An American with an unshakeable belief in his own destiny and a yen to spread democracy gathers an under-sized army and journeys uninvited to a third-world country, where he inserts himself between feuding factions, ends up taking over the place, and runs it into the ground. And it’s a true story, too.
Alex Cox’s indie epic Walker was greeted by withering reviews and empty theaters upon its 1987 release. To be sure, it’s a far cry from better-known, and better, Cox titles Repo Man and Sid and Nancy. Still, viewing it in Iraq-mired 2008 thanks to a typically top-drawer Criterion Collection edition, you may find yourself surprisingly sympathetic to Cox’s absurdist satire, which barely functions as an adventure but has plenty of fun with foreign adventurism.
Ed Harris plays it straight as William Walker, a renaissance man and would-be firebrand who invaded Nicaragua in 1855 with a cadre of 57 men to “liberate” it. The fact that he did so for pay at the behest of wealthy and powerful Cornelius Vanderbilt (Peter Boyle in a delicious cameo) never dims Walker’s humanist-crusader rhetoric as he loses men by the dozen, wins battles by accident, and trades democratic ideals for totalitarianism. The film’s tone is no more consistent than Walker’s progress, toggling between spurting Peckinpah-esque slo-mo and clumsy black humor (albeit some of it pretty funny).
Rampant anachronisms that mount throughout the film (copies of Newsweek, Marlboros, a helicopter) are no doubt supposed to underline the parallels between bad-idea U.S. foreign policy in the 1850s and bad-idea U.S. foreign policy in the 1980s—not that Cox doesn’t make that overabundantly clear anyway. No one was prepared to hear it then, even in the year the Iran-Contra scandal broke. It’s a bit more—and less—funny now.