracas.

McVicar finally makes his break with his jail pal Probyn (Adam Faith). Some of the film’s few fine moments occur when Probyn asks a guard to test the strength of a rope he’s fashioning for the escape and blatantly responds to the warden’s concerns about his upcoming parole by saying, “I’m planning on making my own way out, sir.” Falling back in with his old robbery cronies, McVicar pulls a few payroll jobs (which we never are privy to witness) and one routine armored car theft as his big score. This last crime is meant to be the film’s ‘showcase’ robbery, signaling to us what a master criminal McVicar is. But when he fires a shotgun on a fumbling security man, the impression one comes away with is that we wish the poor employee had blasted McVicar first. That’s not a very good indicator that the director has done his job to make us care one iota about the film’s protagonist.

Daltrey is in top form physically, as evidenced in his unabashed nude prison shower scenes, and he conveys an appropriate dose of menace to authority figures (even if we wish said authority figures would just bash McVicar’s face in). When he returns home to his wife and child, (a moment that plays like he’s returning from the fish & chips shop and not on the lam as public enemy number one), the rock star gives a restrained, convincing scene as doting father to his infant son, Russell. (Interesting side note: In reality, McVicar’s son Russell grew up to execute 16 armed robberies of his own in the 1990s, including the theft of a Picasso).

The screenplay leaves many supporting character storylines simply unresolved. McVicar’s chum, Probyn, who is developed for the film’s first full hour, is never heard from again after Daltrey escapes. A villified sex offender is introduced in two scenes only to never be dealt any prison justice. McVicar’s rivalry with a fellow con (Steven Berkoff) is simply dropped after he leaves him behind in the clink. It’s as if there are two stories just stapled together at an intermission point, neither having much to do with the other.

Daltrey’s stirring vocals, courtesy of his collaboration with musician Jeff Wayne (“War Of The Worlds”) results in a series of effective songs like “Without Your Love” and “Waiting For A Friend” during key moments in the narrative. Combined with his decent thespian chores, Daltrey’s turn in “McVicar” is far more worthy than the material or the main character himself ever warrants.

© 2000 Ned Truslow

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