Mchale's Navy

on April 18, 1997 by Kim Williamson
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   Once upon a time, MCA watchers wondered who was most responsible for the company's sustained success since the 1970s, Lew Wasserman or Sid Sheinberg. In the new Bronfman era at Universal, that question is even less consequential. But, however moot, the answer appears at least to be "not Sheinberg." Since exiting MCA and launching the Bubble Factory with sons Bill and Jon, Sheinberg seems to have been producing movies using as a bible the Savoy model, in which each new release is even worse than the one that preceded it.
   Thus, in the wake of "Flipper" and "The Pest," arrives sinking- ship "McHale's Navy," a comedy based on the 1960s TV series of the same name. One accomplishment, which comes about 70 minutes into the tale, is one laugh. The film's other accomplishment--which comes several times during the telling of the tale of a retired lieutentant commander, Quinton McHale ("Carpool's" Tom Arnold), who interrupts his Sgt. Bilko-like private life go up against terrorist nemesis Major Vladikov ("Muppet Treasure Island's" Tim Curry) to save the Caribbean island McHale now calls home--is some well-done pyrotechnics. Aside from those two elements, "McHale's Navy" is as leaky and underpowered as a 1942 PT boat.
   Boomers familiar with the fitfully comic but always comradely- toned small-screen series, and probably primed to like the new version, will quickly realize that both the tone and usual narrative flow of the original have here become so much flotsam, with director Bryan Spicer ("Mighty Morphin Power Rangers") and scripter Peter Crabbe ("Car 54, Where Are You?") following their own Polaris. One might suggest a compass check. Not satisfied with one new tone, Spicer launches a flotilla of them, making adjacent scenes--of Bond-like action, family emoting, popeyed comedy and little-kids flickery--feel as if they're doing battle in some sort of cinematic Guadalcanal. Rather than worry about his story reaching shore, Crabbe treats the script as if it's a proper target of Wolf Pack raiders, intent on sending his narrative to the bottom; as a basic example, an explanation of why the "number 2 terrorist in the world" (one of the leaden running gags the film uses in place of actual humor) has decided to build a rocket base on the tiny island--the development that begins the film--is not only not provided, it's tossed overboard during the film's climax. As for the film's level of military reality, a screen image that reads "AQUIRE TARGET" (sic) says it all.
   As with his starring turns in "The Stupids" and "Big Bully," Arnold again is more engaging than the material; the portly actor should also torpedo DP Buzz Feitshans IV for the cameraman's tendency to shoot him from unflattering angles. A helium-voiced Dean Stockwell, as the uptight and up-the-creek Capt. Binghampton, and David Alan Grier, as befuddled Ensign Charles T. Parker, are directed to play the sillies. As the lovely but stern Lt. Penelope Carpenter, newcomer Debra Messing plays her part with real professionalism, especially in that the actress never blushes at the titanic inanity being created around her. The TV McHale, Ernest Borgnine, reprises his role; his character is code-named "Cobra," but it's revealed at the end that he's Quinton's dad. It's a nice touch. But, overall, this "McHale's Navy" would never have floated as programming ballast on a bad night of network TV.    Starring Tom Arnold, Dean Stockwell, Debra Messing, David Alan Grier, Tim Curry and Ernest Borgnine. Directed by Bryan Spicer. Written by Peter Crabbe. Produced by Sid, Bill and Jon Sheinberg. A Universal release. Comedy. Rated PG for action/violence, mild language and innuendos. Running time: 108 min
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