Review by Gordon Justesen
Stars: Ed Harris, Richard
Masur, Rene Auberjonois, Peter Boyle, Miguel Sandoval, Marlee Matlin
Director: Alex Cox
Audio: Dolby Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Features: See Review
Length: 94 Minutes
Release Date: February 19, 2008
“Do you prize democracy, Walker? Universal suffrage? The principles of our founding fathers?”
“Yes. More than my own life.”
Some movies are simply hard to figure out. I had never seen any of Alex Cox’s work prior to watching Walker. I had never gotten around to seeing Repo Man or Sid and Nancy, two films I’ve wanted to see. But from what I understand, Cox took a big departure from his usual form of storytelling and was now attempting a political satire of the time.
Now I appreciate political satire more than anyone. A film like Wag the Dog is still one of a kind. And I’ve seen many war satires that were dead on. However, I can’t really tell what Cox was striving for with his film. The best way to describe this mess of a movie is the following phrase: overblown with a capital O.
How else can you make sense of a film that begins with the opening credit “This is a true story”, which is then followed by an endless montage of soldiers being shot down in an overdone and cartoonish way? There are countless shots of soldiers getting shot in super slow motion allowing the blood to gush out in front of our eyes. I’m sorry, are we watching a true story or the latest Rambo movie?
Walker was a film that received a great deal of harsh reviews upon its release in 1987, and I mean extremely harsh reviews. Siskel & Ebert both labeled it shockingly bad, and Leonard Maltin even gave it the dreaded BOMB rating in his movie guide. The negative press pretty much inspired me to want to see the film, which I approached with a fresh perspective.
I have a tendency to disagree with critics on films that I find unfairly trashed, and so the thought crossed my mind; could an over the top political/war satire from a well noted director and featuring an impressive cast be all that bad? This time around, the answer would very much be yes.
Cox set out to make a satire of the then ongoing conflict in Nicaragua by paralleling a similar incident that took place in the mid 1800s. There you have the problem of the film, I think. Since the conflict in Nicaragua was a heavy issue at the time, I think Cox would have benefited by telling a more straightforward depiction of the events in Walker. Relating those events to the conflict in the 1980s would’ve been a more fitting approach.
The film tells the story of William Walker (Ed Harris), a renaissance man of sorts who abandoned a privileged life for a life of upholding democracy in whatever country he found himself fighting in. After a failed mission of Mexico, which he withdrew from after promising his men that only an act of God would stop them (low and behold a sandstorm began), Walker is approached by industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt (Peter Boyle), who offers him the job of securing an overthrow of the nation’s government. Walker happily agrees.
The movie also asks us to believe that Walker was a man so indestructible in battle. There are countless scenes where Walker parades down war torn sections of Nicaragua and never gets so much as a scratch as a result. I could believe such a characteristic if, again, I was watching a Rambo movie. And what’s the deal with the scene of Walker eating part of a human flesh? We already know he’s lost his mind by that point, we don’t need something like that to confirm it.
I never thought an actor as tremendous as Ed Harris was ever capable of giving a bad performance, but he looks absolutely lost in the role. He goes from subtle to manic rage in a heartbeat in countless sections of the movie. And don’t even get me started on the scenes where he has to perform sign language to his deaf girlfriend, played by Marlee Matlin who I’m willing to bet fired her agent when she found out she would be following up her Oscar winning performance for Children of a Lesser God with a character who died in the first 20 minutes.
I don’t blame the talented cast for the performances as much as I blame Cox for directing them that way, which had to be the case in such an overblown film. And as if that wasn’t enough, Cox beats us over the head with his satirical antics, including a repeated gag where men in the 1800s are seen reading 1980s issues of Time and Newsweek. And Cox’s big visual gimmick in the end, where the past and the present literally collide on screen, is too ridiculous for words. Yes, I get what Cox was trying to state here, but there was no need for stating it in such an overblown manner.
Again, I went into Walker with an open mind, completely ignoring the harsh criticism it had received and go along with my gut opinion. I must admit I was stunned when I found myself siding with the critics who trashed it. There’s a way to execute satire and a way not to. Alex Cox’s Walker is a full representation of the latter.
The Criterion touch really shows in this anamorphic presentation. The picture quality is truly impressive for a film that’s 20 plus years old. The image is for the most part purely crisp and clean, and the Mexican settings look quite authentic. A hint of softness is detected in a scene or two, but nothing wholly distracting.
The mono track is actually an effective one, due in large part to the unusual music score provided by the late Joe Strummer of The Clash, which is nothing like I would’ve expected from him. The music playback, along with several war battle sequences balance out well, and dialogue delivery is perfectly clear.
Criterion delivers a most superb collection of features for a single disc release. Included is a Commentary with Alex Cox and Screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer, the revealing documentary titled “Dispatches From Nicaragua”, “On Moviemaking And The Revolution”, an audio retrospective on the making of the film from an extra, a Behind The Scenes Photo gallery titled “The Immortals”, and two hidden features; a featurette titled “Cox On Walker”, where the director comments on the many negative reviews of the film, and a Theatrical Trailer.
Lastly, there is a lengthy booklet featuring pieces by Film Critic Graham Fuller, actor and writer Linda Sandoval and Rudy Wurlitzer.
Walker represents an area of history I was unfamiliar with, which has me wishing a much different approach was made to the material. Rarely have I seen satire of a serious subject done in such an overblown way, and that approach simply turned me off from the movie entirely.