Fast-Walking (1982, directed by James B. Harris)


Frank Miniver (James Woods) is the prison guard that everyone calls Fast-Walking.  He’s involved in almost every vice that a man living in a small town in Oregon can be involved in.  He takes bribes.  He usually shows up for work stoned and what he doesn’t smoke, he sells to the prisoners and the other guards.  He’s got a second job, running a trailer park brothel behind his cousin’s general store.

Frank’s cousin, Wasco (Tim McIntire), has been incarcerated and he expects Frank to help him take over the prison.  At first, Frank has no problem working with Wasco and letting his cousin have free reign of the cell block.  Wasco has soon established himself as the most powerful man behind bars.  When a black power activist named Galliot (Robert Hooks) arrives at the prison, Wasco wants to arrange for him to be assassinated.  Meanwhile, Galliot has offered Frank even more money to help him escape from the prison.

While Frank tries to keep both sides happy and make off with some money for himself, he’s also sleeping with Wasco’s accomplice on the outside, Moke (Kay Lenz).  Originally, Wasco ordered Moke to seduce Frank in order to keep Frank in line but, as Moke and Frank’s relationship continues, Wasco starts to get jealous and starts plotting to put Frank back in his place.

Fast-Walking is a gritty film that features a good deal of dark humor.  Unfortunately, the film’s many different parts never really come together and the film never strikes the right balance between comedy and drama.   James Woods is perfectly cast as Frank and the underrated Kay Lenz does wonders with an underwritten role but Tim McIntire is a less than ideal Wasco.  McIntire was a good actor but, physically, he’s all wrong for a character who is supposed to be so intimidating that he can walk into a prison and automatically take it over.  Wasco is written and played as being such a cartoonish character that it’s difficult to take him or his plots seriously.  The movie works best when it’s just focuses of James Woods’s nervy performance and Frank’s attempts to keep the other prison guards (including M. Emmett Walsh) from discovering his own racket.

18 Days of Paranoia #12: Best Seller (dir by John Flynn)


The 1987 film, Best Seller, tells the story of two men, both equally capable of violence but with two very different moral codes.

Dennis Meechum (Brian Dennehy) is a cop who also writes true crime.  In the early 70s, he was the one of several cops who were attacked by a group of gunmen who were all wearing Richard Nixon masks.  Though he was shot, Meechum survived and he even managed to stab one his assailants.  15 years later, Meechum is still haunted by the incident.  Meechum is a brawler who doesn’t have much time for nonsense but he also has a strong moral code (or so he thinks).

Cleve (James Woods) talks fast and always seems like he’s a little bit nervous.  He has a quick smile and a joke for almost every occasion.  He’s also a professional assassin, a sociopath who is very interested in Dennis.  Cleve has spent the majority of his life working for a powerful businessman named David Madlock (Paul Shenar) but he’s recently been laid off.  Cleve wants revenge and he thinks that Dennis can help him get it.

Together …. THEY FIGHT CRIME!

Well, actually, they kind of do.  Madlock’s done a lot of illegal stuff and Cleve and Dennis are exposing him, his crooked corporation, and all of his powerful connections.  However, what Cleve really wants is for Dennis to write a best seller about his life.  Cleve wants Dennis to write his story and most importantly, he wants Dennis to make him the hero.  Dennis is still a cop and says that once all this is over, he’s going to have to arrest Cleve.  Of course, eventually, he discovers that Cleve was the man who shot him 15 years earlier.  At that point, Dennis says that he’s going to have to kill Cleve once all of this is over.

As a crime thriller, Best Seller hits all of the expected beats.  As soon as we find out that Dennis is a widower and that he has a teenage daughter, we know that she’s eventually going to be taken prisoner by the bad guys.  For that matter, we can also guess that there will be a few scenes where Cleve insists that Dennis is just like him.  When Cleve starts telling people that Dennis is his brother, it’s a fun scene because it’s well-acted by both Woods and Dennehy but it’s not exactly surprising.

But no matter!  Though the the overall plot may be predictable, there’s enough clever little twists and details that the film holds your interest.  For instance, there’s an extended sequence where Dennis insists that Cleve introduce him to his family.  For the next few minutes, the film stops being an action thriller and instead becomes a bit of a domestic comedy as Dennis meets Cleve’s friendly family, none of whom are aware that Cleve is a ruthless killer.  The stuff with Cleve’s family doesn’t move the plot forward but your happy it’s there because 1) James Woods gives a great performance in those scenes and 2) it suggests that the film (which was written by Larry Cohen and directed by John Flynn, who was previously responsible for the brilliant Rolling Thunder) has more on its mind than just shooting people.

