Directed by David Cronenberg
Screenplay by Jeffrey Boam
Based on the Novel by Stephen King
Starring Christopher Walken, Tom Skerritt, Herbert Lorn & Brooke Adams
Released in 1983
Available in the US on Paramount DVD
Bad movies with great directors continues with this 1983 film. Neither as creative or as gruesome as Cronenberg's other adaptations, The Dead Zone plays out as a intelligent filmmaker trying to redeem a piece of hack fiction, which it, of course, is. (The Dead Zone is a Stephen King novel.) There's some interesting stuff here--Cronenberg's fascination with the intimacy of male/female relationships when circumstances go haywire, Martin Sheen's bizarre marriage of lunacy and powerlust--but the movie is based on such meandering tripe that by the end, it was clear why The Dead Zone is a mildly successful television show (yet also terrible) featuring Anthony Michael Hall. The material just doesn't translate into film well--it's too random to sustain a decent arc. Somewhere in the movie is three or four short stories, blended together heroically by Cronenberg, but still too incongruent to make for a good movie. Of course, if the main character (who carries the incredibly stupid and unlikely name of "Johnny Smith") is played by a good enough actor, it might have worked. And it was--by Christopher Walken.
Except it still didn't, and therein lies the next problem.
1983 was still prior to Walken's first promenade into the hack actor market, the insane "Zorn" in Roger Moore's final turn as James Bond, A View To A Kill, and according to some critics, The Dead Zone is considered one of his "best" performances. I don't see it that way. As enjoyable as Walken can be now, with his constant Saturday Night Live appearances and Fatboy Slim videos, the man who made Deer Hunter, ceased to exist long ago. Great actors wasting time (and yet, not energy or talent) in terrible movies isn't anything new, but at least you used to be able to count on them to eventually earn their stripes again--Clint Eastwood may have acted with a bunch of chimpanzees and Loni Anderson, but he also gave us Unforgiven. De Niro may have jerked off with Eddie Murphy and Ben Stiller, but he tore apart Ronin and Jackie Brown. It's sad to to say it, but hey, Walken--what ha've you done for anybody lately? Watching him try to make some semblance of a human being in The Dead Zone leaves the viewer cold and unhappy. It's neither a good performance by a relatively unique performer (like Deer Hunter) or is it the Walken who goofed his way through David Spade's Joe Dirt and imitated himself in Pulp Fiction.
That's the problem with The Dead Zone. It didn't come out in 2005, when i could've pretended it was the sister movie to De Niro's Hide and Seek--a
great actor slumming in a shit film for a paycheck. It was 1983, and
it was helmed by a director square in the middle of masterpieces, with Scanners and Videodrome on one side and The Fly and Dead Ringers on the way. The problem can't all be blamed on the source material--after all, Kubrick was able to make The Shining work just fine. But Walken--now here was a guy who still had yet to unleash the awfulness of The Prophecy and of course, Balls of Fury. He doesn't just fail to compel in The Dead Zone--no, it's something worse. He tries, and yet, still fails. It's a disappointment to watch.
-Tucker Stone, 2007*