Fast-Walking (James Woods) is a man with a finger in a few pies, but mainly he makes his living as a prison warden, though he spends most of the time on that boring job getting high on marijuana. This morning, he is late to the jail, and admonished by his superior Sergeant Sanger (M. Emmet Walsh), but soon something will occur to take their minds off any laziness at work, because when they allow the black prisoners out for the morning, there is a scream and one of them ends up dead, having fallen over one of the railings. Is someone trying to tell them something?
For example, that there is a strong element of racial tension in this institution? Or was that death, which appears to have been committed by racists, merely a setting up of a phoney atmosphere of tension thanks to the soon-to-arrive political prisoner and African-American activist William Galliot (Robert Hooks)? There's certainly a lot of shadiness going on here, but Fast is not too bothered as long as he can profit by it, and Woods was the ideal actor to portray him, perfect for the kind of dodgy geezer who can play both sides against the other - except, and you can see this coming, he's playing with the big boys now.
Meaning he may be well over his head in this company. That was part of the appeal of this film, to see how Fast could wriggle out of the conspiracy he had gotten embroiled with, but don't expect any straight answers as to what was really happening, other than The Man was orchestrating a plot to get his way, as usual. If the exact details of the scheme and Fast's place in it were easy to be mystified by, then the milieu of sleaze and immorality made for one of the most significant "lost" movies of its day, as it was hardly seen at the cinema and most often caught during its broadcast on the occasional late night television scheduling.
There was all the sex and violence and laughs a cult audience could have hoped for, not to mention a cast of actors who tended towards winning that kind of following for themselves, yet for whatever reason Fast-Walking never really took off with as many as it should have. Certainly for those who had read the novel it was based on, Ernest Brawley's The Rap, they found the movie version hopelessly streamlined to take out most of the rich character that so appealed to them, but that book was hard to find, and you might have expected the film to stand on its own merits. As usual with producer-director James B. Harris, he was not going to travel the conventional route (his last film had been the truly odd Some Call It Loving, almost ten years before).
This was reflected in the method, where scenes were apparently selected less for how they would clear up the twists of the narrative, and more for how they would contribute to the texture of the work, that being overheated and full of people out to further themselves by fair means or foul. Tim McIntire played one of the most powerful inmates, Wasco, who is pulling strings to get Galliot into a tricky position - but for whom? Barbara Hershey lookalike Kay Lenz was leading lady Moke, a hard to read individual who is related to Wasco by marriage, but leads Fast on to a romance where he foolishly thinks he is in charge. She also got the memorable prison visit sequence (full marks to Sydney Lassick for his reaction shots), and is hosed down by Woods, sections that you'll well remember if you've ever seen this (though less enticingly, Walsh got a nude scene too!). If it was all too densely arranged to get a handle on with any clarity, Fast-Walking was worth seeing for being the type of grubby jewel hardly anyone made back then, and hardly anyone makes now. Music by Lalo Schifrin.