We’re in a London lockup in the late sixties. An inmate is in the process of being transferred to another prison and refuses to comply with the demands of the wardens that he wear prison issue shoes. One smart warden defuses a situation pregnant with violence by giving the inmate his trainers to wear instead, then sending him on his way. Jailed 23 years for armed robbery, you can tell that London criminal John McVicar (played by The Who front man Roger Daltrey) isn’t going to take his sentence lying down.
Right from the get go the eponymous McVicar is all defiant antagonism, whether he is dealing with the hard-line prison guards or his fellow inmates. Director Tom Clegg tracks our anti-hero as he negotiates prison life: finding his place within the inmate hierarchy, braving solitary confinement to show the prison guards he can’t easily be bullied, at the centre of prison riot where the inmates campaign for rights for ‘lifers’, to planning and executing a daring prison break. But just when you’re thinking that this is merely a standard, and somewhat dated, genre film Clegg and co. take us out of the prison and into the grimy streets of London. From here the story shifts, not only physical context, but also thematic direction. McVicar, now on the outside, attempts to pull together the remaining strands of his life. He seeks out his partner and the young son who doesn’t remember his father and plans his next grand escape: attempting to leave his life of crime. He sets up one last job which will bring enough money to get his family to Europe and (hopefully) out of reach of the long hand of the law.
McVicar is based on the autobiography McVicar by Himself penned by the real life John McVicar who also takes a on screenplay adaptation duties. His inside knowledge lends the film an air of authenticity lacking from other similar movies (cf the fiction infused characterisation of Mark “Chopper” Read from Andrew Dominik’s 2000 prison/crime ‘biopic’ Chopper in which Read seems to want to mythologize himself). Far from presenting its protagonist as simply the hardened but likeable criminal (?!), McVicar paints the picture of a man who is waking up to the far reaching consequences of his chosen life and now, understandably, wants out. But the question is: can he get out? Or will the life that he has lived, and the choices that he has made thus far turn opportunity against him?
Daltrey brings all his trademark intensity to the lead role, including a physique which stands out as quite something when you think about culture of the day (where professional wrestlers were often just big fat guys and cartoonish muscle tone wasn’t an action star prerequisite). He imbues a real sense of angst in the character and believably carries off the emotional/ideological struggle taking place in this man over the course of the film. Other characters fill their roles adequately – in particular Bill Murray (no not that one, the other one?!) as McVicar’s erstwhile friend on the outside Joey Davis – but it is Daltrey who owns the screen. Clegg’s direction seems generally firm and sure with his aptly framed shots and use of natural light capturing a dirty, almost mundane realism. So it is somewhat jarring when, on occasion the script lapses into genre cliché. This is mostly in the first part of the film during some of the prison sequences and stands out all the more for the bulk of the dialogue and characterisation remaining admirably restrained (see the toned down maliciousness displayed by some of the prison guards – a lesser script would portray them as one-dimensional scape-goats for the protagonist’s occasional violent outbursts).
The film’s soundtrack was produced by Jeff Wayne – known for his 1978 musical version of H.G. Wells’ classic scifi adventure War of the Worlds – with the music performed by Daltrey and his famed musical outfit The Who. To my mind the soundtrack works as both a positive and a negative. On the one hand it dates the film firmly in both the era of its setting (late 60s – early 70s) and in the era in which it was made (early eighties). It is also musically interesting and helps drive the pace of the film. On the other hand the soundtrack can become a little overwhelming; lending McVicar an air of melodrama that it doesn’t really need. Unlike earlier Daltrey led movies like Tommy & Lisztomania (both 1975), which thrived on their eccentric musicality, this film would have benefited from something more reflective.
Even taking these minor quibbles into account, there is no doubt that Clegg, McVicar, Daltrey, and co have created a film well worth watching some thirty years on. The themes of desire for change, betrayal, and the nature of freedom are as fresh now as they ever were. McVicar the film is an interesting exploration of these couched within a compelling personal account proving again that cinema can examine the frailty of our humanity without the need for clichéd moralising.
A completely vanilla release this disc simply has the feature and scene selection menus. For an older movie the transfer is reasonably good capturing the gritty feel of the film with clear stereo sound for both the soundtrack and the dialogue. Helpfully the disc does have English subtitles for the “Hard of Hearing” which I find useful for late night viewing if you don’t have a set of headphones!
» Region 2,4 PAL
» Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 (Widescreen 16:9)
» Language: English (Dolby Digital 2.0)
» Subtitles: English HOH
(NB: I think the official rating reflects the period in which the movie was made and it would not be rated so highly today but that is still the legal rating that stands)
Reviewed by: Jacob Powell
Rating: R16 – Contains offensive language.
Director: Tom Clegg
Actors: Roger Daltrey, Adam Faith, Cheryl Campbell, Billy Murray, Georgina Hale, Steven Berkoff, and Brian Hall.
Dur: 108 min