Bland, unfunny and almost painfully simplistic, The Greatest Beer Run Ever is unlikely to trouble lists of the greatest Vietnam War movies of all time. Worst of all, if you didn’t know it was based on a true story, you wouldn’t believe a thing about it.
Zac Efron is decent in the lead role
Excellent soundtrack of ’60s tunes
Makes you want to find out what really happened to John "Chickie" Donohue on the real-life adventure that inspired the film
Feels implausible, even though you know it's based on a true story
Doesn't work as either a comedy or a drama
Very little sense of danger
An overly simplistic view of the Vietnam War
Why you can trust TechRadar
- Available now on Apple TV Plus
- Based on the true story of John “Chickie” Donohue, who traveled to Vietnam to hand-deliver a beer to all his friends serving in the war
- Written and directed by Green Book Oscar-winner Peter Farrelly
- Stars Zac Efron as Chickie
- Russell Crowe and Bill Murray have supporting roles
Vietnam changed the way Hollywood dealt with war. Where World War II movies had predominantly celebrated Allied soldiers (aka the good guys) overcoming the forces of evil, the long-running conflict in the Far East wasn’t quite so easy to pigeon hole. Many of the best Vietnam movies (Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Platoon) were made within a decade or so of the war ending, when it was still raw and very much part of the public consciousness. As a result, filmmakers weren’t just exploring the horrors of war, but the social consequences and political motivations of battles fought on the other side of the world.
You’d have thought that a few more decades of contemplation would provide a whole new perspective on a war that ended nearly five decades ago – like the one Spike Lee brought to 2020’s emotional, visceral and highly political Da 5 Bloods (available on Netflix). Unfortunately, the ambitions of The Greatest Beer Run Ever aren’t quite so lofty, because for most of its runtime, the war is a mild inconvenience, a backdrop to an inconsequential road trip featuring occasional displays of fireworks. And while the movie walks the walk with its classic Vietnam iconography – the helicopters, the napalm, an iTunes playlist of ’60s bangers – it also has very little to say. War is hell, the old saying goes, but rarely has it been this glib.
Based on a true story?
As implausible as the movie makes his adventures seem, The Greatest Beer Run Ever is actually based on the true story of merchant sailor John “Chickie” Donohue. After chatting with some friends in his local pub in New York, he vows to say thank you to every one of the local boys serving in Vietnam by hand-delivering them a beer. Before long he’s bagged himself a job on a freighter bound for Saigon, and getting 72 hours of leave to haul his boozy cargo around a war-torn country. If Captain Willard was pursuing Colonel Kurtz with “extreme prejudice” in Apocalypse Now, Chickie’s mission is more about “extreme whimsy”.
It's worth noting that, before he was winning Oscars for the divisive Green Book, writer/director Peter Farrelly was best known for making extremely successful gross-out comedies like Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary with his brother, Bobby. We mention this because the screen version of Chickie is every bit as idiotic as Harry, Lloyd or any of their other intentionally ridiculous creations.
His lack of awareness about the dangers of being war zone with no orders and no papers never rings true, nor does his failure to grasp the idea that his actions might get someone killed – it’s not endearing, it’s just crass. Zac Efron brings a degree of charm to the role, but Chickie never feels like a real person as he pinballs around US army bases like a painfully unaware, moustachioed Forrest Gump. “Don’t worry about him,” one sergeant tells his troops. “Every once in a while you run into a guy who’s too dumb to get killed.” Or have ever existed in the first place…
If Chickie fails to convince as a character, he’s far from the least believable thing about the movie. Despite being on the other side of the world, he has a habit of bumping into people he knows with such implausible regularity that it feels like Vietnam is the sixth borough of NYC. And then there’s the shoulder bag he effortlessly hauls around the country, despite the fact it’s filled with enough beer to get a group of soldiers “hammered”, with plenty of cans to spare. Either Chickie is gifted with Marvel levels of super-strength, or he’s borrowed his bag from Mary Poppins.
But by far the film’s biggest crime is an over-simplistic, patronising approach to the Vietnam War that assumes nobody watching has any idea of the history behind it. Early on, Chickie and his friends (including a flat-topped Bill Murray as a WW2 vet bar owner) are quick to shut down any criticism of President Lyndon B Johnson, the war, or the possible motives behind it, whether it’s from TV news or student protestors.
But the two sides of the argument – is America’s motive stopping communism or spreading imperialism? – are painted in such broad brush strokes that it’s never clear what side Farrelly’s on. It’s only in the film’s final act that The Greatest Beer Run Ever makes any kind of stand at all, and it takes Russell Crowe’s jaded photojournalist spelling things out in the simplest possible terms to give Chickie a belated wake-up call. The movie finally has the guts to say, yeah, war really is a bad thing, but nobody got the memo explaining that showing is generally better than telling. Then again, this is not a film that deals in nuance.
There’s nothing wrong with movies bringing a more light-hearted approach to the theater of war, and the likes of M*A*S*H, Three Kings and Dr Strangelove have all shown that comedy doesn’t have to compromise the seriousness of the subject matter. But The Greatest Beer Run Ever is neither funny nor dramatic, and ultimately feels as futile as travelling thousands of miles to give a beer to someone who could have easily got one anyway.
The Greatest Beer Run Ever is out now on Apple TV Plus worldwide.
Richard is a freelance journalist specialising in movies and TV, primarily of the sci-fi and fantasy variety. An early encounter with a certain galaxy far, far away started a lifelong love affair with outer space, and these days Richard's happiest geeking out about Star Wars, Star Trek, Marvel and other long-running pop culture franchises. In a previous life he was editor of legendary sci-fi magazine SFX, where he got to interview many of the biggest names in the business – though he'll always have a soft spot for Jeff Goldblum who (somewhat bizarrely) thought Richard's name was Winter.