The Dead Zone is the combined efforts of three artists who can only be described overall as a trio of the most extreme storytellers of their day, Stephen King, Christopher Walken and David Cronenberg. It’s a bold, counterintuitive and brilliant move on all parts to then make this a restrained, humane and warm-hearted piece of compassionate thriller filmmaking, despite having the aura of a classic horror film. Christopher Walken gives one of his best, most soulful performances as Johnny Smith, a mild mannered schoolteacher who is blessed/cursed with the powers of spooky clairvoyance after a cataclysmic car wreck leaves him in a coma for five years. He can now sense the future, past and ill fated destiny of others around him based on touch, an ability that can save many lives but also has a draining effect on his own spirit forces. As he helps the local sheriff (Tom Skeritt) track a vicious serial killer, tutors the neurologically challenged young son of a rich businessman (Anthony Zerbe) and has growing suspicions about an overzealous, obviously sinister politician (a smarmy as hell Martin Sheen) running for senate, he tries his best to reconnect with the former girlfriend (Brooke Adams) who remarried during his coma and pick up the pieces of his life. Walken is excellent and reins in his usual eccentricities (apart from one brief, shockingly hilarious outburst) for a subtle, restrained and heartbreaking portrayal akin to his award winning turn in The Deer Hunter. Johnny isn’t a warrior, cop, leader or hero, he’s just a quiet schoolteacher who finds himself thrown into this extraordinary situation and has to deal, and Walken’s shy, awkward and otherworldly presence brings this to life wonderfully. The film is shot in rural Ontario during wintertime and as such there’s an icy, eerie blanket of small town atmosphere over everything, made thicker by a beautiful Michael Kamen score that lays on the orchestral swells and quirky, spine chilling experimental cues in perfect musical symbiosis. This is King at his kindest, with an ending that although is appropriately bleak, still has a sorrowful heart to it and not his often cynical, hollow hearted touch. It’s also Cronenberg at his most character based, ditching the body horror to explore the psychological strain a phenomenon like this would exert and taking a long breath in his otherwise hectic, gooey career to compassionately explore a character alongside Walken who is a dark angel revelation as Smith. Sensational film.
Stephen King’s Desperation is a decent enough TV-movie adaptation made perversely, hysterically memorable by one actor’s performance, which I’ll get to in a moment. It’s based on one of of two Nevada desert set books (the other being The Regulators) he wrote under his pseudonym ‘Richard Bachmann’ that exist in the same demonic dustbowl timeline and they are two of the best things he has written, just not quite as notorious as, you know, books that actually say ‘Stephen King’ on the cover. This is a grainy, leisurely paced but often quite brutal tale of various highway travellers terrorized, imprisoned and killed by a rogue sheriff who may be something more than human. They include an arrogant travel writer (Tom Skerritt), the cavalier roadie in his employ (Steven Weber), a spunky hitchhiker (Kelly Overton), a stranded couple (Henry Thomas and Annabeth Gish), a boozy old timer (Charles Durning) and others. The sheriff is played by Ron Perlman and he is the life of the fucking party here, a completely bonkers, unpredictably psychotic hoot who steals scenes and tramples over scenery like there’s no tomorrow. He’s got some truly perplexing one liners (“I love Lord Of The Rings!”) that make sense once you see that King himself wrote the screenplay for this and kept much of his trademark, pop culture laced bizarro dialogue intact. There’s spooky mythology at work here including haunted mining shafts, demon possession and legions of desert wildlife turning against our band of human survivors in the kind of well staged sequences that would have an army of animal wranglers working overtime. The film is about fifteen minutes too long and lags in places, and has the obvious look, budget and pacing of a very TV affair, but as a grisly little slice of oddball B movie fun, it works and there’s some inspired, Terry Gilliam style camera work that adds to the wonky vibe. It wouldn’t be half as fun without Ron Perlman though, who gives a deliciously deranged turn as one of the weirdest, wildest villains out there and deserves some sort of award, if not his own spinoff film. Good times.