The main reason why Best Seller works so well is because the two leads are perfectly cast.  Brian Dennehy was born to play tough cops while James Woods gives one of his best performances as the unstable but likable Cleve.  I’ve actually had people get made at me for saying that James Woods is a good actor, simply because they disagree with his politics.  But, when it comes to art and talent, I don’t care about anyone’s politics.  (I mean, if I only watched movies starring people whose politics where approved by Film Twitter, I would end up spending the entire pandemic watching romantic comedies starring Alec Baldwin and Rosie O’Donnell and why should I suffer like that?)  James Woods is a good actor and he’s great in Best Seller.

Other Entries In The 18 Days Of Paranoia:

  1. The Flight That Disappeared
  2. The Humanity Bureau
  3. The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover
  4. The Falcon and the Snowman
  5. New World Order
  6. Scandal Sheet
  7. Cuban Rebel Girls
  8. The French Connection II
  9. Blunt: The Fourth Man 
  10. The Quiller Memorandum
  11. Betrayed

Citizen Cohn (1992, directed by Frank Pierson)


The year is 1986 and the powerful attorney Roy Cohn (James Woods) is dying.  The official story is that Cohn has liver cancer but the truth is that he’s dying of AIDS.  As he lies in his hospital bed, he thinks about his past and the events the led to him becoming one of the most feared and powerful men in America.  He is haunted by the ghosts of his many enemies, people like communist spy Ethel Rosenberg (Karen Ludwig) and his former colleague, Bobby Kennedy (David Marshall Grant).

Not surprisingly, a good deal of Cohn’s memories center around his association with Sen. Joseph McCarthy (Joe Don Baker), a charismatic alcoholic who, in the 50s, charged that he had a list with the names of communist spies deep within the government.  Cohn and Kennedy served as the counsels on McCarthy’s committees.  Cohn is with McCarthy from the beginning and he’s with him until the end of the senator’s career.  In fact, it’s Cohn’s own shadowy relationship with an army private that ultimately leads to McCarthy’s downfall.

Except for one aspect of the film, Citizen Cohn is one of the best films to ever be produced by HBO.  The film covers a lot of history in a little less than 2 hours and it does so in a way that is always interesting and easy to follow.  By including incidents from every phase of Cohn’s life, as opposed to just focusing on his time as McCarthy’, the film also shows how someone like Roy Cohn can become a behind-the-scenes power player despite the majority of the country having no idea who he is.  James Woods gives one of his best performances as the hyperactive and unapologetically corrupt Cohn while Joe Don Baker is perfect as the self-pitying Joseph McCarthy.

The problem with the film, and your mileage may vary on how big an issue this is, is that it almost presents Cohn’s final days — dying of AIDS in a lonely New York hospital room — as being some sort of deserved fate for everything that he did wrong in life.  For me, even in the case of someone like Roy Cohn, that’s a step too far and it comes very close to presenting AIDS as some sort of divine punishment (which, itself, comes dangerously close to mirroring the homophobic statements that were made — and still are being made — by anti-gay activists).  That may not have been the film’s intention but, with the flashback structure and all of his dead enemies materializing to taunt Cohn as he lies dying, it’s still a very valid interpretation.

Some of that is perhaps unavoidable.  Cohn, in both real life and the film, died largely unrepentant for anything he did during his life.  As the central character of a biopic, Cohn never has the type of big moment that you would hope for, where he would realize that it was wrong for him to destroy so many lives and show at least a hint of contrition for his past behaviors.  That Roy Cohn is even a compelling character is a testament to the talent of James Woods because it’s certainly not due to any sort of hidden goodness lurking underneath the surface of Cohn’s snarling personality.  The lack of apologies and regrets that made Cohn a powerhouse in real life also makes him an ultimately unsatisfying subject for a movie.

Any Given Sunday (1999, directed by Oliver Stone)


With Any Given Sunday, Oliver Stone set out to make the ultimate football movie and he succeeded.

Any Given Sunday is not just the story of aging coach Tony D’Amato (Al Pacino).  It’s also the story of how third-string quarterback Willie Beamon (Jamie Foxx) allows celebrity to go to his head while the injured starter, Cap Rooney (Dennis Quaid), deals with his own mortality and how, at 38, he is now over-the-hill.  It’s also about how the team doctors (represented by James Woods and Matthew Modine) are complicit in pushing the players beyond their limits and how the owners (Cameron Diaz) view those players as a commodity to be traded and toyed with.  It’s about how the Sharks represent their home city of Miami and how cynical columnists (John C. McGinley plays a character that is obviously meant to be Jim Rome) deliberately set out to inflame the anger of the team’s fans.  It’s about how politicians (Clifton Davis plays Miami’s mayor and asks everyone to “give me some love”) use professional sports to further their own corrupt careers while the often immature men who play the game are elevated into role models by the press.  It’s a film that compares football players to ancient gladiators while also showing how the game has become big business.  In typical Oliver Stone fashion, it tries to take on every aspect of football while also saying something about America as well.

