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Heroes of Filmcritic.com: Christopher Walken

As our resident bogeyman, Christopher Walken has built up a creepy and eclectic repertoire of anxious, vaguely psychotic jitters over the years. With his sinister faraway stare and completely haphazard inflections, he’s often brilliantly typecast as some bizarre archangel of death sent from the pits of hell to mercilessly bleed his victims dry. Shortly before dealing out merciless pain to Dennis Hopper in True Romance (1993), Walken describes himself as, ‘The Anti-Christ. You get me in a vendetta kind of mood, you tell the angels in heaven you never seen evil so singularly personified as you did in the face of the man who killed you.’

As threatening as he has been playing the murderous, Armani-clad spider to unassuming tourist flies (Rupert Everett, Natasha Richardson) in Paul Schrader’s haunting ‘Death in Venice’ sideshow, The Comfort of Strangers (1990), or blowing the horn of Armageddon as a resentful Gabriel in The Prophecy (1995), Walken has always been far too graceful and slippery to make for your conventional brutish heavy (a la Michael Madsen or Tom Sizemore.) He’s far more dangerous. Not surprisingly, Walken’s background is in performing dance, and his unpredictable movements throughout his screen career often seem to suggest that he’s about to break into a spontaneous waltz, tango, or spinning pirouette.

As a tribute to Christopher Walken, a terrific character actor who livens up even the most dismal failures from his endless resume (Heaven’s Gate and Joe Dirt ring a bell?), below are some eclectic career highlights which emphasize his penchant for show business, karaoke, singing and dancing (rather than his oft-proclaimed, devilishly charismatic ability to capture the heart and soul of True Evil). Christopher Walken has taken certain flamboyant steps throughout the years, brought home to their logical conclusion as he spider-walks up the walls of a posh hotel in the Spike Jonze/Fatboy Slim video, Weapon of Choice (2001). To wit, a guide to some of Walken’s lesser-known ‘roles’…

Pennies From Heaven (1981) A two-hour movie musical trimmed down from a popular British TV miniseries (penned by the late, great Dennis Potter), Walken is only given one brief but memorable scene as a sadistic wax-mustached pimp in Depression-era Chicago. After gently goading former schoolmarm Eileen (Bernadette Peters) into a life of prostitution (after shifty music-sheet salesman Steve Martin has dumped her), Walken launches into a sly tap-dance striptease(!) performed to the tune of the Irving Aaronson and His Commanders’ ‘Let’s Misbehave.’ You have to see it to believe it.

Homeboy (1988) Mickey Rourke’s vanity project (he co-wrote the screenplay) is a largely forgettable affair about a down-on-his-luck boxer (Rourke) punch-drunk with love and world-weary with life. The saving grace, natch, is Walken as pathetic small-time crook Wesley Pendergrass, who has a penchant for performing bad karaoke at a roadside bar. Moral: Toss in a karaoke scene, and almost any movie will be improved. (I said almost — we all know Duets was a worthless piece o’ shit.)

King of New York (1990) Walken plays a sinister Robin Hood wiping out rival inner-city gangsters to fuel a misbegotten dream to fund some ghetto hospital. No one shall live. While my contempt for director Abel Ferrara (The Addiction) knows no bounds, King of New York is a slick, hyperviolent, energized explosion of urban fears and a gray zone of moral complexity. Good luck trying to figure out the so-called ‘good guys’ (David Caruso, Victor Argo, Wesley Snipes) from the ‘bad guys’ (Laurence ‘Larry’ Fishburne, Steve Buscemi, Walken). Best scene: Walken’s gang of black homeboys, led by a mercurial Fishburne, show up at home base to greet him after he’s released from jail. In his excitement, Walken busts out (without warning) in a David Byrne ‘shakin’ like a leaf in religious fervor’ move, before spinning around 360-degrees in a move Fred Astaire would have applauded. For a psycho killah (‘I don’t want to hurt you but I will BLOW YOUR BRAINS OUT IF I GOT TO!‘), Walken has got his moves down.

Search and Destroy (1995) This mixed blessing from pompous NYC artist David Salle is one of those annoying indie ‘quirky comedies’ with an all-star cast ever-present throughout the mid-90’s, but (to be fair) a few scenes are real gems. Unsuccessful movie producer Martin Mirkheim (Griffin Dunne) is trying to raise money to shoot an obscure, mystical art-house flick based on a popular bestseller. Walken (as ‘Kim Ulander,’ what a name!) is first glimpsed at a posh cocktail party making idle chit-chat with Mirkheim, but once the hosts figure out that ‘Christopher Walken’ has intercepted their party they quickly show him the door. Wouldn’t you? Walken ekes every ounce of menace from the banal line, ‘Thank you for inviting me. You spread a lovely… buffet.’ Eventually, Walken and friends plan a drug deal, throughout which Walken giggles inappropriately, muttering things like, ‘I brought a scale! I want to weigh it! That’s what they do in the movies!’ By the climax, Walken has predictably transformed into a pistol-packing Golem out to kill his accomplices, but thankfully before all the shit hits the fan he finds time for some brilliant karaoke (again!) Before he starts cutting loose with the golden tonsils, he quips, ‘Is it hot in here, or am I crazy?’ Damned straight, man.

Weapon of Choice (2001) Spike Jonze directed Being John Malkovich and peeled away layers of JM like an onion. He’s proficient at discovering heretofore unseen qualities of the great eccentric character actors of our time. With this Fatboy Slim music video, he lets Walken break loose as a depressed, zombified businessman stuck in a catatonic state of perpetual layover who shuffles off the blues when he hears ‘Weapon of Choice,’ keeping time on a busboy’s abandoned boombox. Slowly, with increasing buoyancy and, yes, happiness, Walken rises to his feet and starts to strut and vamp his way through hallways and elevators. His face brightens with the release that comes with letting yourself go, and by the time he’s jumped up on a table kicking aside a pile of grueling paperwork, he allows himself a self-conscious ‘How bout them apples?’ grin. We’re not surprised when he starts cartwheeling along the ceiling or walls, because unlike hipster club kids too ‘cool’ to show they’re actually having fun, middle-aged Walken defies gravity with the loose limbs and devil-may-care joviality of an awkward teenager going out for a night on the town (whi
le mommy and daddy are asleep – he’ll sadly have to return home again, but don’t we all). Jonze and the simply astounding Walken have created the feel-good movie of 2001, maybe even the best movie of the year. Believe the hype.

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