He’s one of cinemas most intense performers and one of my all-time favourite movie icons, but Oscar-winner Christopher Walken has more in his locker than a menacing thousand-yard stare and gravity-defying hair-do. This week sees the UK DVD and Blu-ray release of Martin McDonagh’s brilliant black comedy, SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS, in which Walken steals the show from under the nose of Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson, as a loveable dog-napping petty crook, devoted pal and husband.
Over his 60 year career, which currently features over 12o credits, he’s featured in superhero blockbuster BATMAN RETURNS, gothic horror SLEEPY HOLLOW; taken on suave British super spy 007 in A VIEW TO A KILL; chased rodents and marsupials in family favourites, MOUSEHUNT and KANGAROO JACK, and tripped the light fantastic in Fatboy Slim’s memorable music video for Weapon Of Choice. Now THN has picked out some of our favourite, and perhaps undervalued roles from the 70-year-old living legend, who shows no signs of slowing down.
Originally entitled GOD’S ARMY (Dimension changed it in an effort to avoid offending religious cinemagoers), HIGHLANDER creator Gregory Widen made THE PROPHECY his only foray into directing. It’s a shame because he assembled a superb cast including Viggo Mortensen, Virginia Madsen, Amanda Plummer, Elias Koteas, Eric Stoltz and Adam Goldberg, to tell the story of the ancient war in Heaven. The battle is between fallen angels, who are brought down to our world when the Archangel Gabriel begins a hunt for the most evil soul on Earth, which is hidden in the body of a child by the Lord’s right hand man, Simon. The film had a wholly original premise made mesmerising by Walken’s winged, serpent-like psycho, Gabriel. It’s stylishly put together with vivid imagery and was such a hit on home video, it spawned four straight-to-video sequels. Walken returned for parts 2 and 3.
Abel Ferrara’s ulta-violent, twisted take on the Robin Hood legend takes place in modern day New York City, where former drug kingpin Frank White returns from a long stint in prison. He is driven to remove all his gangland competitors and distribute the profits of his illegal operations to the city charities and win the hearts of the people. He’s not only faced with enemies from organised crime syndicates, but Victor Argo’s determined detective Bishop, who knows his motivations hide something even more sinister. Walken terrifies as the ice-cold, ruthless White, and once again leads an epic ensemble which features Laurence Fishburne, Wesley Snipes, David Caruso, Steve Buscemi, Paul Calderon and Teresa Randle. Ferrara’s grubby style is a perfect fit as he juggles the glitz and glamour of a man attempting to appear legitimate to the elite of society, while his unpredictable hoods dispense the sleaze on the dark streets.
Michael Cimino’s devastating war drama landed Walken a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal as Nick, one of a group of industrial factory workers from Pennsylvania, who enlist to fight in the Vietnam war. The film explores the family-like community before leading us into the chaos of the battleground, giving us a brutal examination of the way war affects those risking their lives for a cause they maybe don’t fully believe in, and those left behind to pick up the pieces. Despite another impressive cast led by Robert DeNiro, it’s Walken who leaves a haunting impression as one of the devoted friends captured by the Vietcong and forced into degrading and harrowing games of death. THE DEER HUNTER also picked up Best Picture and Director as part of its five wins from nine nominations, and is cemented as one of cinema’s most memorable films. Now, anyone for a game of Russian roulette?
Tony Scott’s all-star, slick action-thriller, from a script by Quentin Tarantino, is an oft-quoted classic featuring countless edge-of-your-seat set-pieces. TRUE ROMANCE sees Christian Slater’s lonely Clarence fall for Patricia Arquette’s endearing hooker Alabama, only to see them mixed-up in a drug deal involving pimps, Hollywood producers, hot-headed Feds eager for the collar and ruthless mobsters. The latter of which gives our man Walken the chance to shine once more as the genuinely frightening Vincenzo Coccotti, who hadn’t “killed anyone anyone since 1984″, but is pushed into getting his hands dirty following an unforgettable Sicilian conversation and part-improvised ‘eggplant’ insult from Dennis Hopper . Walken’s one scene (running at less than 10 minutes) is arguably the finest in the movie and shows his natural intensity for playing merciless madmen.”Come again?”
