The Good, The Bad & The Badass: Christopher Walken

Last Updated on August 5, 2021

Last week, we took a look at the career of Michael Keaton, an underrated actor to be sure. This week's legend co-starred with Keaton in BATMAN RETURNS, and is possibly one of the most recognized faces on the planet…

Christopher Walken

Well, what else can I really say about Christopher Walken that hasn't been said? The man is a legendary figure. Is there an impressionist out there that doesn't do a Christopher Walken impression? When I write, “more cowbell!” I'm confident that every single reader here will get the reference. While he's often cast in self-parodying roles (Walken has a legendarily good sense of humor about himself – shown time and time again on SNL), Walken began his career as a deadly serious leading man in the vein of Marlon Brando. If you watch early Walken, you'll see one of the best method actors of his generation, and a man who frequently disappeared into roles and gave off a frightening intensity.

Nowadays, he's cast in lighter parts where directors can get the most out of his various “Walken-isms” but even still, when he's called on to do dramatic work he can still knock it out of the park. For evidence of that one needs look no further than his Academy Award-nominated part in CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS, and the overlooked A LATE QUARTET.

For the purposes of this article and the categories below, we've decided to focus on Walken's larger, more serious parts. While maybe PULP FICTION, ANNIE HALL or TRUE ROMANCE are better as films than something like THE DEAD ZONE or KING OF NEW YORK, as Walken-works (I like that) they're smaller (if pivotal) pieces of his cannon, so keep that in mind while perusing our “best-of” lists, as the chief criteria of greatness here is Walken performance and not overall quality of the film.

His Best Performance

I'd argue there are two essential performances by Walken – one is his Academy Award-winning turn in THE DEER HUNTER, the other is Abel Ferrara's KING OF NEW YORK. THE DEER HUNTER really put Walken on the map, and watching the film now, it's easy to see why. While not the lead, Walken steals the show from Robert De Niro as a formerly cocky blue-collar guy who finds himself mentally and physically broken after coming face-to-face with the worst of humanity in the Vietnam War. While Michael Cimino is a controversial figure, THE DEER HUNTER stands as a major work and an essential piece of cinema history – and a lot of that is due to Walken. Two years later, he re-teamed with Cimino in his reviled (but actually quite good) ego-western HEAVEN'S GATE, and again delivered one of the finest performances of his career, although critics totally ignored it in their rush to bash Cimino and his runaway production.

In between HEAVEN'S GATE and KING OF NEW YORK, Walken worked consistently in a variety of genres, even playing a James Bond villain in A VIEW TO A KILL, but other than a few exceptions (see below) he never really got the recognition he deserved until teaming up with Abel Ferrara for his seedy gangster epic KING OF NEW YORK. His performance as the oddly sympathetic – if often monstrous – coke baron Frank White, is every bit as charismatic as the great cinema gangsters played by Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and more. While the movie is dated somewhat, his work in it is a classic of the genre, and it's a pity it wasn't more of a popular success, as after this Walken found himself working on a bunch of lower-rent “direct-to-video” projects that probably paid the bills, but didn't really challenge him the way his best work did (that said – Walken has never given a bad performance, even in something like MCBAIN).

His Most Overrated Film

One Walken movie I absolutely despise is the totally unnecessary HAIRSPRAY remake. While essentially a big joke, I find this to be one of the few Walken films (or “Walkens”) that was truly obnoxious, and he's wasted in a part that essentially does nothing than capitalize on his kooky image. Inexplicably this was a major hit. I guess people really wanted to see John Travolta in drag. He's no Divine – that's for sure.

His Most Underrated Film

There are a lot of Walken movies you could call underrated. THE DOGS OF WAR, THE ANDERSON TAPES (where he's awesomely paired with Sean Connery), BRAINSTORM, etc. For me, Walken gave one of the best performances of his career in THE DEAD ZONE. Cast against-type as a kindly school teacher who acquires the deadly ability to see into the future (“the ICE is gonna BREAK!”), Walken has probably never played a sweeter guy, and he's incredibly sympathetic in a film that remains one of the best Stephen King adaptations. The fact that David Cronenberg-directed probably didn't hurt.

His Most Memorable Scene

I struggled with this one a bit. Part of me wanted to put in the “more cowbell” SNL sketch, or the Fatboy Slim video, but I wanted to stick to movies. I was tempted to throw in his great dance number from PENNIES FROM HEAVEN (Walken is an accomplished hoofer), but in the end it came down to his dual one-shot Quentin Tarantino appearances, in TRUE ROMANCE and PULP FICTION. I opted for the PULP FICTION monologue, as the other scene probably owes as much to Dennis Hopper as it does to Walken, which is not the case for PULP.

His Top-Five Films


Up Next

Despite being well into his seventies, Walken is as busy as ever, with him delivering another top-notch performance in Clint Eastwood's JERSEY BOYS, where he plays a benevolent gangster. He even gets to dance (briefly). Walken's still got it!


About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.