Chickie (Zac Efron) travels from Manhattan to Vietnam in 1967 to deliver Pabst Blue Ribbon to his buddies in “The Greatest Beer Run Ever.”
When you see Zac Efron’s name connected to a movie called “The Greatest Beer Run Ever,” you might well think this is going to be another Bro Comedy in the vein of the “Neighbors” films or “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates,” but this is actually a Vietnam movie based on a strange and true story. And while the movie-star-handsome Efron again proves to be a reliable actor capable of handling comedy and drama within the same role, this plays out like a greatest-hits collection of scenes from better Vietnam movies, including “Casualties of War,” “Good Morning, Vietnam” and “The Deer Hunter.”
The intentions and performances are irrefutably sincere and noble. The execution almost always feels a little bit forced and a little bit false.
Director Peter Farrelly’s first film since the Academy Award-winning “Green Book” has a number of surface similarities to that picture, in that it’s a period-piece story inspired by true events, focusing on a conservative, working-class New York lunk who embarks on a journey into new territory and has his eyes opened to social injustice. Zac Efron’s Chickie Donahue is a Merchant Marine who lives in the blue-collar Manhattan neighborhood of Inwood in 1967, spending his nights pounding drinks at Doc Fiddler’s, the local pub run by the Colonel (Bill Murray), who still sports a flat-top from his fighting days in World War II and somberly intones that every one of the local lads fighting in Vietnam is a damn hero, and the media should stop showing the horrors of war on the TV every night.
Apple Original Films presents a film directed by Peter Farrelly and written by Farrelly, Pete Jones and Brian Currie. Rated R (for language and some war violence). Running time: 126 minutes. Opens Thursday in local theaters and Friday on Apple TV+.
Chickie’s sister Christine (Ruby Ashbourne Serkis) has joined up with the local protesters gathering the park and chanting, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today!” but Chickie’s views align with the Colonel’s: This is a just war worth fighting, and his buddies from the neighborhood are risking their lives in a noble effort to stop the spread of Communism. Fueled by a few too many drinks one night, Chickie pledges to take a duffel bag filled with cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon and deliver beers to a bunch of the guys in Vietnam, as a way of showing support.
Wait, what? It’s just about the dumbest idea anyone’s ever heard of — a point that’s made throughout the movie — but the real-life Chickie actually did undertake this seemingly suicidal mission (though “The Greatest Beer Run” condenses a four-month odyssey into less than a week). With director Farrelly working in needle drops to pop/rock tunes such as the Jefferson Airplane’s “Today,” the Hombres’ “Let It All Hang Out” and The Association’s “Cherish” (which is to this movie what “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” was to “The Deer Hunter”), Chickie hitches a ride on a cargo ship, arrives in Saigon and starts asking around for his buddies, who are stationed in various locales miles apart. That’s about the extent of Chickie’s plan, but he keeps on stumbling into dumb luck, in large part because he’s mistaken for a CIA operative, and his denials only make it seem more likely he’s a spook.
One of the problems with “The Greatest Beer Run Ever” is Chickie’s buddies are virtually indistinguishable. They’re all good guys (who seem to speak with Boston accents, even though they’re from New York) who are initially shocked and more than a little ticked off that Chickie has just shown up unannounced, putting himself and them at risk — but they eventually enjoy a beer or two with their old pal, give him a hug and tell him to say hello to everyone back home. (Chickie’s duffel bag holds a seemingly endless supply of beers. Not since Jesus fed the multitudes with only a few loaves and fishes …)
Russell Crowe is magnificent as a war correspondent sharing wisdom with Chickie.
“Beer Run” introduces a number of stock characters, including a friendly local police officer (Kevin K. Tran) Chickie dubs “Oklahoma” because that’s the officer’s favorite movie; a clueless military bureaucrat (Matt Cook) who keeps helping out Chickie in the hopes Chickie will put in a good word for him with the CIA, and a grizzled war correspondent (Russell Crowe), who takes a liking to Chickie and doles out valuable lessons, e.g., war is hell, and the most important battle of all is on the public relations front. (Crowe is magnificent in a too-small role.) By the time Chickie is ready to hand out the last, what must be very warm beer, he’s not so sure this war is a good idea after all. Surprise! To no one.
“The Greatest Beer Run” has some impressively staged battle sequences, fine performances from Efron and the supporting cast, a handful of darkly funny moments and a few decent dramatic punches. Time and again, though, the messages are pounded home in heavy-handed fashion — never more so than when Chickie returns home, out of beer but filled with new wisdom.