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'Walker' (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 04, 1987

Director Alex Cox pursues a disastrously anachronistic course in "Walker," a surreally silly biography of an American adventurer in 19th-century Nicaragua. It's a time-warped spaghetti western littered with meaningful mod debris -- plastic flowers, Classic Coke, even a general perusing the Chatter column in People magazine. This is just Cox's lame way of linking the ugly Americans of yesteryear with the ugly Americans of today.

Unlucky Ed Harris plays William Walker in this bungled, gratuitously gory political diatribe, with lovely Marlee Matlin in a brief role as his fiancée. She dies of cholera early in the story, and with her goes the movie's only grace, and apparently the hero's mental stability. His brains are scrambled already, but he soon achieves omelet.

Walker abandoned brilliant careers in law, politics, journalism and medicine to become a soldier of fortune. Backed by Cornelius Vanderbilt, he led a motley, multiracial band of 57 mercenaries off to Nicaragua in 1855. Against all odds, he made the civil-war-torn nation safe for democracy (and Vanderbilt's steamships) and then promptly proclaimed himself president. He ruled cruelly from 1855 to 1857 before the Nicaraguans noticed that "the mad gringo is ripping us off" and drove the despot out.

Harris does well enough with the unsympathetic role of the power-corrupted Walker, playing him as a taciturn cross between Rasputin, Doc Holliday and the Rev. Jim Jones. Cox and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer clearly see him as a post-Columbian Oliver North whose credo was Manifest Destiny -- seen here as the precursor of Ronald Reagan's contra aid policy. They draw their metaphor with about as much subtlety as sign painters: "You may think there is a day when America will leave Nicaragua, but we will be back."

Cox, whose punk western "Straight to Hell" looks like the dress rehearsal for this arrogant farce, is obsessed with violence. He directs like a swaggering butcher, the movie as splattered as a stockyard. Every bullet finds an artery; every wound squirts blood like a garden hose. It's as gross as it is muddled as it is absurd. Cox finally undermines himself completely by rolling the credits over poignant news clips from Nicaragua -- 90 seconds of TV realism that prove a thousand times more compelling than 90 minutes of self-important muck.

"Walker" is rated R for extreme violence and profanity.

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