Christopher Walken: In The Lead

Christopher Walken has cultivated an iconic image through his hardworking career, with his mysterious and enigmatic performances helping him become a director’s favourite whenever the role calls for somebody to bring an off-kilter presence to the screen.

Although perhaps more well known for his supporting roles in films such as Pulp Fiction, The Deerhunter, Catch Me if You Can, Annie Hall and True Romance, to celebrate the upcoming release on UHD and Blu-ray of King of New York, we’ve taken a look back at the occasions where Christopher Walken found his name above the marquee, in a selection of lead role appearances.

The Dead Zone (1983)

Adaptations of Stephen King novels have sometimes struggled to make the transition to film however The Dead Zone often scores highly on critics and audience polls alike. With David Cronenberg at the helm, fresh off directing Videodrome, Christopher Walken put in a mesmering performance as Johnny Smith, an English teacher who, following a car accident, wakes to find he has psychic ability.

Cronenberg is said to have wanted Nicholas Campbell, who he had worked with on The Brood, to play Johnny but wasn’t a big enough name in the eyes of legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis. Oddly, Stephen King wanted Bill Murray who was coming off the back of a string of hit comedies (Caddyshack, Stripes, Tootsie). The compromise was Walken, which ultimately was an impeccable decision. Walken received huge plaudits for his performance and his portrayal of the disturbed and affected Johnny has helped maintain the film’s popularity and become one of his most synonymous roles.

Communion (1989)

Based upon the book and experiences of writer/ufologist Whitley Streiber, Walken plays Streiber himself who while at his holiday home with his family is abducted by aliens. He later tries to understand if the encounter was real or just a dream.

Throwing himself into the role of a man profoundly changed by a perceived extra-terrestrial experience and the subsequent effect on him and his family, Walken is on top form. Largely derided on release, it has picked up a cult following not least because of Walken’s eccentric lead performance. The real Streiber complained about Walken’s unrealistic portrayal of him and worried he was playing it too crazy. “If the shoe fits” was Walken’s laconic reply. In one memorable scene, Walken as Streiber dances with and high-fives aliens while aboard their spacecraft.

Director Phillipe Mora (The Howling II, The Beast Within) and a score by Eric Clapton give it additional interest and Walken, with his balance beam teetering between sanity and lunacy, hold your attention.

McBain (1991)

James Glickenhaus’ McBain sees Walken as Bobby McBain, a Vietnam War veteran who reconnects with his old army buddies to respond to a call to overthrow a South American dictator. Needing to raise money for the coup, McBain and company tear through druglords and local mafia before heading down to Colombia, curiously filmed in The Phillippines, to assist Christina (Maria Conchita Alonso, Predator 2, The Running Man) in attempting to topple the fearsome El Presidente (Victor Argo).

There are a couple of noticeable echoes of King of New York made just a year before with the appearance of Victor Argo as the film’s antagonist as well as the film’s poster depicting a moody looking Walken looming large over the New York city skyline. Looking back on it today, McBain straddles the line between over-the-top action and unintentional comedy as McBain and his aging pals are relied upon to secure the safety of an entire country, but Walken and Alonso’s presence give it some elevation over similar titles.

McBain was not a success at the US box office on release but has become a curious interest piece nowadays, partly due to the name McBain being shared with a character in The Simpsons known for appearing in blockbusters filled with action film cliches. Despite The Simpsons’ reference predating the film, McBain’s producers refused to let them continue using the name so Rainier Wolfcastle became the name of the actor who played the role of McBain to get them over the legal hurdle.

The Prophecy (1995)

Written and directed by Gregory Widen (Highlander, Backdraft), in this brooding thriller Walken plays the archangel Gabriel who comes down to Earth in search of a soul who will help settle a civil war that is raging in Heaven. The trouble is the soul Gabriel wants is in the possession of a young girl and he’s not afraid to kill whoever gets in his way to retrieve it.

Like his earlier other-worldly roles in The Dead Zone and Communion, Walken’s cryptic and, in this case, sinister style was a perfect fit for Gabriel. Coming just before a slew of ‘religious thrillers’ in the late 90’s (Fallen, End of Days, Stigmata), The Prophecy went on to become a successful franchise with five films in the series to date although Walken checked out after the third one.

The Funeral (1996)

The Funeral sees Walken as a gangster in 1930’s America looking to seek revenge for the death of his brother. An underrated crime film with an emphasis on story rather than action, Walken in this heavy hitting drama is an actor firing on all cylinders.

The partnership between Walken and director Abel Ferrara was a fruitful one. This was the third time they had collaborated in their careers – they would later work together on cyberpunk drama New Rose Hotel in 1998 too. Walken was also originally cast as the lead in Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant before deciding the role wasn’t right for him and leaving the project to be replaced by Harvey Keitel.

Walken’s career as leading man is a diverse and interesting one. The often unsettling performances he brought to the characters have made for a series of curious and absorbing films. His haunting, unique quality has endured and audiences will continue to be entertained by seeking out the films where he’s had the opportunity to stand front and centre.

Dom Walker

Dom Walker

Writer and expert

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