McHale’s Navy

McHale's Navy. Universal Pictures 1997.
McHale’s Navy. Universal Pictures 1997.

Before watching the movie: This looks way too similar to Down Periscope. Though that’s probably just because of the closeness of subject matter. And tropes of 90s poster design. Some months ago, when I learned of the existence of this movie and queued it, I knew I wouldn’t be able to appraise it well without a better appreciation of the TV show, so I recorded and watched a handful of episodes. I’m sure the rest of the boat was distinctly characterized if one paid attention over the course of the series, but really only four characters stood out to me. So I’m already not too bothered with the fact that they clearly seem to have changed that lineup to move with the times. However, that would just leave a shell of legacy over a story that would otherwise be its own thing. After watching the movie:

Former sailor Quinton McHale has retired to a life of smuggling goodies into a Caribbean US Navy base and coaching the local kids’ baseball team. The base’s new C.O., Captain Binghampton, has dreams of molding the slack base into his stepping stone to the big brass, and that means chasing out McHale and his contraband. However, when an old foe from McHale’s Special Operations past makes camp in the village as the world’s number two terrorist, and the admiral in charge wants McHale to return to duty to handle the situation, and McHale insists on handling it in his own off-beat way.

It’s certainly different. Obviously things had to change to bring a WWII-era sitcom forward to the post-Cold War modern day, but there are some odd left turns. For most of the run of the series, the crew was based in the Pacific, but it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference moving to the Atlantic. I think the show moving to Italy was a bigger change. For the first hour or so, I was completely perplexed by the decision to make McHale retired. Once it became clear that the plot was going to focus on bringing him out of retirement (I was trying to work out how a civilian smuggler would get command of a Navy boat), it made sense, but there was half a movie in between.

The performances seem to be attempting to be faithful to the characters for the most part, at least as far as the script allows. Maybe it’s because I’m not familiar with Tom Arnold’s other work, but where others thought he was a poor choice, I think he carries the requisite charisma. (Kelsey Grammer has more charisma, but…) Casting David Alan Grier as Parker was a notable choice, but Grier did pretty well at getting Parker’s mannerisms, if not his knowledge of regulations. Dean Stockwell looks like a self-aggrandizing officer, where Joe Flynn just looks like an unfit one, but Stockwell attempts to get something like Flynn’s voice, making for an odd dissonance. I have the shakiest grasp on Carpenter’s personality from the show, but he appears to be a character completely sacrificed to the update. Where Elroy Carpenter was sycophantic and clumsy, Penelope Carpenter is the stock Only Woman In The Service With Something To Prove Who Falls In Love With The Hero For No Good Reason.

I think they hardly ever fired a shot on the show, but this movie has an action quota to fill. Or it’s antsy having to be around all that weaponry. Something like that. Missing half the point of the show, Binghampton is relegated from primary antagonist (deuteragonist?) to a minor annoyance with all his teeth pulled by McHale’s importance to the Admiral. His place is instead filled by the stand-in for the Japanese forces, a post-Soviet East German terrorist. With an inferiority complex. Since he’s clearly on the Other Side, he’s more expendable, and so heavy fire is traded several times, coming to a grand finale boat chase with missiles and machine guns and wasn’t this a show about some goldbricking seamen?

The first half of this movie is so radically different it has a hard time finding its feet. The last quarter is all guns and explosions and unfamiliar to the show. But for a glorious while in the middle, McHale has his men and his boat and they’re a ragtag crew getting things done around the rules. That’s the show. They made it happen. It seems foreign to the sensibilities of the studio, but they got there. And certainly had some fun on the way.

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