Retro Rental: 'The Dead Zone'

Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

[Each week, inspired by what's in theaters or in the news or even just by random firings of neurons, 'Retro Rental,' by film critic James Rocchi, looks at an older film on disc or download that links up to the here-and-now ...]

Charlie Sheen is in the news with his new FX show 'Anger Management' playing a screw-up therapist; Martin Sheen is in theaters with 'The Amazing Spider-Man,' playing Uncle Ben. And so, in a world of converging Sheens that, not coincidentally, led up to the 4th of July, I was of course driven to re-watch 'the Dead Zone,' perhaps for the first time in years, and marvel not only at how good Martin Sheen is in it, but also at how chill and cold and sharp it is, a 1983 Stephen King adaptation made by David Cronenberg that, a lot of people would argue is the the best King adaptation on the big screen … (Look, 'Shining' fans, I can appreciate your point-of-view that film is great Kubrick, but 'Dead Zone' is better King, if that makes sense.)

To briefly recap 'The Dead Zone' -- a novel written by King in his earliest and best years, published in 1979 -- it's about a schoolteacher, Johnny Smith, who has a pretty good life .. until a car accident puts him in a coma for five years. When he awakes, he and the world are different -- his girl got married, his parents grew older. And, brushing the hand of a nurse helping him, Johnny 'sees' her little girl, across town, threatened by a fire: Call an ambulance, he says. There's still time. And there is.

Johnny is played by Christopher Walken, and while it's an easy performance to mock, it's also one that fits Walken like a glove -- all that spooky, kooky Walken hoodoo finds a place to go in Johnny's physical agony and emotional torment. The one thing that's great about 'The Dead Zone' is that Johnny's gift always works -- the Magic 8-ball of the film's precognition  device never says "Try Again Later." And then one day Johnny bumps into a low-level, low-rent candidate for the Senate, Greg Stillson … played by Martin Sheen.

And when Johnny shakes Stillson's hand, he sees Stillson unilaterally launch America's nuclear arsenal as the President of the United States, years from now, and murder the world in an act of madness. And I'll say one thing about this scene, this moment, this vision: Martin Sheen is as good, as magnetic and intense in that one scene as he has ever been. It is, basically, terrifying watching Sheen -- who was then 43, 4 years younger than Charlie Sheen is now -- rail and rage and scream and then push the button because it's there and why not? Johnny knows this will happen. So what does he do?

I won't answer that question -- the pleasures of Cronenberg's wintry, grim and grey thriller are well worth tracking down if you're in the mood for a superbly-made, heartfelt chiller that manages to be about fate and visions while still being utterly emotionally involving. And considering that Martin Sheen is now relegated to playing kindly uncles -- and Charlie is being watched like a pot to see if he'll simmer along profitably or boil over in a hot steam cloud of crack and controversy -- 'The Dead Zone' is a reminder of when the Sheen name meant great acting, not just familiarity's fuzzy glow or tabloid headlines.

('The Dead Zone' is available on DVD and on VOD through Amazon)

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