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January/February 2023 -   -  

A Not-So-Greatest Beer Run Ever


You can count the number of Vietnam War Hollywood comedies on one hand and still have enough fingers left to heft a beer bottle to your lips.

The first—the Robin Williams-showcase Good Morning, Vietnam—burst into multiplexes in 1987. It contained a boatload of laughs, mostly from Williams’ crazy-clever word blizzards and other comedic confetti. But the movie lost its momentum when the comedy stopped and filmmaker Barry Levinson took Williams into the jungle where he met the war face-to-face.

Air America (1990), starring Mel Gibson and Robert Downey, Jr. as a couple of snarky undercover CIA pilots in Laos, had its comedic moments—but it, too, fell flat, falling victim to one-dimensional heroes and villains.

Five years later came the Disney movie, Operation Dumbo Drop, with Danny Glover and Ray Liotta in the leading roles. That big-budget, feel-good fairytale-like PG movie about Green Berets moving an elephant via air through the war zone also had a fair share of laughs. In the end, though, as we wrote in these pages in 1995, it added up to “a lightweight crowd-pleaser that presents a sanitized version” of the Vietnam War.

Which brings us to the much-hyped The Greatest Beer Run Ever. Based on a real event, as its predecessors were, this full-blown Hollywood extravaganza, which came out at the end of September and is showing on Apple TV, is billed as a wacky buddy movie, which the real story certainly was.

That tale—related in the 2017 book of the same name by journalist Joanna Molloy and John “Chickie” Donahue—is an off-beat one in which Donahue, basically on a dare, makes his way to Vietnam in 1967 to deliver good old American beer (PBR) to six buddies in South Vietnam.

They’re all working-class guys from the Inwood section of Manhattan; Chickie was 26, fresh from a pre-Vietnam War tour of duty as a U.S. Marine. The plan was hatched at their neighborhood bar, with the beer flowing. Chickie, a merchant seaman, shook off his hangover the next day and set out for Vietnam crewing on a cargo ship.

He spent four escapade-filled months in country. He found the six guys, they drank their beer, and he came home. All six survived the war and still see each other regularly in the Big Apple.

That’s the high concept of the new movie, directed by Peter Farrelly. He’s best known for his multi-Oscar-winning Green Book (2018), the story of an African American musician and his white driver/bodyguard in the South in 1962, and Dumb and Dumber, Shallow Hal, and other low-brow comedies he made with his brother Bobby.

The Beer Run movie starts with Chickie (Hollywood heartthrob Zac Efron) and company drinking and blabbing in their New York City bar. They’re all staunchly for the war and have no patience with the antiwar movement, which includes Chuckie’s sister. They’re lamenting the deaths of other guys from the neighborhood in Vietnam when the crusty old bartender (Bill Murray) says something like, “What those guys need is beer.”

“Stone sober” after five beers, Chickie announces that he’s the guy to go on a beer run unlike any other in recorded history and personally deliver brewskis to all their buddies in Vietnam.

That drunken boast turns into real action the following day after his skeptical friends remind Chickie of his big plan. Realizing that the guys don’t think he’ll follow through, Chickie doubles down, and by the end of the day has booked himself a trip to South Vietnam as a boiler on a merchant marine ship.

The ship lands and the captain tells him he has three days to do what he has to do or they’ll sail back home without him. So the real-life four months is boiled down into three days, and an avalanche of wartime misadventures are crammed into the rest of the two-hour movie.

GIs think Chuckie’s a CIA spy; his buddies think he’s crazy. He puts himself—and his pals—in harm’s way more than once. Many cans of PBR get delivered. All are consumed. Tet ’68 happens when he’s in Saigon.

It soon dawns on Chuckie that war means death, maiming, and destruction. As he tells the guys back at the bar after he comes home, “I’m not so sure we’re saving the world this time.”

He has a personal revelation, too, saying to his sister: “I’ve got to change a few things up: a little less drinking, a little more thinking.”

In other words, this putatively comedic romp, which starts out with a kind of goofy guy doing some really goofy things, formulaically turns into something entirely different in this tonally weird movie that never brought more than a half chuckle.




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Geoffrey Clifford Mark F. Erickson Chuck Forsman