This one is an all timer for me and not just as a video game but as a gorgeous, cinematic piece of western storytelling. Gun is a terrific game, well ahead of its time for the PS2 era, but it’s also a brutal frontier exploitation tale, a larger than life, hugely badass yarn that benefits from one of the coolest voice casts ever assembled, fluid graphics, vast arenas to roam through and music that sets the tumbleweeds rolling, accompanies paddle wheeler boats down rivers and sweeps across the terrain like any great western score should. You play as Colton White (Thomas Jane in the kind of rough hewn gunslinger role he was born to play), who wanders the American frontier of late 1800’s with his mentor/father figure Ned (Kris Kristofferson, perfectly rugged) learning the ways of the gun and living off the land until lawlessness and trouble inevitably interrupt their peace. After a riverboat gunfight and a nasty killing spree perpetrated by psychotic preacher Reverend Reed (Brad Dourif, oozing his trademark brand of evil), Colton sets out beyond the horizon after him and finds intrigue, murder, conspiracy, a whole gallery of villains and even the secrets of his own birthright in a jaw dropping series of action set pieces, tense standoffs, train raids and firefights everywhere from Dodge City to the lands beyond. He goes up against vile, corrupt Mayor Hoodoo Brown (a scenery chewing Ron Perlman), joins forces with notorious outlaw Clay Allison (Tom Skeritt), does battle with fearsome native warrior Many Wounds (Eric Schweig) and eventually comes to the big bad wolf at the end of the chain of antagonists, a civil war general turned maniac named Thomas MacGruder, voiced by a booming Lance Henriksen in one incredibly thunderous portrait of bad to the bone. Other memorable work is provided by Wade Williams, Frank Collison, Kathy Soucie, John Getz, Nolan North, Robin Downes, Phil Proctor and more. The mechanics of the game are phenomenal, and like I said feel quite ahead of their time, or at least they did to me and always immersed me in that world. The gunfights are hectic and ruthless but ever too chaotic and there’s a few super satisfying slow motion features like ‘QuickDraw mode’ that allow you to pick off enemies with otherworldly precision. The horse riding is tactile, smooth and the animals feel real right down to how they jump, get fatigued when you ride them too hard and the way your controller vibrates specifically for hoof beats on whatever path you’re charging down. This is a broad, brutal game that doesn’t glance over the uglier aspects of the west and feels dangerous, lived-in and grandiose both in terms of the natural environment and humanity’s encroaching industries like the railroad, wagon trains and dusty townships. Gotta give a special shoutout to the score composed by Christopher Lennertz, it’s a magisterial, often quite mournfully emotional piece of orchestral work that rivals and even tops many Hollywood compositions. There’s also quite a few references to Hollywood westerns including The Outlaw Josey Wales and many characters are named after real life old west figures to cement the feel. Quite simply one of my favourite games ever made.
Antoine Fuqua’s Tears Of The Sun is a brutal, tough war machine of a flick in the tradition of the old 70’s war films, kind of like a brooding Dirty Dozen. Bruce Willis stoically heads up a team of special ops soldiers who are sent into a war torn region of Africa to rescue a doctor (Monica Belucci) from a missionary camp. Genocidal maniacs are encroaching into the area and it’s no longer safe for locals or relief workers. His orders are simple: locate and extract the doctor, and no one else. However, when he comes face to face with the refugees, and their situation, he simply can’t find it in himself to turn his back on them when he can do something to help. He then disobeys his orders, collects both his team, Bellucci and the Africans and makes a run through the jungle for diplomatic protected soil. His team are a grizzled band of warriors, each with their own unique qualities and opinion on his decision. Kelly (a badass, mohawk adorned Johnny Messner) believes it’s too much of a risk, and not their concern). Michael ‘Slo’ Slowenski (Nick Chinlund, excellent and understated) takes a compasionate standpoint. Second in command Red Atkins (Cole Hauser) trusts Willis is making the right call. Soon they are pursued by the extremists, led by a hulking Peter Mensah, before King Leonidas kicked him into the Sarlak pit. The combat scenes are hard hitting, seemingly very well rehearsed and researched. The only problem for me was the overbearing and extended sequences of genocide, which are harrowing and quite tough to watch. When it’s combat based it’s a damn fine piece, with a rugged, thoughtful band of heroes who are an absolute joy to see in action. Rounding out the team are Eamonn Walker, Charles Ingram, Paul Francis, Chad Smith and a briefly seen Tom Skerritt as Willis’s commanding officer. Tough, muscular and no nonsense, with burgeoning compassion that gives that soldiers purpouse beyond the cold lethality of the mission. Fuqua has a terrific collection of lean and mean action flicks under his belt, and this is one of the best.