By 1991 Christopher Walken was a major star, having secured a place in pop culture with his Oscar-winning Deer Hunter turn. Yet watch him drift through that year’s little-seen All-American Murder clad in a leather jacket and a fixed expression and you have to wonder what the fuck’s going on. Surely an actor of such stature should be in something a bit better than this direct-to-video, sub-par giallo travesty?
After all, the guy was still in his prime.
Walken plays a cop called Decker in an otherwise no-name, college-set flick ridden with naff hairdos, a sappy REO Speedwagon-like soundtrack, and an almost unbroken series of implausible scenes including a cynical nympho cougar whinging about facelifts, a deaf, panties-sniffing handyman, and a gasoline-drenched cheerleader being set on fire with a blowtorch. Our wrongly accused, four-foot high hero, whose name I can’t be bothered to look up, appears to be channeling Back to the Future-era Michael J. Fox, except he’s got no skateboard and is up to his neck in murder, promiscuity and body parts. The eyebrow-raising dialogue simply provides the cherry on top (“I once knew a girl called Leslie. I called her The Squirrel because she was always grabbing my nuts.”) In short, you can understand why Ken Russell was originally in the frame to direct such lurid nonsense.
Less easy to explain is Walken’s presence. His character’s unconventional nature is typified by the way he handles a public siege at a corner store. Here he taunts a knife-wielding perp through a bullhorn about having banged his wife. Then he breaks into song.
And yes, you did read that right.
“I never forget a face, especially if I’ve sat on it,” he tells the agitated perp. “I hope you have the fun with her that I do. I love that little mole on her butt, don’t you? And how about that sensitive left nipple? And what mouth action! I thought Jaws only moved that fast in water!” This button-pushing exercise so enrages the hubby that he lets go of his terrified hostage and rushes outside to be shot in the knee by Decker. Not that any fellow cops or onlookers bother offering a passing comment on such a dramatic turn of events.
It’s peculiar how Walken was even offered a script this bad yet alone chose to star in it. Then again, the next flick he wandered yawning through was a batshit crazy war drama by the name of McBain. After watching this pair, I think it’s fair to say 1991 was not a banner year for our Chris.
But that’s Walken for you. He can electrify the screen as a piss-poor daddy and unrepentant killer in At Close Range, but then enter into a prolonged period of churning out dreck. The man occasionally demonstrates a white-hot, Brando-like talent that also can’t help disintegrating into utter disdain for his craft.
Early stuff: The Anderson Tapes (1971), Annie Hall (1977), The Sentinel (1977) & Last Embrace (1979)
Walken made his inauspicious debut in the peculiar, unexciting Anderson Tapes in which the newly paroled robber Duke Anderson (Sean Connery) compares safecracking to rape (“I used to pull ’em open and plunge right in!”) It’s a mob-tinged caper movie obviously trying to say something about technological surveillance, but finds neither the right tone nor level of action. Walken, oft-hidden behind a mask, is left without any good scenes.
It took another six years before he demonstrated his renowned ability to capture a character’s off-kilter or plain weird streak when he turned up as Duane Hall in Annie Hall. Sitting in his gloomy bedroom like a moody teenager, he beckons his sister’s boyfriend Alvy (Woody Allen) before confessing a suicidal fantasy about causing a head-on collision while driving. “I can anticipate the explosion,” he reveals in an emotionless voice. “The sound of shattering glass, the flames rising out of the flowing gasoline…” And, of course, the next scene is a blank-faced Duane giving Alvy a lift to the airport as his deeply uncomfortable passenger sits alongside.
Annie Hall provided a memorable cameo, but the best that can be said about Michael Winner’s incoherent horror turkey The Sentinel is Walken doesn’t embarrass himself (unlike, for example, a leotard-clad, publicly masturbating Beverly D’Angelo and a camp Burgess Meredith throwing a feline birthday party).
