In an effort to boost his sinking popularity in the years following the end of the Cold War, the U.S. President impulsively declares a new cold war on Canada. While Americans buy into the fearmongering, a patriotic sheriff called Bud Boomer in Niagara Falls, New York, being on the front lines, prepares his friends for a preemptive strike.
The movie is obviously sending up among other things America’s post-Cold War identity, Canada-US relations, and overt, sometimes radical patriotism. It’s clearly also taking a lot of cues from films like Dr. Strangelove whose war room is seemingly replicated here. The satire is for the most part, pretty good. The premise of the U.S. vs. Canada promises plenty of great comedy at both countries’ expense. From the paranoid discussions linking Canada’s socialized healthcare with communism to the hilarious attempts to pass off Canada as ominous or threatening. Like how Canada is frighteningly ahead in zamboni technology, how it’s the world’s second largest country, how hundreds are crossing the border every day, etc. It’s very on point and is actually still relevant today. Especially given the current American political climate. My favourite bit might be the propaganda ad about “Canadians walking among us” citing the likes of William Shatner and Mike Myers or the line: “like maple syrup, Canada’s evil oozes over the United States!” There’s some great commentary about how Boomer’s actions, most of which are quite moronic, are inspiring Americans to rise up in defiance of anything Canadian. They attack beer trucks, burn flags and photos of Alex Trebek, do all sorts of ridiculous things you can’t help but laugh at. It’s not just the Americans who are made fun of though. There’s a scene where Canadians stop a hockey game to start a brawl with Boomer for insulting their beer (even the cops get in on it), there’s a joke about there not being a locked door in the whole country, the RCMP headquarters is revealed to be a log cabin housing very specific Canadian kind of prisoners, and a pair of Mounties let Boomer and his gang go due to being distracted by ones’ improper grammar. But as a Canadian with a sense of humour, I love this stuff. At times is it too much, yes. I think Moore really loves portraying the American public’s love of war and how typical “blue-blooded Americans” are incredibly ignorant, as well as the fact the President’s being manipulated by an aide who himself is being manipulated by a greedy businessman. But he does get good jokes out of them. The President during a visit to Niagara Falls, is tackled by Boomer and his popularity sky-rockets when everyone thinks he’s dead. That’s pretty funny. So’s his failing to purposefully reignite the Cold War with the Russian President. And the movie ends with some hilarious if unoriginal Animal House-style credits.
But a lot of what makes this film funny are the performances. I don’t know if the script would be strong enough to support less talented actors. Candy as Boomer is of course, great. I suspect Moore cast him purely out of the irony that such a beloved Canadian icon was playing an anti-Canada American wannabe freedom fighter. But even in this kind of a role, he’s so damn likable. Boomer is so over-the-top and committed to his ludicrous quest that you enjoy every moment he’s on screen. Every time he crosses the border to wreak some havoc it’s a lot of fun. And who thought you’d ever see John Candy hold multiple people hostage before shutting down all the power in Canada? I think there’s also the fact that he clearly cares for those around him, especially his partner Honey, that makes him relatable. In addition to Candy though, Canadian Bacon has a really great ensemble. Cast members from two of my favourite shows appear in this movie, Rhea Perlman from Cheers, and Alan Alda from M*A*S*H. Perlman is essentially just playing Carla Tortelli again as Honey, a tough wise-ass with a propensity for offensive action. But she’s still pretty enjoyable, her obsession with destroying the CN Tower a really funny character trait. Alda is very good as the mostly well-intentioned but easily corruptible President. He’s a natural fit for authority figures, so it’s especially fun to see him shoved around and frustrated by his own and others’ incompetence. Again, it’s definitely recalling Peter Sellers’ President from Dr. Strangelove. Advising him are an enjoyably snarky Kevin Pollack and a rough bombastic Rip Torn, both of whom are great, but the latter especially gets some killer deliveries. Kevin J. O’Connor who you’ll recognize from a bunch of Steven Somers movies plays Boomer’s suicidal friend Roy Boy while the late Bill Nunn (Radio Raheem from Do the Right Thing) plays his other friend Kabral. G.D. Spradlin is very good as the crazed businessman Hacker running the whole show. And there are a bunch of good minor roles and cameos. Jim Belushi’s actually funny as a news reporter, Dan Aykryod is great in one hilarious scene satirizing Canada’s preoccupation with bilingualism, and Wallace Shawn is a good choice for Canadian Prime Minister Clark MacDonald. Oh yeah, and Steven Wright is really hilarious as a gloomy deadpan mountie. He absolutely steals the show in his few scenes.
This movie isn’t without its problems though. The climax is underwhelming, not awful, but given the set-up it could have been a lot more spectacular. There were scenes where it felt a little too close to Dr. Strangelove and I would have liked it to try something different. Also, Michael Moore’s self-righteousness and complete contempt for Republicanism come through in places, which is irritating. He gives himself a cameo as a gun-crazed American who’s over-the-top but not in a funny way -it comes off as mean-spirited. The characters though very funny, do at times feel a little like caricatures themselves, particularly when we see the President’s incompetence or Rip Torn’s hyper-masculinity. And this may be a side effect of John Candy Month, but I miss the heart. I understand this isn’t a John Candy movie, rather it’s an ensemble comedy with him at the forefront, and I do admire Candy stepping outside of his comfort zone to play a dick (I also have to imagine it hurt a little to express so many anti-Canadian-isms). But I’m just used to a little more warmth from him, even though it’s something that this movie probably was right not to have.
Canadian Bacon is a pretty decent comedy, something you wouldn’t expect from Michael Moore, but perhaps John Candy. It’s got a lot of fun satire and clever jokes, funny performances and personalities from a bevy of comedic greats, and a premise that’s just insane enough to work. It’s not one of the more popular John Candy films and does have some problems I can understand would bother some. But for me it’s a good time and a worthy final film for a great performer.
It shouldn’t have been his final film though. John Candy was a brilliant actor capable of both hilarious comedy and touching drama, and he left too soon. Though he died long before I ever knew of him, I still miss him whenever I see one of his movies. But in spite of a number of misfires, he left a good legacy. I’ve really enjoyed revisiting his films this September. Uncle Buck, Only the Lonely, Cool Runnings, and Canadian Bacon are certainly worth seeing, as are a number of other films he was in including Splash, Spaceballs, and Planes, Trains, & Automobiles -perhaps my favourite comedy. And of course, his fantastic unforgettable work on SCTV. There may not be any John Candy movies to come, but I’m sure as hell going to enjoy re-watching the ones he left us.