Comfortable and Furious

Thirty Odd Years Of Walken: Part 2

A mainstream pat on the back in A View to a Kill (1985)

Not too many actors get to play a Bond megalomaniac, but Walken was happy to dye his hair blonde and give things a whirl. Did he do a good job?

Hmm, well, he’s Max Zorin, the product of some WW2 Nazi experimentation with steroids. This tinkering has turned him into a psychopathic industrialist. Hell, you know he’s mad coz he thinks it’s a good idea to have the testosterone-fueled Grace Jones as a girlfriend. When he’s not pissing around with doped racehorses, he’s also planning to control the production and distribution of the world’s microchips. This deft business maneuver basically involves the obliteration of California’s Silicon Valley.

So far, so good, but it’s noticeable Zorin doesn’t have any dialogue in the opening half hour. In fact, he doesn’t have one good line until the hour mark when he hosts a business meeting aboard an airship with a potential cartel, eventually arranging to chuck a dissenter through a hatch. “Does anyone else want to drop out?” he asks the others.

To be honest, Walken gives an odd performance. He’s a little hesitant, sometimes appearing on the verge of forgetting his next line. There are glimpses of his disarming smile and that instantaneous ability to transform from jovial to ice-cold, but I don’t think he gets the best handle on a genuinely insane character. Or perhaps he suffers from having to play off a non-actor like Jones. She mostly scowls or hoists opponents above her head, treating the whole caboodle as an outre fashion show.

Anyhow, I doubt too many would put Zorin in their top five Bond villains. It’s easy to see the awkwardness when he shoots a man dead and says to Bond: “Intuitive improvisation is the secret of genius.” Not the greatest line, is it? Then there’s the scene where he’s laughing while machine-gunning a whole load of mine workers. This sort of hands-on slaughter might be breaking new ground for a Bond flick, but it’s awfully unsubtle and unimaginative. Ditto when he tries to kill Bond with an ax.

Playing Zorin certainly didn’t do Walken’s career any harm, though, as View to a Kill turned into a decent-sized hit amid all the flak it took for keeping faith with the elderly Roger Moore. View is rubbish, but it’s an amusing enough diversion with plenty of ridiculous stunts performed by obvious stunt doubles.

A rapid series of washouts: Homeboy (1988), Biloxi Blues (1988), Communion (1989) & The Comfort of Strangers (1990)

Walken’s a charismatic actor, but he’s sure as shit been in a lot of duds. The overlong Homeboy is a good example. After a stilted hour the movie hasn’t even attempted to introduce a semblance of plot. Walken is a flashy, small-time crim who tries to exploit the tough, undisciplined and punch-drunk boxer, Mickey Rourke. It’s a slow, flat watch, further dragged down by Eric Clapton’s interminable score. Walken has little to do except stand fully clothed in a hotel bathtub listening to people fuck, make a nonsensical speech about dinosaurs, sing badly on stage, dress up as an orthodox Jew, and fail to generate any chemistry with the half-mute, equally misfiring Rourke.

By the end of the eighties, it was obvious that Walken was drawn to off-center characters, such as the WW2 veteran with a steel plate in his head that he plays in the lightweight Biloxi Blues. He’s in charge of a bunch of newbies for ten weeks of basic training in hot, steamy Tennessee. Problem is, when it comes to drill instructors, we’ve been here before with the likes of Officer and Gentleman’s Emil Foley and Full Metal Jacket’s Hartman. Walken does his best, and the flick sure suffers when he’s off screen, but everything feels tired. He’s the usual mix of sarcasm, outright threats, mind games and colorful insults (“I have a nutcracker that crunches the testicles of men who take me on.”) It goes without saying he knows whatever happens in his barracks, although he is capable of justifying his dehumanizing approach: “Men do not face enemy machine guns because they’ve been treated with kindness. I don’t want them human; I want them obedient. I’m trying to save their lives.” However, his divide-and-conquer approach and push-up punishments tend to lack imagination. He’s not helped by a barely average cast and Neil Simon’s oft-forced dialogue.