Things didn’t improve in the sub-Hitchcockian Last Embrace, a very silly, confused attempt at some sort of romantic espionage mystery. Supposedly rooted in reality, it’s every bit as daft as The Sentinel’s supernatural shenanigans. Walken plays a treacherous, bureaucratic type who does his dirty business from behind a desk. He gets to wear unflattering glasses and… oh, that’s it.
No way to follow up an Oscar win, mate.
The horror gem: The Dead Zone (1983)
By the time Dead Zone came around, Walken’s career was a bit wobbly. His iconic Deer Hunter turn had not exactly led to setting moviedom ablaze. Heaven’s Gate became a legendary, studio-maiming bomb, not helped by Walken’s unintentionally comical lead-up to his Bonnie and Clyde-style demise. Neither The Dogs of War nor the 1981 musical drama Pennies from Heaven found an audience whereas 1983’s Brainstorm was a sci-fi dud whose troubled production (involving the death of Natalie Wood) was far more interesting than the final product. Five years after blowing his junkie brains out in a Saigon gambling den, Walken needed a hit.
Luckily, Cronenberg turned up with far and away the best pic he ever assembled. Given its episodic nature and incredulous goings-on, I have no idea how it works, but work it does.
It’s the sad story of an everyday man whose chance of a straightforward, honest and quietly worthwhile life is snatched away and replaced by little more than visions of horrifying trauma. Just about everything he knows and trusts is lost, including his beloved girl. He doesn’t do anything for this to happen, but that’s one of Dead Zone’s surprises. Right up until the climax, Johnny Smith is a passive character, a man trapped between the unconscious passage of time and a newly awakened ‘gift’ for dark prophecy. Movies shouldn’t place such a reactive bloke front and center yet his plight is never anything less than gripping.
Before we meet Johnny, the mood is perfectly established by its opening sequence, in which confusing black markings appear on autumnal still photos. They slowly coalesce into the three-word title, accompanied by Michael Kamen’s wonderfully melancholy score. Johnny’s a schoolteacher and, to be honest, it’s pretty clear this dude is never gonna set the world alight. With his forward-combed hair, glasses and drab dress sense, he’s a bit of a dweeb. Just listen to him when his fiancée Sarah (a superb Brooke Adams) asks him in for the night. “Better not,” he tells her, even though it’s about to piss down. “Some things are worth waiting for.” Like Duane Hall’s alter ego, he drives off in his unflashy car in the rain with everything to look forward to.
Then a sliding milk tanker intervenes and the next thing he knows it’s five years later and his religiously deranged mother is revealing Sarah has turned her back on him by marrying another man. The way a supine, barely comprehending Walken hoarsely delivers the line “Husband…?” from his hospital bed and covers his face is a master class in acting. Fuck, we feel his pain. Johnny has awakened from his coma, he’s back in the land of the living, but everything has turned to ash. Now his existence seems to have no purpose, except to learn of dirty secrets and be confronted by psychic visions of imminent death. By doing this, The Dead Zone enables us to grapple with some profound moral questions.
Sarah inevitably comes back into Johnny’s orbit, finding him in the hospital grounds during a bout of physical therapy. “They told me you were outside,” she says. His quietly broken reply I am suggests he’s not merely talking about his physical location. For this is a man who now stands apart from the human race, already knowing that the only way to prevent his nerve-wracking bouts of clairvoyance and find some peace is to stay far away from the ever-madding crowd.
Most people plump for Walken’s best performance as The Deer Hunter, but I’d tie it with the hapless, haunted Johnny in Cronenberg’s masterpiece. The way his gaunt, pallid face continually flips between resentment, sadness, anger, fear, pain and bewilderment is bewitching. Best of all is that despite The Dead Zone’s insistence on depicting accidents, tragedies and the worst kinds of human behavior, it’s an ace love story and a deeply life-affirming picture.
