Christopher Walken stars as a schoolteacher who gets into a car wreck and wakes from a coma to find five years have passed, and his girlfriend (Brooke Adams) has moved on. After leaving the care of doctor Herbert Lom, Walken (who still has lingering physical injuries and headaches) soon starts to experience odd visions. Upon touching someone, he seems to have the ability to see into their future or past. The media catch onto this supposed ‘gift’ when Walken agrees to aid Sheriff Tom Skerritt (haha, that rhymes) in apprehending a serial killer. Walken, however, just wants to be left the hell alone, though his dad (Sean Sullivan) sticks by him. Things take an intriguing turn when Walken touches hands with Presidential candidate Martin Sheen and sees a vision of the future that forces Walken to take drastic action. Jackie Burroughs plays Walken’s mother, Colleen Dewhurst plays the mother of the serial killer, and Anthony Zerbe plays a rich father who seeks Walken’s help in trying to get through to his rather aloof son.
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It’s strange that even though I’ve seen this film three times, I couldn’t remember much from my previous two viewings of it. I say strange because this David Cronenberg (“Videodrome”, “Scanners”, “The Fly”) adaptation of the Stephen King novel is actually one of the best adaptations of a King novel to date (along with “Stand By Me”, “Carrie”, “Cujo”, “Misery”, Kubrick’s “The Shining”, and “The Running Man”). It seems to be a story that straddles between the more dramatic side of King and his supernatural tendencies, and the combination works near perfectly. It’s also the best psychic link movie ever made, as the subgenre isn’t among my favourites.
As was the case in Cronenberg’s later “The Fly”, he has cast a quirky and unconventional actor in the lead, and just as was the case with Jeff Goldblum in that film (arguably Cronenberg’s best), Christopher Walken is perfect here. It’s a million miles away from his often villainous parts in more recent years, but Walken, although idiosyncratic, is a pretty versatile actor. He really makes you feel for him every step of the way, whether it’s waking up from a coma to realise that the passage of time has been different for him than others, or having to deal with a special ‘gift’ that no one really understands and which might actually be more of a curse. He has one great line in particular on the latter point that helps take this out of eye-rolling “Touched By An Angel” territory, because this supposed ‘gift’ was really born out of tragedy and it allows him to see tragedy. He has never been more sympathetic on screen than here, folks, and makes a fine surrogate for author King (who presumably put much of himself in the story, as he indeed was a schoolteacher at one point in his life). There aren’t any typically Walken-esque monologues or anything here, but I must admit hearing him read from Poe’s “The Raven”, cracked me up for some reason (I’d love to hear him recite “Hickory Dickory Dock”. For some reason I had that thought in my head throughout. I’m weird. Pity me). The bowl haircut was priceless too.
Although her role becomes less effective in the second half, the underrated Brooke Adams is really good, too. Her relationship with Walken makes the film a lot deeper and more dramatic than you might think at first glance. This isn’t just a piece of schlock, especially by King’s standards (King is, after all, the guy who made his directorial debut with “Maximum Overdrive”).
Plot-wise this has its predictable moments here and there (not to mention a few contrivances), but dramatically it’s really strong, and like “The Fly”, it (pardon the pun) flies in the face of the notion that Cronenberg is a cold and clinical director. He’s capable of much more than that, as this film shows. He, writer Jeffrey Boam (“The Lost Boys”, “Innerspace”, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”), and King also manage to turn a potentially ridiculous concept into something as down-to-earth, plausible, and emotionally affecting as possible. I don’t know which of the three to credit with that (I haven’t read the novel- so spare me the details of its massacre at Boam’s hands), so I’ll just praise all three.
The supporting cast is really solid, too, with Tom Skerritt the epitome of solidity, as is Anthony Zerbe in a sad role. The latter is particularly well used for his ability to seem suspicious but never quite showing his hand which way his character is going to go. Veteran character actor Herbert Lom doesn’t do his greatest work here, but cast as a sympathetic doctor, he, like Walken, is allowed to show his versatility. The most impressive of the lot is perhaps Martin Sheen as a very different kind of politician to the one he would later play on “The West Wing”. As the perfect baby-kissing (literally) schmuck, if nothing else he proves he can play Ted Kennedy just as easily as JFK. I must say, however, that Colleen Dewhurst’s cameo is bizarre and ultimately rather pointless. Why cast such a well-known actress in such a miniscule, inconsequential role? To call it a glorified cameo would be a misnomer, because there’s nothing glorified about it (She’s actually terrible, but I blame the role, not her).
Capped off by an interestingly eerie music score by Michael Kamen (“Highlander”, “Lethal Weapon”, “The Three Musketeers”), the likes of which you’d normally associate with Jerry Goldsmith (“Planet of the Apes”), Ennio Morricone (“The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”, “The Untouchables”), or Bernard Herrmann (“Psycho”, “Taxi Driver”). **** SPOILER WARNING **** By the way, if you’re planning on committing political assassination, I wouldn’t use the “Dead Zone” defence. Just a friendly word of warning to all you budding nutjobs out there. **** END SPOILER ****
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