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by Jack Sommersby

"Middling Prison Tale"
2 stars

This oddity was barely released in U.S. theaters, and it's a wonder a studio agreed to finance it. If only it had been worth the effort.

In his first starring role in a motion picture, James Woods is excellent as Frank “Fast-Walking” Minniver, a corrections officer at a Northern California state prison who’s always scheming for an angle, always dreaming of a better life. As the movie opens, while driving him and his co-worker to the prison as they trade tokes on a joint, he’s talking about buying some land in Oregon and turning it into a communal ranch, but with a meager salary and having to moonlight at a convenience store with a ramshackle whorehouse in the back where Frank delivers an array of illegal Mexican migrants for some action on a weekly basis, he’s barely making ends meet. Not particularly smart, quintessentially lazy, but with some innate goodness in him, Frank makes for quite the indelible character, and Woods, who was brilliant in his Golden Globe-nominated role as the sadistic cop killer in The Onion Field, makes him both endearing and pathetic -- not the easiest feat for an actor to pull off. Frank’s docile existence is enlivened when a radical black militant, William Galliot (Robert Hooks), is transported to the prison: there’s a twenty-five-thousand-dollar contract on his head, and his colleagues are offering up fifty-thousand to any prison guard assisting in his escape. Also entering into the equation is the voluptuous beauty Moke (Kay Lenz), who, while Frank is sitting in a rocking chair minding the store one night, seduces and gives oral sex to him only to hold him at gunpoint shortly thereafter and leaves with his wallet; it turns out she’s in cahoots with the prisoner Wasco (Tim McIntire), Frank’s cousin and the trustee of Frank’s cellblock who’s looking to take over drug distribution in the prison. Whose side will Frank end up on? The righteous Galliot or the amoral Wasco who’s brokered the assassination from behind bars? And it all culminates in an underwhelming twist ending that’s all too easily foreseeable. Chock-full of plot and subplots, Fast-Walking tries to function as a black comedy with something of a thriller undertone, but it lacks the wit for the former and the compression for the latter -- most of the scenes are poorly shaped, with some going on forever; and when it comes to suspense, the attempt is flubbed due to the clunky staging. The writer/director James B. Harris doesn’t have much of a visual sense, and though he’s working with the talented cinematographer King Baggot (who gave some macabre tactility to the Oliver Stone-directed horror yarn The Hand) the majority of the compositions are boring and inexpressive; and while the dialogue has some occasional punch, the multi-character story cries out for the seamless fluidity of Robert Altman in his prime, and all Harris can come up with is talking-heads hodgepodge lacking freshness and definition. Woods acquits himself nicely with acute comic timing and an alert reserve, and Lenz, sultry and focused, makes for a smoldering femme fatale. But McIntire, in a crucial role, who lent aural aplomb to the voice of Don Johnson’s smart-alecky dog in the extraordinary cult-classic A Boy and His Dog, is hammy and self-indulgent to the nth degree -- he acts in italics and all but makes love to his monologues.The emotive McIntire certainly stands out, but it’s akin to gasoline being poured onto a five-alarm fire.

The bare-bones DVD at least offers up an anamorphic transfer, but that's about it.

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originally posted: 04/07/15 10:43:52
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  08-Oct-1982 (R)



Directed by
  James B. Harris

Written by
  James B. Harris

  James Woods
  Tim McIntire
  Kay Lenz
  Robert Hooks
  M. Emmet Walsh

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