Brian Keith leads an acclaimed international cast in this poignant and powerful WWII drama fraught with action, suspense and the haunting reality of war.
Keith stars as Captain Jack Connor, a fast-talking, hard-drinking, tough-as-nails Irishman assigned to investigate an impending escape by a group of German POWs led by the charismatic Kapitan Schleutter (Helmut Griem). The camp commander (Ian Hendry) has been unable to contain the prisoners, but Connor's brash and unusual approach solves the problem...for awhile. In a race against time- and with growing animosity from the commander - Connor surpasses even his own previous unorthodox methods when he devises a scheme so daring that it will either make him a hero... or prove to be the most fatal mistake of his career.
You've gotta love a good prison break movie. The suspense as the plan comes together. The tension as things seemingly start to fall apart. The fear as you watch the prisoners escape one by one. From films like 'The Great Escape' to 'The Count of Monte Cristo' to 'Escape From Alcatraz' to 'The Shawshank Redemption' - prisons have provided the perfect setting for these stories to unfold. Then you get an interesting little spin on an old tale with 'The McKenzie Break' where it's captured Nazi's being held in a Allied POW camp who under direct orders from Hitler must do everything they can to break out of prison and rejoin the war.
During the final months of World War II, Nazi prisoners are being held at a remote POW camp in northern Scotland. They claim mistreatment while the British commanding officer Maj. Perry (Ian Hendry) does everything by the book in accordance to the Geneva Convention. But those assurances don't keep the over six hundred Nazi officers and soldiers from disobeying orders and staging riots and small rebellions. Little does anyone suspect that all of this disruptive behavior is a ruse intended to disguise the Nazi officer's true intentions - escape.
After the camp is overrun, British command decides it's time for a change in leadership. The one and only man suitable for the job is the disgruntled and disgraced Capt. Jack Connor (Brian Keith) who isn't above getting his hands a little dirty if it means getting the job done. Even with his less than savory reputation in the ranks, Connor has other problems including being a frequent drinker and a philanderer that draws the disdainful eye of superior officers. As his last shot at redemption, Conner takes command of the POW camp. His first order of business is to ascertain what Capt. Willi Schlueter (Helmut Griem) - the leading Nazi officer at the camp - is really up to. They're not simply growing vegetables in their spare time.
Being a man without much in the way of scruples, Connor sees through the ruse and knows deep down in his bones the prisoners aren't merely protesting mistreatment but are in fact constructing a tunnel. They must be, nothing else makes any sense. Why riot? Why would one of Schlueter's men hang himself in the face of interogation? Why would another prisoner be strangled to death? Something must be going on and Connor will do anything and everything he can to unearth the Nazi's plan to escape.
Talk about a heck of a movie! Normally in a prison break movie, you actually want the prisoners to escape. Sure they could be murderers or committed any number of unspeakable acts, but in these instances they're the heroes we're given to root for. In 'The McKenzie Break,' director Lamont Johnson almost dares the audience to root for the Nazis! Based on the Sir Sidney Shelley novel from a script by William Norton, the vast majority of the tension and the enjoyability comes from taking the position that you want these guys to get out, not because you believe in their cause or want them to see freedom, but because it serves as the perfect basis for a game of cat and mouse between Schluerter and Connor. Also if they don't get away, there just wouldn't be much of a movie.
As with any good suspense film - or any film in general for that matter - pacing is key. You don't want things to move so fast you don't let the audience breathe and think, nor do you want the film to be so dull and slow your audience falls asleep. With 'The Mckenzie Break,' everything works perfectly. It moves along at a nice enough clip to keep you invested but slow enough to provide you with just the right amount of character depth to be hooked by their failures and successes. Also helping this film is the fact that the audience is never ahead of the film. It keeps you lagging just far enough behind that you can see the forest but lose the trees. When the beak out finally does happen, you're ready to leap out of your seat in excitement, not because you want these guys to get out - you just want to see how they do it!
Performances all around are spot on - in particular Brian Keith and Helmut Griem as dueling officers on opposite sides of a war. At any given moment their actions speak louder than words. Connor isn't merely pulling up a potato plant - he's looking for something that goes a little bit deeper. Schluerter isn't simply staging intricately planned riots - he's doing a whole hell of a lot more and something far more productive to his cause.
When I first started watching 'The McKenzie Break' I knew going in that it was a WWII prison break movie, but I didn't expect it to be one about the Nazis trying to escape! It turned out to be an unexpected twist on an old story. While the third act feels a bit too truncated to maintain the film's previous level of suspense, the movie as a whole is highly entertaining and well worth a watch!
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The McKenzie Break' busts loose onto Blu-ray thanks to Kino Lorber. Pressed on a BD25 disc, the disc opens directly to the main menu featuring a static poster image and a segment of Riz Ortolani's score playing over it.
'The McKenzie Break' may have made it's way to Blu-ray, but it's HD image transfer appears to have taken a beating or two over the years. While film grain has been nicely retained leading to some incredible detail levels - coloring on the other hand is entirely different story. The film opens with muted appropriately drab colors - it's a WWII POW camp in Scotland after all. But as the film progresses, color intensity shifts from muted drab to bright and lush from shot to shot within a single scene. This could simply be a side effect of filming location, but it's a bit distracting. It's made worse when the optical credits come into the scene and get even darker. Thankfully after about the twelve or fifteen minute mark once the credits are through things stabilize and appear "normal." That probably isn't the worst thing to complain about given the film's 45 year age considering the rest of the transfer looks very good. Print damage is modest at worst - only some occasional flecks and specks pop up from time to time. Black levels are fairly solid for much of the film offering a lot of dim lighting shadow separation. During night shots when lighting is limited, there is a bit of crush from time to time - especially for the German officers whose darker uniforms can melt into the black backgrounds. All around this is a decent HD image - it just has some problem spots that should be mentioned to keep expectations in check.
Earning excelent marks for 'The McKenzie Break' is the fantastic DTS-HD MA 2.0 track. From the opening prison riot to the calmer quieter conversation moments to the thrilling conclusion - sound plays a major role in this film. Keeping to the midranges, the levels rarely waver allowing for nice equalization - so you never need to ride the volume button when things get loud - or when scenes quiet down for a warden-to-prisoner chat. For a redistributed mono track - imaging for this sound design is actually very impressive - especially during that opening riot sequence. Free of any age related anomalies, this is a very pleasing audio track through and through. Kino Lorber's Studio Classics releases have all had very impressive audio tracks for their catalogue titles, and this track is no exception.
Theatrical Trailer: (HD 3:27) This trailer does a heck of a job at selling this little movie. Also a fine showcase for how much better the condition of the HD transfer for the feature film is by comparison.
As a book and a film that I'd only ever heard of prior to this review, I was pleasantly surprised by this suspenseful little thriller. The cast is great, the pace is perfect - it just works as a great piece of entertainment. Does it tread a similar path of other prison break movies? Sure - but it has enough unique little twists to keep things fun and interesting. With a pretty decent HD transfer and a vivid audio track, I suggest people give this one a look.