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Sep. 28—Imagine it's 1967 and, half a world away, the Vietnam War is raging.
Imagine you're a young man fortunate enough not to be overseas in the thick of that polarizing fight, instead spending your nights throwing back beers at the local bar and your days sleeping off those beers.
Now imagine you decide that — to make some use of yourself and to give your buddies seeing combat duty in Southeast Asia a taste of home — you'll fill a duffle bag with cans of beer, hop a boat to Vietnam and go traipsing around the country looking for your pals.
John "Chickie" Donohue did, in fact, commit to that ludicrous-if-laudable idea, and his story is now the basis for the highly entertaining comedy-drama "The Greatest Beer Run Ever."
Debuting this week in select theaters and on Apple TV+, the film is writer-director Peter Farrelly's follow-up to 2018's Academy Award-winning "Green Book."
"Beer Run" is another piece of evidence that Farrelly — who, with brother Bobby, is responsible for a string of generally silly but well-regarded comedies including "Dumb and Dumber" and "There's Something About Mary" — has a real gift for fact-based dramas that blend serious topics, such as racism and war, with plenty of laughs.
This new movie certainly does, introducing us to Chickie (Zac Efron) carrying around pitchers of beer at his regular haunt, Doc Fiddler's in Manhattan's Inwood neighborhood. There, he shares good times with a few of his friends as TV reports bring dour reports of the goings-on in Vietnam, which frustrates the bar's owner, a vet the guys refer to as "The Colonel" (Bill Murray, of the Farrellys' 1996 comedy, "Kingpin").
At home, Chickie's lazy, aimless ways frustrate his family, including sister Christine (Ruby Ashbourne Serkis, "Becoming Elizabeth"). She's begun joining war protests, which in turn rankles him.
The idea for the beer-based mission comes from an offhand remark made by Doc that someone ought to bring those guys a beer from back home to remind them what they're fighting for.
"I can do that!" Chickie says.
No one really thinks he's serious, except maybe for Christine, who now would rather he simply keep slurping and sleeping. He's a Marine vet, but, as she points out, his experience serving in Massachusetts involved playing poker and dodging bar tabs, not bullets.
Even Chickie doesn't really believe he'll go, we see, but go he does, using his status as a Merchant Marine too get a job in the boiler room of a ship bound for Saigon.
The plan: use a three-day leave to go looking for neighborhood chums Rick Duggan (Jake Picking, "Hollywood"), Bobby Pappas (Kyle Allan, "The Map of Tiny Perfect Things") and Tom Collins (Archie Renaux, "Shadows and Bone"). Hey, with any luck, he'll even find another, Tommy Minogue (Will Hochman), who's officially missing in action.
When he arrives in Vietnam, with no change of clothes but a Doc Fiddler's bag full of brew, anyone who believes his story — from journalists such as war correspondent Arthur Coates (Russell Crowe, "Thor: Love and Thunder") to his pals themselves — thinks he's nuts. However, those in command peg him as a CIA spook and help him get to where he's going, a recurring situation good for a few chuckles.
We don't want to dive too deeply into more of the story details, but Chickie eventually will spend time with Arthur, an experience that helps him begin to see the U.S. military involvement in Vietnam through a different lens.
Farrelly was inspired to make the movie after seeing a short documentary about Donohue's story on YouTube.
In adapting Donohue's memoir, "The Greatest Beer Run Ever: A True Story of Friendship Stronger Than War," with co-writers Brian Currie and Pete Jones, Farrelly makes no bold statements about the war. While the stakes for Chickie grow increasingly serious as it progresses, the movie is out to entertain, not change minds.
It is engaging not just thanks to Farrelly's excellent work but also to Efron's. The former "High School Musical" star, whose credits also include portraying serial killer Ted Bundy in 2019's "Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile," brings the needed charm and exuberance to the role. Like everyone in Chickie's life, you want to grab him and shake some sense into him, but you can't help but also to love him.
"Beer Run" isn't as substantive as "Green Book," a film that has its detractors, but if nothing else is a different kind of Vietnam War movie.
Perhaps it's just a little too easy of a drink, but it's refreshing all the same.
'The Greatest Beer Run Ever'
Where: Apple TV+ and select theaters.
When: Sept. 30.
Rated: R for language and some war violence.
Runtime: 2 hours, 6 minutes.
Stars (of four): 3.