Whenever Christopher Walken shows up in a film you can practically feel the energy and interest go up in an audience, whether they know him by name and are studious of his massive career (raises hand) or they just remember that instantly recognizable face. Whether it’s a supporting role, cameo or star turn there’s something about his electric eyes, steady yet spooky voice and offhandedly eccentric mannerisms that make him something truly special. His career is an epic one that spans comedies, drama, musicals, stage plays, music videos (that Fatboy Slim dance marathon!!), a Bond movie, the odd horror flick and a good dose of obscure indies that I’ve always loved to hunt down. Here are my top ten personal favourites! Please share yours as well and enjoy:
10. Max Shreck in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns
With a shock of electric silver hair and a razor sharp pinstripe suit, Walken embodies monstrous corporate evil as Gotham’s most corrupt business tycoon. I’m not sure if Shreck was a villain that ever showed up in the comics or if he’s something Burton dreamed up for the film, but in any case he makes just as much of a morbid impression as Danny Devito’s Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman in the baddie department.
9. Gabriel in The Prophecy Trilogy
Walken takes a decidedly darker approach to the Angel Gabriel here, playing him as a rogue operative at war with god and his forces and engaged in casual genocide of the human race to both achieve his goal and simply prove a point. The cool thing about Walken as an actor is that most of his career finds him playing characters in crime dramas, comedies, real people in the real world, no matter how wacky they get. But he also has the deft versatility to pull off something otherworldly and supernatural too, as you can see by this moody, intense characterization that definitely suggests something out of this world.
8. The Headless Horseman in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow
I had to. Roger Ebert wrote in his review of this film:
“ Note: No power on earth could drag from me the identity of the unbilled actor who plays the Horseman when he has a head. But you will agree he is the only logical choice. “
Is that not the perfect summation? He looks positively animalistic here as the big bad in Burtons best and most underrated film, sporting rock star hair, teeth whittled down to points and a thunderous roar which is the only actual dialogue he ever has in the role. Walken is a lot of things but one that you could boil his complex essence down to is ‘both scary and funny.’ If there’s one role that reinforces that it’s this, he’s somehow legitimately terrifying and ridiculously hilarious in the same note. That takes skill and charisma.
7. Caesar The Exterminator in Gore Verbinski’s Mouse Hunt
There’s something in the way one observes a crazed Walken crawling along the floor adorned in a headlamp and tactical gear, tasting dried mouse droppings to learn the gender of his quarry. Only he could take a ten minute exterminator role intended as comic relief and turn it into the kind of bizarre, deranged performance art that steals an entire film. I’ll also add that the film overall including his presence is one of the most overlooked of the 90’s and a misunderstood dark comedy/fairy tale that was unfairly billed as a kids film and lost on many dismissive viewers. Time for re-evaluation.
6. Frank Abagnale Sr. in Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can
A family man whose reckless decisions lead to a radically different lifestyle and a diminished self image, Walken nails both the fierce pride and detrimental flaws of this character while infusing a deep love for his wife and son. It’s a complex portrayal that despite being a sideline supporting character, fills the film with humanity and humility. Don’t even get me started on the “two mice fell into a bucket of cream monologue.”
5. Paul Rayburn in Tony Scott’s Man On Fire
Another performance filled with subtly sorrowful regret, Rayburn is an ex military man who shares a past connection with Denzel Washington’s John Creasy, and the two share several central scenes of mutual remorse and guilt that land hard. Walken is good at masking deep set emotion with a joke, cloudy half smile or idiosyncratic anecdote, but the intention burns bright beneath whatever deflection tactic he employs, and his work here is no exception.
4. Vincenzo Coccotti in Tony Scott’s True Romance
Like many actors in this film, Chris only gets one scene or so to strut his stuff, but the nasty verbal showdown with Dennis Hopper here is not only one of the most memorable of the film but of cinema itself. He’s an apex predator here, a sociopathic mafia don who’s used to getting his way and accustomed to nobody standing up to him. His simultaneously bemused and aghast reaction at essentially being owned by Hopper’s wily ex cop is something for the ages and provides the film with some it’s best humour and scariest violence. “You’re a cantaloupe!”
3. Brad Whitewood Sr. in James Foley’s At Close Range
Walken has portrayed a lot of villains, scumbags and less than desirable dudes but Brad takes the fucking cake. Leader of a rural band of small time thieves, he re-enters the lives of his two sons (Sean and Chris Penn) he left years earlier and from the moment they become involved with him nothing good comes of it. He’s charming and affable at first but when the heat shows up it becomes very clear this guy will kill anyone, including his own sons, to keep himself afloat. This is a mean, sad and bleak spirited film with a cold, ruthless central performance from Walken. But it’s worth it to observe just how far human nature can go into extremes that all of us hope we don’t ever have to encounter.
2. Nick in Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter
One of several young men who go from life in a small industrial town in Pennsylvania to the horrors of the Viet Nam war, he brings all the subtleties of the world into his work here, showing how the darkness out there can smother someone’s soul to the point that they don’t even know who they are anymore. One of my favourite moments in Walken’s entire career is in this film, where a nurse in a military hospital asks him who he is and who to contact in this situation. The actor expertly but unobtrusively displays a quiet, confused and utterly devastating mental breakdown as the reality of what has happened to him sets in. It’s showcase Walken for how believable it is and one of the finest scenes he has ever crafted.
1. Frank White in Abel Ferrara’s King Of New York
The most introverted criminal kingpin ever to show up in cinema, Walken plays a recently paroled crime kingpin who’s ready to take back the territory he lost while in the slammer, with some help from his rambunctious crew headed up by a fearsomely unstable Laurence Fishburne. The performance I picked for top spot isn’t a weird one, a hyperactive comedic turn, a funny scary villain or anything that he’s outright known for. There’s something remarkably compelling and down to earth about Frank, something very ‘street.’ His name is fitting because that’s how he approaches both business and relationships: with a blunt, no nonsense and vaguely sadistic air. Ferrara directs one of the best NYC crime dramas ever made here, he and Walken make the moody final scene ring with unexpected, grim poetry.