Originally a directing project for Gore Verbinski before it fell apart, Steven Spielberg’s playfully loose biopic of teen swindler Frank Abagnale Jr. was quite a departure for the usually earnest actor. Walken landed his second Oscar-nomination for his portrayal of the adherent, World War II veteran father to Leonardo DiCaprio’s chameleon fraudster lead, who successfully conned a fortune through forged checks. Walken is at the heart of the film and keeps DiCaprio’s performance sympathetic. The father and son relationship allows for emotional depth as Frank Sr.’s guilt is etched all over his face, believing he’s at fault for his son’s wayward lifestyle, following his own convictions for tax evasion. Despite its ‘comic’ touch, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN packs a cathartic punch.
Gary Fleder’s complex crime-thriller sees Walken adopt possibly the coolest sounding moniker in film history as ‘The Man With The Plan’. His sadistic, crippled crime-lord forces Andy Garcia’s wiseguy-gone-straight, and his former crew, into one last seemingly simple job; scare away the boyfriend of the girl his simple-minded son is dating. Unfortunately, of course, the plan goes awry in spectacularly violent fashion via his trusted-yet-hapless buddies. Going back to face the consequences, they’re all given a price on their head – buckwheat (the most slow and painful way to die and if you don’t know, it ain’t nice) – as they face a race against time to leave town before the contract killers arrive. It’s a solid film with an overwrought finale as Garcia’s desperation to protect his old pals (Bill Nunn, Christopher Lloyd, William Forsyth and Treat Williams) seals his fate, but not before dishing out a shocking payback.
Walken followed up the mysteriously tragic off-set events of sci-fi thriller, BRAINSTORM, with David Cronenberg’s faithful adaptation of the Stephen King novel, THE DEAD ZONE. Here he proved he could carry a films leading role on his own shoulders as mild-mannered school teacher Johnny Smith, who awakens from a coma following a car accident to find he ‘s missed out on five years of his life. However, struggling to cope with losing the love of his life to another man, he also discovers he now has the rare gift (or curse) of being able to foresee the future by the power of touch. He gives a moving, nuanced and tortured performance as his character learns to live with his new found ability. The film ultimately poses questions of morality for the viewer as Smith slowly absorbs what he feels is the reason for this new supernatural power.
Of all Walken’s dark roles, it’s possibly James Foley’s shocking, fact-based thriller AT CLOSE RANGE, which packs the most emotional impact due to an unsettling undertone that builds to an unforgettable climax. Here he plays an absent father who returns to his Pennsylvanian hometown and almost immediately sets about charming his way back into the family. Sean Penn, and late younger brother Chris, are the teens who take a shine to their Dad, his pals, and their romanticised criminal activities, but are unaware of what they are truly capable of and the consequences of such a lifestyle. It really is one of those unbelievable stories that lingers due the despicable nature of a selfish parent, who is willing to cross any line to assure his freedom. The film was actually shot near to the real crime scenes and also features Madonna’s haunting song ‘Live To Tell‘, which complements her then-husband’s film perfectly.
Director Peter O’Fallon has since gone on to make a career delivering strong television but twisted, dark comic crime caper SUICIDE KINGS marks his only official feature film. Walken is again on fine form as an ex-mob boss still with a few connections, who is desperately kidnapped by a group of five young friends (Henry Thomas, Sean Patrick Flannery, Jay Mohr, Jeremy Sisto and Johnny Galecki). Tied to a chair for the majority of the movie, complexities arise when his character offers to help and allow his right hand man (the great Denis Leary) to help find those responsible for getting them into this mess before things go too far. He soon smells a rat as his mobster shrewdness begins to get under the skin of the group. He secretly psychoanalyses each of them to uncover the complex, convoluted truth; one of them is hiding the real facts, but all are going to pay with their lives before a line is crossed.
Walken reunited with THE DEER HUNTER director Michael Cimino for bleak, frontier western HEAVEN’S GATE, which was actually based on real events that took place during the 1890s, in Wyoming. He co-starred alongside country singer-turned-actor Kris Kristofferson in the notorious (almost) 4 hour film, which went way, way over budget; it was said to cost a huge $44 million but grossed less than $4 million. The sweeping epic revolves around a Sheriff who attempts to protect immigrant farmers from wealthy landowners but finds himself puffing chests with hired gun, Nathan Champion (Walken). Complicating matters further is their love for the same woman. If you’re able to see it through, the film truly is a thing of beauty. Yes, it’s long, sometimes slow and pretentious, but it’s a rewarding experience come the breathtaking, brutal finale. It again features an awesome supporting cast consisting of Jeff Bridges, Isabelle Huppart, Sam Waterston, John Hurt and Brad Dourif.
Do let us know what you think and if we’ve missed any of your favourites!
SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS is released on DVD and Blu-ray Monday 15th April.