The talky, tension-free and frequently embarrassing Communion has even less to recommend it. In fact, it’s atrocious. I can’t see it appealing to anyone except those sad whack jobs that fantasize about alien abductions, anal probes and all the rest. Walken is well cast as a faltering writer already worried about his sanity when he starts suspecting extraterrestrial life forms are whisking him away. Frankly, I would’ve preferred it if he’d started abducting the aliens. At least that would have been novel. Instead cliches abound like blinding white light, electrical malfunctions and even an E.T. light bulb finger. The interactions, dreams, hallucinations, suggestions or whatever the hell they are initially prove comical before lapsing into overlong dullness. Walken tells his doctor he’s being carried off by ‘big, thick kids’, which surely gives a good indication of the awkward, unconvincing nature of this pseudo-sci-fi pic. At another point his worried wife accuses him of self-indulgence. Yep, that sounds about right.

Things barely improve in The Comfort of Strangers where Walken dusts off his weirdo act yet again, puts on a white suit and strolls around Venice. Unfortunately, his sinister character makes no sense, simply being murderous for no other reason than the movie would be even more boring if he weren’t. After sitting through this slew of turkeys, I was reminded of his ridiculous cop character musing in All-American Murder: “How can one person fall so many times into the shit?”

Going soppy over a French whore in Heaven’s Gate (1980)

Like Bonfire of the Vanities, Gate was one of those movies I long avoided. Bad rep, you know? Plus, it’s more than three and a half hours long. Surely there should be a law capping movie at three hours? I mean, go try that bum-numbing Apocalypse Now Redux. Still, Gate is a handsome effort. Did I say handsome? I mean sumptuous. In every frame you can see a lot of money has been spent. It’s one fuck of an authentic recreation of late nineteenth century life in Wyoming. Writer-director Michael Cimino knows how to frame a shot, too.

Shame how things unfold.

I can’t decide whether the editing is terrible or non-existent. Gate is packed with irrelevant scenes, unintentionally funny ones, or stuff that goes on and on and on. Cimino conjures everything up with aplomb, exercising an iron control over his mammoth cast, but too often forgets about that little thing called story. Indulgent isn’t the word for it. And so, we have to sit through endless bouts of dancing, roller-skating, violin-playing, countryside picnics and all the banal rest while patiently waiting for a bit of murder and mayhem. It’s pitiful to see talents like John Hurt, Jeff Bridges and Mickey Rourke wandering around trying to sniff out the slightest relevance.

Walken plays a xenophobic enforcer for the Wyoming Stock Growers’ Association, a sinister land-owning bunch who’ve taken exception to the arrival of European immigrants. In a well-directed introductory scene that brings to mind Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia, he kills a transgressor before even opening his mouth. Action is character. And boy, is there potential here with talk of a ‘death list’ containing the names of 125 ‘thieves, anarchists and outlaws’ that the Association plans to kill. Unfortunately, it takes more than two hours for this plot to get underway. You think it’s gonna be a prime badass role for Walken, a kind of upside-down Schindler, but after grabbing our attention by wordlessly killing an immigrant cattle rustler he then gets sucked into a dull love triangle. Worse, at some points, he looks like a mustachioed Michelle Pfeiffer.

The Ferrara connection: King of New York (1990), The Addiction (1995) and The Funeral (1996)

Director Abel Ferrara often makes awkward, unsatisfactory and plain weird films yet occasionally comes up with something worthwhile and in your face like 1992’s Bad Lieutenant. He’s collaborated with Walken at least four times, the pick of the bunch being the neo-noir gangster effort, King of New York. Walken plays Frank White, a newly released convict looking to haul his way back up to the top of the criminal pile. He shares a lot in common with Pacino’s Tony Montana and Carlito Brigante. On the one hand, Frank is an intensely ambitious, trigger-happy nutter. Yet he also possesses a shaky moral code while being aware of the wasted years behind bars and the need to build a better life. “I’ve lost a lot of time,” he tells his pretty attorney as they study the city’s skyscrapers. “It’s gone. From here on, I can’t waste any. If I can have a year or two, I’ll make something good.”

Frank fixes on financing the construction of a hospital in a poor area of the city, but the viewer knows it’s a pipe dream. The realities of the street are always going to intervene.

