One must give Peter Farrelly credit. The Greatest Beer Run Ever actually makes Pabst Blue Ribbon seem refreshing. The film offers a loony based-on-a-true-story tale about a well-intentioned barfly, Chickie Donohue (Zac Efron), who decides to let his buds fighting in ’nam know they’re appreciated. Forget what say Jane Fonda and those “Baby Killer!!!!” signs brandished by hippie protesters. Chickie wants the boys to know that good ‘Murricans believe in them. And he does so by carting a bag of PBR cans from New Jersey to Saigon.
Dumb as the premise is, one can’t help but be won over by Chickie’s effort to hand-deliver terrible beer. Efron is extremely likable as Chickie. He embodies the earnest all-American boy persona. And if Chickie seems like a total idiot when The Greatest Beer Run Ever begins, it’s because, well, he sorta is. The film proves unexpectedly compelling as Chickie’s beer run assumes a significance far beyond brews. It’s a story of cultural awareness and political awakening, stirringly if inelegantly yet entertainingly told.
Chickie somehow finagles his way to the war zones of Vietnam. He gets a job as the oilman on a boat out to the war-torn country. Once there, he flubs his way onto three-day leave and gets an all-expense-paid plane, trains, and automobiles ride to the thick of the conflict. He tells everyone he’s a civilian, and explains his beer-run operandi openly, but nobody really believes him. They assume it’s a cover story for a CIA operative. Who, really, would be stupid enough to bring a bag of American beer to an American war zone? Chickie, though, has an earnest likability that Efron sells to perfection. This guy gets away with anything, even charming the most cynical of viewers.
Brews on the Battlefield
In Vietnam, Chickie plans to meet several of his friends. Among them is Tommy Minogue, who was declared MIA shortly before Chickie embarked on the beer run. Chickie charts a map and finds himself in Apocalypse Now territory as he brings a beer to his pal Rick (Jake Picking). As Rick cracks open a cold one (now warm and very foamy) in the trenches, Chickie gets a taste of the real war. It’s pure hell. He sees that the war is nothing like the news at home suggests. It’s awful. It’s messy. And it’s not victorious.
The Greatest Beer Run Ever uses the story of the American war effort in Vietnam to comment upon contemporary “fake news” ills. Several scenes see Chickie in conversation with reporters like Coates (Russell Crowe) who challenge Chickie’s simplified view of the war created by the coverage he sees back home. At the same time, the reporters benefit from Chickie’s heroic(?) reportage from the front lines. He has access to firsthand accounts of conflict that they do not.
Chickie’s beer run opens his eyes to the myth of American exceptionalism. As he dodges bombs, evades bullets, and outruns tanks—all the while holding his ever-full bag-o-beers—he sees the falsehoods of the American story. It’s especially touching as he comes to understand that his friends don’t know what they’re fighting for. As he passes them brews and thanks them for their service, few of them know why. His pithy answers tell him more than any banner-waving hippie ever could.
Beer Run’s portrait of the Vietnamese is, admittedly, more simplified. Everyone loves the Americans, most notably a traffic cop with whom Chickie strikes up a “hey, buddy!” relationship within seconds. They bond over Oklahoma! and make plans to meet up after the war.
Too Dumb to Die
The Greatest Beer Run Ever, like Farrelly’s Oscar-winning hit Green Book, takes a crowd-pleasing approach to history. Admittedly, it is Ball Scratching: The Movie with its portrait of buds, brews, and bravery. However, it’s also a warmly spirited adventure. The film is more transparent than Green Book, any many other “based on a true story” tales, with its liberal approach to history. Chickie’s story is farfetched and often hard to believe, and that’s ok. I’d have dropped the beer bag as soon as the bullets started firing in my direction, but what matters not is whether the real Chickie carried the bag all the way to the valiant end, but that Efron’s Chickie did. Farrelly earnestly delivers a story in which one man realizes the error of his worldviews and makes amends.
Efron, meanwhile, is genuinely sincere as Chickie. There’s a light gaffe in the casting, though, as Efron’s ripped, veiny biceps eclipse the muscles of the all his soldier boys. The Greatest Beer Run Ever somewhat suffers from its star’s refusal to look bad (aside from the moustache), but it probably helps sell the farfetched true story that Chickie looks more like GI Joe than any soldier on the line does. There are some great supporting turns all around him though, like a gruff Russell Crowe, a salty Bill Murray, and a heartbreaking Kristin Carey, who kills it in two scenes. Beer Run earns its crowd-pleaser laurels well. It serves heart and humour in equal measure.
As one soldier along the way says, people like Chickie are often too stupid to get themselves killed. One can say the same about The Greatest Beer Run Ever. It’s silly enough and likable enough to forgive the fact that it’s so basic. Like Chickie, the film wins you over like a cold-ish PBR on a hot, sweaty day.