Christopher Walken, excuse me, sir, but what planet are you from? Did you beam down or arrive more conventionally, by saucer, falling star or rocket-propelled craft? Did earthlings try to make peace? Can you fly? Will you destroy our cities? Or do you sort of like us, after all your time on our little planet?
Whatever: Thank God, you're here.
Of off-earther Christopher Walken, again (for about the 90th time!) gracing the screen in "Wedding Crashers," it can only be said: Is this guy great or what?
In big movies or small, in parts ludicrous or noble, in costumes insane or muted, in hats foolish or stylish, Walken has been a constant source of delight for at least 30 years. It's no less true in the very funny if decidedly sophomoric "Wedding Crashers," which is one of his more moderate performances. The director, David Dobkin, casts him as a standard Hollywood trope, Hollywood's idea of an Important Man, Washington-style. But his job really isn't to act, to perform, to engage or even to wear three-piece suits and look reedy and distinguished; it is to be.
As the movie is set up, Walken plays the extremely prosperous, extremely powerful William Cleary, secretary of the treasury and some kind of Kennedy aristo stand-in with a Hyannis-like compound on the Eastern Shore where he lords it over his tribe of beautiful daughters, their various lacrosse-player-like suitors, his bitter wife and a staff. Two of those daughters are the objets de coeur of the movie: Our heroes, played by Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, will bed then wed them while undergoing ordeal by withering glance.
But Walken's more than just the old guy playing the father; he stands for the whole idea of order and rank in society, the sense of an iron structure of probity and mature responsibility against whose rock-hard foundation the anarchistic stylings of Wilson and Vaughn lash and crash. Though Walken's not particularly funny, Wilson and Vaughn (who are particularly funny) wouldn't be funny without him. He contains them. He contextualizes them. He is rock and hard place. In fact, for them to be funny, he cannot be funny. In not being funny he is . . . really funny.
There are just two problems with this conceit: He has almost no lines and no character, only a wardrobe.
So it all comes down to actor's tricks, of which he has a hatful. The best in this movie is his glare. His usual mode of being is the pompous pontification where, completely absorbed in his own power and magnificence, he is unaware of the world around him, or at least convinced that it exists only to further honor him. His daughters obey, the lacrosse players listen politely and Wilson and Vaughn try to keep their eyelids propped open with toothpicks. Yet every once in a while he breaks out of this narcissistic cocoon, when something one of the bad boys does provokes him, and he fixes them with a glare that would impale a butterfly to the cotton matting with a pin through its thorax. It's quite a thing: laser hard, unremitting, a quick glimpse into the soul and brain of a man who is not gifted with much in the mercy or empathy department. For their part, Wilson and particularly Vaughn become completely unhinged at the application of this force in nature; they communicate their total awareness that they are way overmatched.
This is funny, really funny. It's far funnier than if they had challenged him for alpha status; no, no, that's not their thing; they're party boys, he's of the real world; they simply want to get the hell out of Dodge and go on in their messy, meaningless lives. His insouciant assumption of central importance is miraculous to see, particularly when so much more frequently he's played a gangly, jumpy fletch of a man, quirky-jerky in motion, pale in eye, blond in hair, almost always ready to bust into a dance (he started as a dancer). In between, he's been a star, a villain, a comic presence and a deathly one. The one thing he's never been is out of work.
The first recorded Walken sighting (by me), however, was not auspicious. He hadn't really become Christopher Walken yet. He was just a lanky pretty boy with too much hair. The movie was an early-'70s caper thing called "The Anderson Tapes," starring Sean Connery as a burglar who devises a plan to rip off an entire apartment building -- that is, all the apartments within it. The location was a posh Manhattan locale, and the gimmick was that law enforcement outfits had penetrated the scheme, had everyone under wired or taped surveillance but somehow never put it all together in time to prevent it from happening; the narrative was, therefore, assembled after the fact from the tapes of the title. In the end, if memory hasn't gotten it hopelessly confused with some other '70s banality, Walken's character is killed in a van crash as he's trying to get away from the scene.
We were not impressed. We did not even record the young man in our data bank of promising newcomers. In fact, the role hadn't let him be him, that twitchy presence with the sallow eyes and the shimmering sensitivity. He was just, you know, boney and not handsome enough to be really handsome. And there were handsome boys around in that time: William Katt, remember him? What about Michael Blodgett? Gone, all gone.
Walken managed to hang on -- he was in "Annie Hall" in 1977, and while I have no memory of him, other non-brain-fried citizens do, recalling him as Diane Keaton's brother who drove the two stars nearly insane as he drove them home in one scene, monotonous, accident-obsessed, hilarious -- until '78, when "The Deer Hunter" made him a star and won him an Oscar. It was the beginning of a short-lived star arc that illuminated the late '70s and early '80s, but the truth is, he brought a supporting actor's techniques to the center of the frame and never really seemed comfortable there. He's always doing character actor-y things even at the center of the composition, designed to make you notice him. But he's already there. He's in the center. The camera is on him.
In "The Deer Hunter" he's one of a trio of hard-believing Pennsylvania steel workers who go to Vietnam full of macho bravado and end up playing Russian roulette for the amusement of some Viet Cong debauchees in a riverine prison. It was pretty stupid -- don't get me started on that movie! -- but he got to go nuts toward the end of the thing. This was the birth of essential Walken: haunted, almost spectral, twitchy, dark-eyed, very, very strange. It is said he ate nothing but rice and bananas to get in the mood for the shoot, as well as to get that boney look. It's also said he actually spit into Robert De Niro's face at one point, and the reaction from De Niro, true rage, isn't performance at all; it's just the reaction of a man whose face has been spit into.