King feels right from the moment we see Frank sitting in a Sing Sing cell with his back to us. The deathly pale, snake-eyed Walken captures Frank’s conflicted nature well. He’s obviously intelligent, poised and refined, but doesn’t hesitate when it comes to spraying blood and brains all over the shop. He moves in high society yet is not averse to a bit of Risky Business-style subway shagging. Most of the time he seems divorced from the manic ugliness of his mainly black gang, but never hesitates when it comes to showing his steel balls. It’s like he’s lost somewhere inside himself, as if he doesn’t really know who he is or what he’s about. There’s no doubt, however, that he’s always one devilish grin or calm dismissal away from the most appalling gun violence.

King is a nicely shot, fast-paced watch with fine location work. It doesn’t offer anything new and sure strains credibility at points, but it has a moody style punctuated by bursts of brutality. It also boasts an excellent cast, including David Caruso and Wesley Snipes as two of the most hot-headed cops you’ll ever see. Elsewhere, there are urine-soaked feet, bafflement over a tampon-packed briefcase, fire hydrant trauma, and Larry Fishburne strutting around like an ultra-vicious member of Run-DMC. King might fall short as a top-notch gangster flick, but it’s still among Walken’s better efforts.

Ferrara reverted to type with his subsequent Walken collaboration, the black and white, pro-victim blaming The Addiction. It wants to be an intellectual take on vampirism by having a PhD philosophy student attacked, enabling stuff like Dante, a bespectacled college professor, cello-playing, My Lai, Nazi war crimes, ethical relativism and Nietzsche-like voiceover ponderings to be chucked into the mix. If that sounds like the perfect recipe for a lack of intentional laughs, you’d be right.

Now I don’t get offended by movies (which are, of course, made-up) and I struggle to sympathize with anyone who does. For me there’s no such thing as bad taste. On the other hand, being a slave to accuracy usually works against any artistic vision so it makes sense to exaggerate, invert or distort. However, I do like a semblance of credibility. I’m a fan of internal logic no matter how crazy the premise. The Addiction trips up here by linking neck-biting to the Holocaust. Some people will find this offensive or cry vulgarity. Not me. I just think it undermines the story. Indeed, I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that such a connection is deeply… facile.

This triteness is part of the reason Ferrara’s tale of egghead exsanguination ends up with no meat on the bone. It’s further weakened by the blindingly obvious word ‘vampire’ not being mentioned while arguing that humanity is nothing more than a bunch of evil shitkickers addicted to murder. Hmm, even a jaded cynic like me struggles with such an appraisal. Mind you, The Addiction does succeed at depicting vampirism as a ghastly fate by showing its victims becoming unbearably pretentious.

Walken, who somehow snagged second billing for another cameo, turns up as an experienced, William S. Burroughs-reading vampire doing his best to blend in and become human again. “The entire world’s a graveyard and we’re birds of prey picking at the bones,” he says. “We’re the ones who let the dying know that the hour has come.” He briefly injects some much-needed energy but not enough to save this flat, ridiculous mess, best summed up when he mentions his pride in once again being able to defecate like a regular Joe.

Walken tried his luck again a year later in the 1930s-set The Funeral, a Catholicism-infused, thankfully less pretentious effort. He’s a patriarchal gangster, none too pleased that his obnoxious upstart of a younger brother has been gunned down. Despite top billing, Walken drifts in and out of the pic during the first hour. Instead, we spend time with a suave Benicio Del Toro, a disapproving Annabella Sciorra and a red-faced, shouty Chris Penn seemingly getting fatter by the minute. Things improve a lot during the tense final stretch when Walken becomes convincingly dangerous, especially from the moment he gets his hands on a double-headed ax and starts to reveal the true depth of his loathsome, destructive hypocrisy. “Maybe one day they’re gonna find me with my blood draining into the sewer,” he tells a transgressor. “And when I’m dead I’m gonna roast in hell. I believe that, but the trick is: Get used to the idea while we’re here.” The Funeral is not among Walken’s better-known flicks, but it builds to a memorable, sledgehammer finale.



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