Christopher Walken is creepy--at least on screen. Not creepy in some your-grandmother-slipped-you-a-little-tongue kind of creepy. No, no, Walken is much more insidious. It doesn't matter whether he's playing an angel, the devil, the hero, the villain, the star of the show or simply a walk-on going for laughs, his characters are always damaged. The underlying impression is that if a Walken character is allowed to stay around much longer, everyone's going to be worse for the wear.
This lingering presence marks Walken, though not a marquee celebrity for the Friday-night dinner-and-a-movie crowd, a fave of professional film critics and movie lovers both. You know going in that no matter how mediocre the picture turns out, Walken's going to deliver a shakedown.
What better actor for the USA Film Festival--which at varying times seems to fashion itself as a movie fan's movie festival--to salute in a Master Screen Artist Tribute than an award-winning but generally under-appreciated artist with a serious cult following? But in a telling irony, the festival has chosen to salute him by screening only Suicide Kings, a film that not only opens in nationwide release the day after its debut here, but is also terribly mediocre and stitched together solely by Walken's performance.
In Kings, rich twentysomethings--played by E.T.'s Henry Thomas (Avery), onetime Saturday Night Live player Jay Mohr (Brett), Clueless' Jeremy Sisto (T.K.), and a post-Powder fully follicled, buffed, and pigmented Sean Patrick Flanery (Max)--kidnap Walken's Charles Barrett (a.k.a. former Mafioso Carlo Bartolucci gone legit) in an opening rush that's more exhilarating than most film climaxes (including this one).
The movie then swerves dangerously close to the wasteland of T&A comedy. Only instead of having college kids trying to trick a hottie out of her virginity, the college guys are playing a mobster for $2 million. You just know you're going to get something like: Whoa, we're about to score--sure hope Mom and Dad don't come home and find us holding the most dangerous man in New York hostage. We'll be grounded for sure.
Although it never gets quite that bad, Kings stumbles between broad comedy and classic crime drama for the duration, leaving gaping holes in both plot and plausibility as it tries to twist and turn itself into a whodunit. And Walken, with some brief though plot-wise irrelevant relief from Denis Leary, has the impossible task of keeping it compelling--while bound to a chair no less. But in a role that basically reduces him to a talking head, Walken delivers. In the glint of his eye, the arch of a brow, his characteristic sparse but precise articulation, Walken lets you inside. You can see there's more to the character than what's being said. There's a real mind at work.
But then again, Walken has always been able to deliver subtle shades of character. In the film, the term "suicide kings" explicitly refers to the King of Hearts, the wild card in a poker game with a blade pointed to its head. It symbolically touches on the underlying motivation that this dangerous kidnapping plot has been hatched not for money but for love--to get back Max's girlfriend, Avery's sister, who has been kidnapped herself.
Over the course of his career, Walken has been the reigning suicide king. Just look at his Best Supporting Actor role as Nick in Michael Cimino's brilliant Vietnam film The Deer Hunter. Walken shares the screen with Robert De Niro in one of the most intense scenes in all of cinema. As prisoners of war, De Niro has convinced Walken that their only means of escape is via a game of Russian roulette with their captors. As De Niro holds up the three bullets he wants dropped into the gun's chamber, the camera turns to Walken. Di Niro's Michael assures him that in just a few minutes they'll be out of there, but you see Nick's mind bend. Though the scene churns out grueling suspense that can only end in a blaze of violence, it's Walken's eyes that drive home the delicate humanity at stake.
So, where's The Deer Hunter in this so-called salute? It's the 20th anniversary of its release, and younger audiences deserve a chance to see it on the big screen. Now that would be a coup. But no, the USA Film Festival is content to showcase a film that you'll be certain to skip past when it shows up on your video-store shelf in a few months.
Of course, the festival is going to give us a compilation of film clips from Walken's body of work, so we'll probably get a few minutes of The Deer Hunter. And we'll get lots of stuff to remind us of Walken's ability to bridge the gap between drama and absurd comedy--the way he can get you laughing at the same time your skin crawls. We might get to see a splice of him as the cold and collected mobster Vincenzo Coccotti in True Romance. He'll describe himself to an insulting Dennis Hopper as "the anti-Christ" who is in a "vendetta kinda mood," although he hasn't really "killed anybody...since 1984."
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And surely we'll see him as Pulp Fiction's Captain Koons, the man who brings to young Butch his father's watch and tells him its history. Walken will deliver that lengthy, hysterical monologue, and it'll have us squirming in our seats--as much from uneasiness as humor. And maybe, we'll see a quick clip from The Prophecy, where as a fed-up and jealous Angel Gabriel leading a new revolt against heaven, Walken singes the air as he moves through it. He'll growl, "Ahh, you can always smell a graveyard," and we'll shake our heads and know he was the only thing in that movie that was worth a damn-- just like in Suicide Kings. And there will be other snapshots too, ranging from the terrible (Things to Do in Denver when You're Dead, Nick of Time) to the boring (The Funeral, The Addiction) to the pure fluff (Brainstorm, The Dead Zone) to the pure fun (Wayne's World 2, Batman Returns).
And then you'll realize that being creepy is never as much fun as it is when done by Christopher Walken, and you'll wonder why you are watching Suicide Kings when there are so many other films that pay better tribute to his talents. Sitting there in the dark, maybe, just maybe, the answer will come to you: publicity tour.
--Scott Kelton Jones
The Master Screen Artist Tribute to Christopher Walken
Christopher Walken is scheduled to attend.
Thursday, April 16; 7:00 p.m. at the Lakewood Theater