War: The Dogs of War (1980), Witness in the War Zone (1987) & McBain (1991)
Walken struck gold early on in the war genre but attempts to replicate his Deer Hunter success often resulted in him lurching around a minefield. At least the tightly edited opening forty-five minutes of Dogs of War are very good. Events are pushed forward with the minimum of effort, there’s a lot of local color, and it’s understated, convincing stuff. Walken, who plays a mercenary tasked with overthrowing a corrupt West African regime, also gives his first starring role in a major production his best shot. Unlike later flicks, he’s really trying here and by doing so generates a fair degree of charisma. Indeed, his extraordinary face resembles a cross between a pop star and a vampire. “Do you reject Satan?” a priest asks him at one point. He might say yes, but I think he’d fit in seamlessly in a satanic version of Duran Duran. There’s danger in his darting eyes and litheness in his distinctive gait, all lubricated by that marvelous voice.
As you can probably tell, Walken is not the problem with Dogs of War. After all, he kills without hesitation and gets to feed a man a shard of glass. No, Dogs‘ mistake (despite being nicely shot and well-acted by all concerned) is a serious lack of action. Ten minutes of fireworks isn’t enough in a two-hour war flick. Instead, it concentrates on character and the nuts and bolts of setting up such a mercenary operation. It even manages to suggest that the reason an intelligent man kills people for money in foreign countries is woman trouble. Yeah, well, I guess we all deal with a broken heart in different ways.
Dogs remains a watchable minor success unlike Witness in the War Zone (aka Deadline). This is a clumsily titled, deservedly obscure effort that requires some knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Walken is a duped TV news journo in Beirut having a tough time. In other words, it’s another reporter-in-peril flick that was all the rage in the 80s. “Here people don’t kill who they want to kill,” Walken is told by a fellow cameraman. “They kill who they can.” This type of movie rarely works because of its passive setup whereby a protagonist is chucked into a fucked-up place being smacked around by events way beyond his or her control. War Zone is no different, often feeling like a dour TV movie.
In the much more fun McBain, Walken starts off suffering a bout of Deer Hunter deja vu. He’s a blue-collar worker back in Nam getting roughed up in a bamboo cage for the entertainment of those dastardly VC. Once again, he’s in dire need of saving.
And saved he is at the last second by a Colombian soldier from a different unit named Santos (Chick Vennera). This brave intervention leads to instant bonding. Then a decade or so later (in the first of a series of bonkers jumps) Santos is busy trying to overthrow a corrupt Colombian president with a ragtag army. Result? He gets executed on live TV which, somewhat understandably, upsets his little sister. She toddles off to New York to track down his old Nam buddy, McBain (Walken). Without a second thought, McBain reforms his army crew to fulfill Santos’ attempted revolution. Before long, he’s raising capital by knocking over a stateside drug cartel and getting ready to invade Bogota…
Crikey, the explosion-heavy McBain is a mess, often playing like a drunken mash-up of Apocalypse Now and Top Gun with some gangsters thrown in for good measure. An unchallenged, somewhat indifferent Walken strides through this preposterous rubbish with a bog brush hairdo and the odd silly hat. Writer-director James (The Exterminator) Glickenhaus tries his best, even employing some fancy De Palma-like moves with his 360s and bird’s eye views, but he’s just chucking spaghetti against a bullet-ridden wall. Nothing convinces, typified by the film’s many extras taking an age to respond to being shot. McBain, meanwhile, is happy to sit in a plane and use a handgun to fire through its windshield to cleanly take out a jet pilot flying alongside.
The high-octane McBain, as you might gather, is never dull. Bloody stupid, yes, but never dull. This is mainly because it’s got some cool stunts, plentiful bursts of absurdity (that include a woeful attempt at a Strong Female Role) and a body count that outstrips Commando. It’s even more insane than that Chuck Norris terrorist slaughter fest Invasion USA.
However, despite the near-relentless mayhem, my favorite bit involves a quieter moment. McBain tries to empathize with the plight of Columbia’s oppressed, drug-ravaged people by telling Santos’ sister that back in 69 he went to Woodstock, couldn’t scrounge any food and had to sit hungry in a muddy field for three days.
Aah, the poor lamb.