A Boozy Mission

Zac Effron brings pop-a-top cheer to Vietnam troops

The Greatest Beer Run Ever
Starring Zac Efron
Directed by Peter Farrelly
Rated R

In select theaters and on Apple TV+ on Sept. 30

There’ve been a lot of movies about the war in Vietnam, and some of them have rightfully become classics: Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Born on the Fourth of July, Casualties of War, The Deer Hunter, Platoon. They all plumbed the intense human drama, the moral and ethical complications and the horrific realities of a prolonged conflict that cost nearly 60,000 American lives, plus with more than 3 million civilians and soldiers in North and South Vietnam.

There’s that league of masterpieces, then there’s The Greatest Beer Run ever. In beer terms, this movie’s a bit frothy and lite.

Zac Efron stars as “Chickie” Donohoe, a hawkish, mouthy New Yorker who decides to deliver some back-home barroom cheer to the neighborhood lads serving and fighting in Southeast Asia. He says he’s going there to hand-deliver them cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon from the local pub.

It’s 1967, and Chickie is a staunch supporter of the U.S. involvement in the war; he thinks protesters are “Commie bastards” and scumbags, undermining the heroic efforts of G.I.s to spread the American way. He thinks TV shouldn’t report “bad news,” only the great things our guys are doing. He’s a good-time-Charlle boozehound who freeloads off his parents, doesn’t follow through on anything and has made it so far on his cocky charms.

Even though his friends and his family tell him his idea is foolish, stupid, colossally dangerous and likely impossible, Chickie sees his beer run as his way of supporting the troops. “Everyone’s doin’ something,” he muses. “I’m doin’ nothing.”

So off he goes, with a bag full of brewskies.

Director and writer Peter Farrelly is best known for the raunchy comedies he made with his filmmaking brother, Bobby, including Dumb and Dumber, Shallow Hal, There’s Something About Mary, The Heartbreak Kid and a 2012 contemporary twist on The Three Stooges. He branched out in 2018 into more “serious” fare with The Green Book, which brought him a trio of Oscars.

Like Green Book, which was based on a true story—a Black classical pianist and his streetwise Italian driver find common ground on a trip across the Deep South in the early 1960s—Beer Run is also based on real retro events as detailed by the real-life Chickie in a 2020 book.

Zac Effron stars as Chickie Donoho in this sudsy saga based on a true story.

Efron, the former High School Musical Disney star, went on to big-screen roles in The Greatest Showman, the movie remakes of TV’s Baywatch, Steven King’s Firestarter and the musical Hairspray, and he played notorious serial killer Ted Bundy in Netflix’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. He gives Chickie a kind a contagious, dunderheaded likeability; some of that might be mojo of the moustache he appears to have borrowed from Tom Selleck or Burt Reynolds. 

It’s a somewhat whimsical, fanciful tale, about a young, preppy-looking American guy who hops off a U.S. Merchant Marine freighter into the hot zone with a sack of suds. And Farrelly leans on his light-touch comedy chops for running gags, bro banter, punchlines and scenes that point out the tall-tale absurdity of it all. But the movie’s tone is all over the place; the comedy often clashes with the raw, visceral realities of war, and the watered-down production values feel like hammy Hollywood hokum. There’s little “movie magic” to plunge viewers in the mud, blood and teeming turmoil of a country ripped apart by war.

But there’s plenty of magic in that duffel that Chickie dutifully totes around everywhere he goes. At one point, a soldier asks him how many beers are in there. “A bunch,” he replies. Indeed—it seems to be a bottomless pit of boozy sorcery, an endless well of pop-top refreshment. Chickie hands out Pabsts all over Vietnam, on the streets, in barracks, on the battlefield, even tossing them from a helicopter. It’s like Felix the Cat’s Bag of Tricks, a cartoonish stunt. Maybe Jesus had a Chickie bag full of loaves and fishes at the Sermon on the Mount.

The movie brings up issues of relevance, then and now—about lying government officials, the role and responsibilities of the media, a nation divided and Vietnam’s caustic toll. Chickie’s eyes are gradually opened to what’s really going on, watching in shock as a prisoner of war is tossed from a military chopper, or seeing first-hand the dirty work keeping the war machine humming. He comes to realize that, hey, maybe sending American troops to get involved in a civil conflict halfway across the globe, under the ruse of “fighting Communism,” isn’t such a swell idea. His bag of beer doesn’t change anything in Vietnam, or about Vietnam. It does, however, wash away Chickie’s delusions.

Russell Crowe plays a war photographer.

A chorus of cardboard-thin supporting characters pops in and out; this is Chickie’s movie, based on Chickie’s book, based on something Chickie did 50-some years ago, and everyone else is just along to shore up his chummy chronicle. Some two decades removed from the Roman-arena battlefield of Gladiator, Russell Crowe plays a gruff, weary war photographer. His size is, ahem, formidable, but his duties are small, just like the iconic Bill Murray’s portrayal of the flag-waving WWII-veteran bartender back at Chickie’s favorite Manhattan watering hole.

Don’t look for The Greatest Beer Run Ever to get any champagne toasts at next year’s Oscars. It’s a tidy little diversion, an over-simplified story about a shallow fellow who finally follows through on something and learns something else—something many Americans already knew—in the process. It didn’t end the war, but Chickie’s beer run changed his way of thinking.

It’s no Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket, but it has just enough uplifting Green Book DNA to make this sudsy, somewhat superficial tale go down easy, like a foxhole quaff from one of the lukewarm ales rattling around in Chickie’s duffel bag.  

So, drink up. This beer’s on Chickie!

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