In the role on Tony D, Pacino famously describes football as being “a game of inches” but you wouldn’t always know it from the way that Oliver Stone directs Any Given Sunday.  As a director, Stone has never been one to only gain an inch when he could instead grab an entire mile.  (Stone is probably the type of Madden player who attempts to have his quarterback go back and throw a hail mary on every single play.)  Tony tells his players to be methodical but Stone directs in a fashion that is sloppy, self-indulgent, and always entertaining to watch.  One minute, Al Pacino and Jim Brown are talking about how much the game has changed and the next minute, LL Cool J is doing cocaine off of a groupie’s breast while images of turn-of-the-century football players flash on the screen.  No sooner has Jamie Foxx delivered an impassioned speech about the lack of black coaches in the league then he’s suddenly starring in his own music video and singing about how “Steamin’ Willie Beamon” leaves all the ladies “creamin’.”  (It rhymes, that’s the important thing.)  When Tony invites Willie over to his house, scenes of Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur are on TV.  Later in the movie, Heston shows up as the Commissioner and says, about Cameron Diaz, “she would eat her young.”

Any Given Sunday is Oliver Stone at both his best and his worst.  The script is overwritten and overstuffed with every possible sports cliché  but the football scenes are some of the most exciting that have ever been filmed.  Only Oliver Stone could get away with both opening the film with a quote from Vince Lombardi and then having a player literally lose an eye during the big game.  Stone himself appears in the commentator’s both, saying, “I think he may have hurt his eye,” while the doctor’s in the end zone scoop up the the torn out eyeball and put it into a plastic bag.  Only Stone could get away with Jamie Foxx vomiting on the field during every game and then making amazing plays while a combination of rap, heavy metal, and techno roars in the background.  Stone regulars like James Woods and John C. McGinely make valuable appearances and while Woods may be playing a villain, he’s the only person in the film willing to call out the coaches, the players, the owners, and the fans at home as being a bunch of hypocrites.  Stone’s direction is as hyper-kinetic as always but he still has no fear of stopping the action so that Foxx can see sepia-toned images of football’s past staring at him from the stands.  Stone directs like defensive lineman on steroids, barreling his way through every obstacle to take down his target.  No matter what, the game goes on.

Any Given Sunday is the ultimate football movie and more fun than the last ten super bowls combined.

The Visitors (1972, directed by Elia Kazan)


Haunted by his experiences in Vietnam, Bill Schmidt (James Woods) lives in an isolated farmhouse with his girlfriend, Martha (Patricia Joyce), their young son, and Martha’s tyrannical father, Harry Wayne (Patrick McVey).  Harry is a hard-drinking writer who is proud of his previous military experiences and who is frustrated by Bill’s reluctance to talk about his time in Vietnam.  Harry views Bill as being a wimp who lost a war that America should have won.

One wintry night, two visitors show up at the house.  Mike (Steve Railsback) and Tony (Chico Martinez) served in Bill’s platoon.  The three of them were once friends but then something happened in Vietnam that changed all that, something that Bill refuses to talk about.  Harry is happy to welcome Mike and Tony into the household and he enjoys hearing their war stories.  While the hapless Bill watches, Mike flirts with Martha.  However, as the night continues, it becomes obvious that Mike and Tony aren’t paying an innocent visit on a friend.  Instead, they’re looking for revenge.  Bill testified against Mike at a court-martial and, in the process, ruined both of their lives.

The idea of “bringing the war home” was a popular one in the late 60s and the early 70s.  Radical groups like the Weathermen justified their terroristic actions by saying that they were forcing complacent Americans to face what every day was like in Vietnam.  Books like David Morrell’s First Blood featured psychologically damaged vets waging war on an America that they felt had abandoned them while the new wave of counterculture filmmakers made films that were groundbreaking in their portrayal of death and violence.  The Visitors, which features one traumatized vet being victimized by two other angry vets, was one of those films that was meant to bring the war home.

Directed by Elia Kazan and written by Kazan’s son, Chris, The Visitors is a simple film that sometimes seems more like a stage play than a movie.  The script is talky and heavy-handed, the characters are thinly drawn, and the film’s portrayal of Martha comes close to being misogynistic.  Chris Kazan’s script is openly critical of the United States’s role in the Vietnam War but Elia Kazan is more concerned with presenting Bill as a martyr.  Elia was a former communist who infamously named names during the McCarthy era and, from On the Waterfront on, every film that he made was more or less an attempt to justify his actions.  Like Waterfront‘s Terry Malloy. Bill loses everything because he testifies.  Unlike Malloy, no one comes to Bill’s aid afterwards, which suggests Kazan’s bitterness only grew over the years following his testimony.