Spit aside, what is it about Walken, who's just as good whether he's playing angels or devils or some mixture between? Part of it, of course, is the singularity of talent: He finds unique rhythms that fascinate viewers yet never quite take the picture over; he can do ensemble neatly but at the same time always provides color and uniqueness no matter the dullness of the premise and the dreariness of the cast around him. (Think particularly of 2003's "The Rundown.")
But it's also a physical singularity. It's not just the knobby frame, the pale-as-death-by-knife eyes, the weird crest and counter-crest of contrapuntal rhythms in his locomotion. All that is true, but doesn't get us far enough. A lot of it is, weirdly enough, skin. His skin is a paler shade of white or a whiter shade of pale and it seems to pick up the lights of the camera in very strange ways. It's like he is always lit from within, strangely lustrous, so that a blur of blue arteries shows under the alabaster. He seems to glow a little bit and he's always the whitest thing on-screen. He could never make a movie set at the North Pole.
Then, too, his odd highness of hairline gives him a kind of intellectual Martian appearance: He looks not educated but extra-terrestrially super-intelligent with the receding scallops of hairline at the corners of his forehead but still enough thickness of pelt to give him a sensualist's density of hair. It's a very strange combination, beloved by directors, cinematographers, lighting technicians, all the grunts who make the movies move.
But for my money he was at his strangest and most beautiful in the forgotten classic from his star period, "The Dogs of War." He plays Frederick Forsyth's Brit mercenary Cat Shannon reimagined as a Queens-born Vietnam veteran. He is hired by a multinational to go to a small African country and prepare an intelligence report on its political stability. What he discovers is Conrad's heart of darkness, a corrupt, cynical, murderous state run by an insane man. But in discovering that, they discover him; he is beaten to within an inch of his life and rudely ejected. He is then asked by the multinational to go the next step -- that is, assemble a mercenary force to take down the government by force.
Basically the movie has been decrypted from Forsyth's thundering thriller into a small existential essay on the fury of the alpha male. I don't know where it comes from -- it sure ain't in the book, but whether Walken is the auteur or director John Irvin or screenwriters Gary DeVore and George Malko, I don't know. It's the idea that this guy is really alive only in war. In his civilian life he's a grumpy loner, living in an empty apartment; in the refrigerator he keeps two things -- beer and an automatic pistol.
Walken gives us Shannon's executive skills, his leadership skills, his tactical skills, his close-quarter battle skills -- all brilliantly but also undercut with a strange psychic intensity. It's the luminosity from within thing going again, and the film builds and builds through all the raid movie cliches -- the team buys weapons and ammo, it acquires transpo and men, it approaches by night, the commandos slide through the darkness to penetrate the ricky-ticky capital, and then they open fire.
This is where "Dogs of War" leaves planet Earth for some other zone where the air is infused with testosterone as well as the smell of napalm in the morning, which as we all know smells of victory. Lord God, do they bring some hurt. There's a great scene where the four professionals burst through the compound gate howling like banshees, pour into the courtyard of the installation and just unleash hell in the form of sleets of automatic weapons fire. They are so happy.
Walken soon separates from the rest to enter the presidential palace, killing everything before him, including people, automobiles and beds. Finally, having disposed of the intelligence officer who tortured him and the despot who ordered it done, he confronts a woman who was attracted to him who turns out to be the despot's mistress. Walken blows her away. Then he notices it's her image in the mirror he's just shot. She steps out to face him and they have a moment like no other. Very strange move coming up here. He takes his hat (a naval watch cap pulled low to his eyes) off so that she can fully confront who he is. He is saying: This is me. This is what I do. I kill, I destroy, I leave widows wailing and children weeping. Look at me and despair.
And -- how did he manage this? -- his eyes are dilated. The irises stand isolated in the pupils and they are full of wild craziness. If you see those eyes, you'll never forget them. They're the eyes of war, the eyes of macho carried to its fullest, darkest level of insanity. He's gone through hell to get here, given everything up for it, home connection to society, future, health, all for this moment. Ma, he seems to be saying, I'm on top of the world.
His run of stardom, however, slowly leaked away. As he got bigger, the movies got smaller. He ended up for a while in a run of sci-fi films such as "Brainstorm" and "The Dead Zone," then veered into independents in "At Close Range." He had a few more big mainstream spins, as the villain Max Zorin in "A View to a Kill," a Bond flick from '85. It just didn't work, which seems odd given the power of the Bond machine to make big shots of its villains; after all, it briefly turned Gert Frobe into a world star after "Goldfinger." Then he was another super villain in "Batman Returns" in '92.
For the past 20 years, Walken has specialized in big roles in small films or small roles in big ones. Nobody can light up a scene like he can, as witness "Pulp Fiction," when he tells Bruce Willis the story of dad's watch, or his shootout with the Rock in "Rundown," which he plays completely for laughs and is the best and only memorable thing in the film. As Leonardo DiCaprio's father Frank Abagnale Sr. in Steven Spielberg's "Catch Me if You Can," he's heartbreaking, and earned himself another Oscar nod.
He's also made a lot of movies that somehow don't register. Ever hear of "Plots With a View" or "The Prophecy 3: The Ascent," much less some quickly-off-the-radar screen losers like "The Country Bears," "Around the Bend" and the unlamented, very late "Gigli"?
So now, once again, he's in a big hit. If you watch a lot of movies you get hooked on some of these real people. The trajectory of their careers is just as interesting as the stories they're in on-screen. So it's a happy time for Walken and us.
Mr. Walken, you are hereby declared an honorary earthling and requested to stay around another couple of millennia. Thank you.