Monday, November 16, 2015


The exploits of nineteenth century lawyer/doctor/mercenary William Walker have gone before the cameras twice: 1969's BURN!, directed by THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS' Gillo Pontecorvo and starring Marlon Brando (and yet unseen by yours truly) and 1987's WALKER, helmed by Alex Cox, whose previous credits were SID & NANCY and REPO MAN.  Walker's story, his colorful life and demeanor was a perfect conduit through which leftist Cox could channel his anger at American involvement in Nicaragua during the mid-'80s.  Just as Altman let his invective (and freak flag) fly against Vietnam with the Korean War-set MASH, Cox set out to prove that things hadn't really changed in over a century in relations between the U.S. and Central America.

Cox and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer could've struck out on many a path with this project.  Play it serious? Go for laughs? Temper their film with a bit of both? The men (like Altman before them) obviously had great affection and pity for the plight of soldiers and villagers who were often collateral damage in the wake of American policy.  Of meglomaniacal boys in men's bodies who viewed people as chess pieces.  Consider Cornelius Vanderbilt, played here by Peter Boyle.  In an effort to protect his profitable shipping route, the American tycoon hires Walker, with the help of a rag tag collection of fighters, to take over the government of Nicaragua. Vanderbilt is portrayed, perhaps accurately, as a petulant buffoon, who, in a moment representative of the sort of humor in WALKER, expels a loud fart as punctuation to his statement, "I get what I want!".

Walker (Ed Harris) is not drawn any more favorably.  His apparent insanity is visible almost immediately upon arrival in his new land.  He always marches ahead of his men, untouched by the bullets of Nicaraguans who won't go quietly.  While his lackey mercenaries suffer and bleed, Walker finds and plays a piano. Later, after surviving an assassination attempt, he steals the mistress of the President and later has him shot.   And this is before he really goes off the deep end.  You can read the history of Walker, of what a madman he was, and the filmmakers want you to draw parallels between him and Oliver North, who at the time of WALKER's shoot was helping to subsidize (from the sale of arms to Iran) Contra forces attempting to undermine President Daniel Ortega in the name of democracy.  A big scandal.  Those who lived through those days will remember the televised hearings.  Footage of Reagan era news clips are included for emphasis during the end titles.

While I can understand why Cox chose to make such an oddball biography - the subject clearly merits it- it's obvious that the reach for surreality got the better of him.  This movie is a real mess. The early scenes promise something far better than what finally comes.  Goofy sight gags sit uncomfortably with more serious observations of exploitation and insanity.  The choice to use anachronisms (automobiles, computers, Time magazine) also comes off as desperate, too cheeky.  The film gets weirder and weirder as Walker's behavior grows more irrational, but things careen way out of control.  Having the supporting players (such as character actor Rene Auberjoinois) overract is also a dubious touch.  WALKER, by the time the helicopter touches down, has lost any credibility as a political and social cry. 

The film has its defenders, just as other troublesome, unclassifiable works like FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS do.  Criterion does another impressive job, and their selection of this certainly fits with what would be considered "important".  I just wish the film resembled DR. STRANGELOVE rather than ISHTAR.
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