The Visitors is a lesser film in Kazan’s filmography but notably, it was the first film for both James Woods and Steve Railsback.  Railsback plays Mike as a charismatic brute, giving a performance that owes more than a little to Marlon Brando’s performance as Stanley Kowalski in Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire.  James Woods brings his nervous intensity to the role of Bill, making him a far more intelligent but no less victimized version of Brando’s Terry Malloy.  Though The Visitors was Kazan’s second-to-last film, both Woods and Railsback would go on to emerge as two of the most interesting character actors in Hollywood.

The Hard Way (1991, directed by John Badham)


Lt. John Moss (James Woods) is a cop with a problem.  A serial killer who calls himself the Party Crasher (Stephen Lang) is killing people all across New York and he has decided that he will be coming for Moss next.  However, Moss’s captain (Delroy Lindo) says that Moss is off of the Party Crasher case and, instead, he’s supposed to babysit a big time movie star named Nick Lang (Michael J. Fox)!

Nick is famous for playing “Smoking” Joe Gunn in a series of Indiana Jones-style action films.  However, Nick wants to be taken seriously.  He wants to play Hamlet, just like his rival Mel Gibson!  (That Hard Way came out a year after Mel Gibson played the melancholy Dame in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 adaptation of Shakespeare’s play.)  Nick thinks that if he can land the lead role in a hard-boiled detective film, it will give him a chance to show that he actually can act.  To prepare for his audition, he’s asked to spend some time following Moss on the job.  Mayor David Dinkins, always eager to improve New York’s reputation, agrees.  (David Dinkins does not actually appear in The Hard Way, though his name is often mentioned with a derision that will be familiar to anyone who spent any time in New York in the 90s.)  Of course, Moss isn’t going to stop investigating the Party Crasher murders and, of course, Nick isn’t going to follow Moss’s orders to just stay in his apartment and not get in his way.

The Hard Way is a predictable mix of action and comedy but it’s also entertaining in its own sloppy way.  Director John Badham brings the same grit that he brought to his other action films but he also proves himself to have a deft comedic touch.  Most of the laughs come from the contrast between James Woods playing one of his typically hyperactive, edgy roles and Michael J. Fox doing an extended and surprisingly convincing impersonation of Tom Cruise.  Woods and Fox prove to be an unexpectedly effective comedic team.  One of the best running jokes in the film is Woods’s exasperation as he discovers that everyone, from his girlfriend (Annabella Sciorra) to his no-nonsense boss, are huge fans of Nick Lang.  Even with a serial killer running loose in the city, Moss’s captain is more concerned with getting Nick’s autograph.

Woods and Fox are the main attractions here but Stephen Lang is a good, unhinged villain and Annabella Sciorra brings some verve to her underwritten role as Moss’s girlfriend.  Viewers will also want to keep an eye out for familiar faces like Penny Marshall as Nick’s agent, a very young Christina Ricci as Sciorra’s daughter, and Luis Guzman as Moss’s partner.

With its references to David Dinkins, Mel Gibson’s superstardom, and Premiere Magazine, its LL Cool J-filled soundtrack, and a plot that was obviously influenced by Lethal Weapon, The Hard Way is very much a period piece but it’s an entertaining one.

Music Video of the Day: Take A Look At Me Now (Against All Odds) by Phil Collins (1984, dir by Taylor Hackford)


On the one hand, I know that the critics have never exactly embraced the songs of Phil Collins.  I mean, there’s a reason why it’s such a brilliant joke that, in American Psycho, the vacuous wannabe serial killer Patrick Bateman is a rabid Phil Collins fan.  On the one hand, Collins’s music is representative of an era.  On the other hand, it’s often used to illustrate everything that was supposedly wrong with that era.

But you know what?

Screw it.  I like this song.  It’s effective.  It works.  It’s fun to listen to and I’ll probably find myself singing it sometime tonight.  Earlier, I watched a 1984 film called Against All Odds and, when this song played over the final freeze frame, it was a perfect moment.

The video for Take A Look At Me Now was directed by the same guy who directed Against All Odds, Taylor Hackford.  Of course, the video itself is mostly made up of clips from the film.  In between Phil doing his thing, we get scenes of Jeff Bridges looking young and sexy, Rachel Ward looking sultry, and James Woods looking dangerous.

The song itself was nominated for an Oscar, though it lost to I Just Called To Say I Love You from The Woman In Red.

Enjoy!