Few actors do “anti-hero” as well as James Woods. Even his sleaziest, most-dangerous characters seem like guys you wouldn’t mind hanging out with for a little while (obviously, I’m making an exception for movies like The Onion Field and Salvador). You might not even care if they screwed you over at the end of the conversation. Anyway, you certainly wouldn’t be surprised. In the ‘80s, Woods perfected the “amiable, ethically-challenged chump way in over his head” performance and even managed to sneak in a few good-guy roles in terrific movies like Joshua Then and Now and The Hard Way. His biggest splashes may have come from Once Upon a Time in America and (possibly) Videodrome, but Fast-Walking is an interesting, amusingly-grimy gem from the early ‘80s that hinges on you liking Woods, no matter how yucky his actions might get. And he pulls it off beautifully.
Frank “Fast-Walking” Miniver is your classic underachiever. Dreaming of moving to Oregon to open a ranch of one kind or another, something his pot-fueled mind and motor-mouth turns to regularly, he splits his free time between running Mexican johns to a local brothel cousin’s wife runs out of a local general store, and his job as a prison guard, where he spends most of his time hanging out with his trustee cousin Wasco and ridiculing his authoritative superiors behind their backs. The inmates kind of like him because he’s so laid back he’s actually a lazy guard, despite his reputation as a sharp-shooter. And he isn’t a raving racist like the majority of his fellows, which works in his favor as there seems to be a race riot brewing within the prison, which is escalated by the arrival of a black activist named Galliot.
While “Fast-Walking” focuses his energy on getting into the pants of Wasco’s girlfriend, Moke, Wasco’s desire to control all business within the prison—from drugs to financial investments—leads him to making a deal with the hacks to arrange for Galliot’s murder. “Fast-Walking” is deemed the best candidate to pull this off because of his skills with a rifle. On the other side of this, he’s similarly recruited by friends of Galliot’s to help the man escape from prison. Soon, Frank has a scheme brewing to play both sides against the middle.
Sleazy, gritty, foul-mouthed, occasionally violent and filled to the brim with reprehensible characters—there isn’t a straight-and-narrow fellow to be found—Fast-Walking should be too scuzzy to endure. But the charm of the movie relies completely on the viewer sympathizing with Wood’s main character and oddly enough it all works. At heart, Frank is just trying to get by in life with the least amount of effort and is easy to empathize with him. He’s lazy; he thinks he’s a master of all things, from dancing to sex; and he’s a lot dumber than he thinks he is. His greatest strength is in talking his way out of trouble. When his superiors nail him for one infraction or another, he flashes his “give a shit” grin and escapes, but just barely. You wouldn’t want your sister to marry him, but Frank might be fun to have around.
The movie’s oddly light-hearted tone off-sets all the grotesque criminality, which also works to its favor. As Wasco, Tim McIntyre delivers a number of philosophical soliloquies regarding his skewed approach to life on the inside, which makes him interesting even when he’s doing such dastardly deeds and stomping on Timothy Carey or arranging for another inmate to be hurled from an upper floor. As for Frank, he’s so out-for-himself that even when he does the right thing, you’re caught off-guard by how he does it.
I have not yet had the opportunity to read Ernest Brawley’s novel, The Rap, on which this movie is based, though I’m told that it differs greatly from the production. The main differences seem to lie in the character of Wasco (in the book he apparently lacks in charm but makes up for that in ferocity) and the fact that “Fast-Walking” is not the main character. Aside from that, I believe that there’s also very little similar. But I’ll have to get back to you on that.
So unless you’re completely turned off by the thought of seeing M. Emmett Walsh fully-frontally nude (and Kay Lenz’s nudity should restore your eyesight), there’s really nothing to excuse you from hunting this one down. Oh, well, except for the fact that it’s impossible to run down. VHS copies can be found but it never received an official DVD release, and that’s a real shame. What—does Stephen King own the patent on “feel good” prison movies? Hey, Hollywood! Release Fast-Walking. What the hell’s the matter with you?