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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Walker’ Dramatizes Bizarre Historical Exploit Gone Awry

The sad lesson of Alex Cox’s “Walker” (selected theaters)--for its title character and Cox himself--is that chutzpah, bravery, vision and craziness aren’t enough.

This movie, about a botched attempt at American empire-building--the brief 1855 conquest of Nicaragua by a half-insane soldier of fortune named William Walker--is itself an exploit gone awry. Nothing jells. It’s like a hastily wrapped surprise bomb package that can’t explode because the fuse is damp.

Cox and his screenwriter, Rudy Wurlitzer, seem to oscillate among several tones and catch none of them. At times--as in the early scenes with Walker’s love, Ellen Martin (Marlee Matlin), or the Nicaraguan temptress Yrena (Blanca Guerra)--the movie has the air of a stiffly staged TV historical drama, a half-baked “Hallmark Hall of Fame.”

At times, in the battle scenes, the film seems to be surging into half-pecked, pawed-over Sam Peckinpah--blood squirting, bodies tumbling in slow-motion danse macabre --but without the Peckinpah tension or mastery of rhythm. This last mimicry is clearly conscious: Wurlitzer wrote one of Peckinpah’s best Westerns, “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.”

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More successfully, but far too seldom, the movie tries to twist into a surreal realm, mixing fact and fantasy, past and present, modern-day clashes between Sandinistas and Contras echoing over Walker’s historical scrapes. But this vein is as slashed up as everything else. Cox and Wurlitzer don’t thread their time-warp anachronisms through the whole movie, and when some audiences see the Newsweek and People covers of Walker halfway through, they may conclude the movie makers have gotten confused about what century they’re in.

It’s a weirdly alienating movie. There’s one brilliant performance: by Ed Harris as Walker, seething with charismatic zealotry and howling idiocy. But Harris seems eerily alone, isolated, surrounded by wildly exaggerated caricatures that seem to belong, variously, in a jokeless slapstick comedy or some psychopathic cocaine Western.

Cox takes this obscure but significant episode in American history and tries to explode it past its context, lay bare the parallels with today. This entrepreneurial invasion--Walker was backed by the Cornelius Vanderbilt empire-- is something of a precursor. It preceded the U.S. Marine landings, beginning in 1912, that helped prop up or create many later Nicaraguan regimes including the Somozas.

But, perhaps because Walker’s was a near comic-opera exploit that went wildly wrong, Cox can’t get the right resonance out of it. He may want to suggest parallels with Oliver North and the Iran-Contra caper, but Walker’s idiotically unraveling invasion affects you differently. These sadistic, boozing bozos foul up scandalously--and, in one of the script’s few masterstrokes, some of them are rescued by U.S. helicopters--but Cox can’t get the right echoes from them.

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It’s hard to link the movie’s mercenaries with the CIA, or the Contras, because they act too much like the Wild Bunch on ether. The movie insists, in an opening title, that its story is “true,” but what it really needs is far more craziness, more fantasy, more humor.

Alex Cox has a sensibility that seems to boil up over the edges; he’s a film maker who seems to court danger, run after it. In “Repo Man,” and especially in his best film, “Sid and Nancy,” that sense of breaking rules and going too far usually worked in his favor. “Sid and Nancy,” a realistic drama shot like a musical comedy--in lyrical, stylishly framed long takes--played with several levels of pop style and self-consciousness. But you could tell Cox had gut sympathy for his fouled-up lovers even as he ruthlessly exposed their illusions and absurdities.

Here, the sympathies seem oddly mixed and skewed. On some subconscious level, Cox may side with his own villains, the mercenaries, simply because they’re the loners and oddballs of the movie. The Nicaraguans--perhaps because “Walker” was shot with the Sandinista government’s consent--are generally too stiff and noble, or even bourgeois, to inspire him.

Cox doesn’t love the psychopaths and redneck peckerwoods of “Walker” the way Peckinpah would have. He is partial to a different kind of rebellion. Here, he isn’t working in his own strengths: his flair for contemporary satire, his quasi-punk sensibility. It’s as if he’s gotten trapped in an obsession similar to Walker’s: attempting to conquer a territory--the action movie or ironic historical drama--that he doesn’t really understand, where the laws and culture are foreign to him. Yet, like Walker, he keeps marching along, obliviously. Such are the follies of war and empire.

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‘WALKER’ A Universal release of an Edward Pressman production. Producers Angel Flores Marini, Lorenzo O’Brien. Director Alex Cox. Script Rudy Wurlitzer. Executive producer Pressman. Camera David Bridges. Production design Bruno Rubeo. Editors Carlos Puente Ortega, Cox. Music Joe Strummer. With Ed Harris, Richard Masur, Rene Auberjonois, Peter Boyle, Marlee Matlin.

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

MPAA rating: R (under 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian).


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