The thing about Christopher Walken is that, like Nicolas Cage and other personality actors who have settled into comfortable self-parody, he always seems to be playing Christopher Walken. This perception is reinforced with every supporting role or cameo appearance in whatever example of disposable studio dross he can fit into his seriously insane working schedule, to the tune of 49 film appearances just in this young century.
Few of them have required this actor who once played Hamlet to do little more than show up on set and channel the idea of Christopher Walken for a few fanboy giggles. For every A Late Quartet or Catch Me if You Can, there are five or six Giglis or Wild Mountain Thymes.
In this context, Percy vs. Goliath is more than a refreshingly meaty starring role for the counterculture legend; it’s an inspiring reminder of the actor’s nuanced combination of steely stoicism and wily intelligence. His trademark shock of white hair often buried under a variety of geriatric hats, Walken quickly disappears into the role of 73-year-old Percy Schmeiser, rugged and humble fourth-generation canola farmer from Saskatchewan, whose livelihood is threatened when genetically engineered Monsanto seeds scatter onto his farm from a nearby property. Through his every action, as a salt-of-the-earth heartland emblem turned unwitting avatar for an anti-GMO crusade, he asks us, simply and efficiently, to share his outrage, and it’s an easy sell.
Monsanto had, by 2014, emerged as the third-most-hated company in America, per Bloomberg, and it remains a reviled corporation in perpetuity, despite having been acquired by Bayer in 2018. Percy vs. Goliath is set in a more naive time, circa 1998-2000, when the agricultural consensus supported Monsanto’s allegedly high-yield GMO crops as a solution to world hunger. The world didn’t yet know about the increased tumors in rats fed a two-year diet of RoundUp-sprayed GMO corn (2012), or about the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s 2015 declaration of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s RoundUp, as “probably carcinogenic.”
No, Percy vs. Goliath is about a more primal, easily comprehensible form of corporate bullying: A rapacious company with a manifest goal of patenting nature attempts to run an independent farmer out of business through a legal loophole. Some Monsanto seeds found their way into Percy’s farm. He saved such seeds for the next harvest, a practice that goes back centuries in his agrarian heritage. When Monsanto discovers their product in his field, they send him a $20,000 bill. To the surprise of everyone, including the small-town lawyer (a never-better Zach Braff) who encourages him to settle, Percy takes the agri-behemoth to court.
Clark Johnson, a veteran TV director in his sophomore feature-film effort, handles this fact-based story of noble resistance like a modern-day Frank Capra parable; an alternate title might be Mr. Schmeiser goes to the Supreme Court of Canada. Percy will have some help along the way, in the form of Christina Ricci’s eager activist Rebecca Salcau, who sees in Percy’s case an opportunity for landmark legislation prohibiting Monsanto’s freedom to patent future GMO crops.
But the human focus of Johnson’s film is the transformation of Percy from individualistic and uncharismatic farmer — one who rejects the idea of being anybody’s “charity case” — to international spokesman and cause célèbre for farmers everywhere who have been strong-armed into compliance or bankruptcy by Monsanto. The most moving portion of Percy vs. Goliath finds the title character speaking at a convention in India, where a truly astonishing number of farmer suicides, some 270,000, were, even in the late 1990s, linked to the destructive introduction of Monsanto seeds.
The courtroom scenes, pitting Braff against a perfectly smarmy Martin Donovan as Monsanto’s lead counsel, are merely cursory, if not rushed. And Johnson’s TV-reared craft can take overly familiar forms, like the unsteady camerawork during tense scenes, and that most ubiquitous of pet peeves, an emotionally telegraphed musical score.
But this movie’s populist heart is certainly in the right place. You don’t have to be a staunch consumer of non-GMO products to see Percy vs. Goliath as a worthy paean to the power of moral rectitude. In this atomized political environment, any opportunity to unite us against a transparent enemy is more than welcome.
PERCY VS. GOLIATH. Director: Clark Johnson; Cast: Christopher Walken, Roberta Maxwell, Zach Braff, Christina Ricci, Luke Kirby, Martin Donovan; Distributor: Mongrel Media; Rated PG-13; Now playing at Cobb Theaters Downtown at the Gardens in Palm Beach Gardens, and Paradigm Cinemas at Tamarac 5. It is available for rental on Amazon, YouTube, Apple TV and other services, and it arrives on DVD and Blu-ray June 29.