For his follow-up feature to his Oscar-winning 2018 film “Green Book,” director Peter Farrelly (known mostly for his comic collaborations with his brother Bobby) has turned to a genial true story from the Vietnam War. “The Greatest Beer Run Ever” isn’t your typical Vietnam film. Based on a wild, wildly improbable real-life tale, it hews closer to comedy than gritty war drama — it’s Nam-com, if you will. But over the course of the film, it evolves from lark to dark, as the central protagonist learns the brutal reality of war during his harrowing journey delivering cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon to his pals.
Based on the book “The Greatest Beer Run Ever” by John “Chick” Donohue and J.T. Molloy, the script has been adapted by Farrelly, Pete Jones and Brian Hayes Currie. Zac Efron stars as Chickie Donohue, an unmotivated good-time guy from Inwood, Manhattan, who just can’t stand that his buddies from the neighborhood keep getting killed in the war. Yet he’s also mad at the news media for only showing the negative, and doesn’t understand why his sister keeps attending war protests. Efron’s version of Chickie is an easily swayed naif, which is how one thing leads to another.
When his ardently patriotic local bartender, The Colonel (Bill Murray) expresses his desire to bring the boys a beer, Chickie announces he’s going to do it, despite everyone’s belief that he’ll blow it off like he does everything. But things seem strangely aligned to go Chickie’s way. A merchant marine, it just so happens there’s a ship full of ammo bound for Saigon short a crew member. So he boards with a duffle full of PBR, and a head full of … well, absolutely nothing. Chickie has no plan, but then again, things are lining up to make sure that he achieves his harebrained mission.
It’s through a combination of dumb luck, charm, naivete, street smarts and good old American friendliness that Chickie manages to scam his way onto military planes and choppers thanks to the fact that everyone thinks he’s CIA. Incredibly, he makes his way around the country to deliver beer to four of the boys from the ‘hood, and get caught in the Tet Offensive while he’s at it. While it may seem like he's having a Forrest Gump adventure, when it comes to these facts, at least, there’s no creative license taken. Some stories just are stranger than fiction.
While the first half is stilted and smirky, Farrelly’s filmmaking serviceable at best, with some very rushed motivation, as Chickie finds his footing, so too does the film, falling in step with the young man as he realizes that this trip is much more than just a dare. What starts out light and a bit silly takes on a growing poignance with each PBR cracked, each “see ya back in the neighborhood.” So too does Farrelly’s aesthetic evolve, moving from a brightly lit, almost artificial-looking style, to a darker, grittier and more fluid approach as things prove to be more serious. Russell Crowe also offers some gravitas as a war correspondent who takes Chickie under his wing for a bit.
The beer run turns into a transformative experience as Chickie takes in the chaos, violence and loss of war, but more importantly, as he sees the reality of government lies and propaganda firsthand. Though the messaging is a bit flat-footed, it’s nonetheless effective, and clearly deeply felt, and it brings a sense of significance to this otherwise wacky real-life story, one that really does have to be seen to be believed.
'THE GREATEST BEER RUN EVER'
2.5 stars (out of 4)
MPAA rating: R (for language and some war violence)
Running time: 2:06
How to watch: In theaters and streaming on Apple TV+ Friday
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