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All the King's Men (2006): Special Edition

Sean Penn's prodigious political posturing may not always endear him to audiences who find themselves in ideological camps opposite the fine actor, but with the starring role in this execrable remake of the 1949 Oscar-winning All the King's Men, Penn may have finally found the key to bi-partisan alienation. Penn stars as Willie Stark, a small-time Louisiana activist who learns to manipulate local politics, rising from a powerless hick to a populist governor controlling a viciously powerful, and intrinsically corrupt, machine. At Stark's side is Jack Burden (Jude Law), a former journalist-turned-hatchet man with intimate connections to the state's moneyed elite at odds with his belligerent boss. While Robert Rossen's original adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is too simplistic to fully resonate with today's politically savvy news consumer, it is at least a competent narrative with an effective, if now underwhelming, polemic. However, this new take from writer/director Steve Zaillian is a self-indulgent, aimless, backward, and muddled mess of embarrassing proportions, and not the least of which for how it wastes talents like Law, Kate Winslet (at her most drab), and Mark Ruffalo on zombie-like ciphers, while letting Penn veer off so wildly into spittle-flecked overacting that one must reach back to his 1989 bomb We're No Angels to find another of his performances so lousy as to be worthy of comparison. Zaillian, in his zeal to recast the tale of Willie Stark as some kind of noirish civic nightmare, reshuffles the narrative into a series of shadowy disjointed flashbacks that bury key relationships until after their revelations have passed the point of impact (one can only guess this all at the service of Zaillian's new additional plot twist, which is so hysterically ham-handed and thematically irrelevant that derailing the entire enterprise on its behalf makes a perfect sort of sense in this disaster). But even worse, Zaillian's entire approach is so dark and battered with brass-knuckled foreboding (Louisiana is so corrupt, even the homes of the super-rich are dingy and decaying, see?) that it rips out the very spine of the tale: that of innocent idealists corrupted by the nature of politics. Unlike in Rossen's version — where Stark starts out as a likable, boyish, but inept crusader who appeals to the nobler instincts of an aspiring reporter, before the relentless game of campaigning, compromise, and manipulating the machine turn both into cynical players too eager to sell their souls for another victory — Penn's Stark is surly and spewing invective from the start, an inevitable authoritarian whose only arc is his balance of power, and Burden is so gloomy, and preternaturally aware of the spoiled future even in the ponderous flashbacks, that Zaillian's story is charged with a tension-killing inevitability. Surely along with a film like this, with Penn in a central role, there would also be some expectation of commentary on current events, but the 2006 version of All the King's Men feels just as dated as Rossen's 57-year-old Oscar-winner, with no new ideas and the same simplistic cynicism, but this time wrapped up in an overbearing shroud of dramatic overkill with no coherent grasp of storytelling to justify it. In fact, the only memorable scenes are also the most ridiculous. Also with Anthony Hopkins, James Gandolfini, Patricia Clarkson, Kathy Baker and the return of MIA 1970s child star Jackie Earle Haley as Sugar Boy.

Sony's Special Edition DVD release of All the King's Men is presented in a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Supplements includes the featurettes "The Making of All The King's Men," "An American Classic,""La. Confidential: On Location with All The King's Men," "The Legend and Lore of Huey Long," and "Shake Hands with the Devil," plus deleted scenes and an alternate ending (which piles boredom upon inanity). Keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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