(On Cable TV, January 2019) Anyone wondering if there’s a movie with 1990-vintage Christopher Walken as a kingpin in nighttime New York City can rest easy, because King of New York exists. It may even be a good movie: under the stylish glare of director Abel Ferrara, this is a film chiefly concerned about style over substance, going through familiar plot points with some messy energy. Walken is reliably terrific here, playing a crime lord fresh out of prison with ambitions that may not survive long in the city he’s coming back to. Almost immediately, rival criminals and the police have him in their sight, and it can be difficult to distinguish the illegal tactics between both sides of the law. The protagonist here is painted in a tragic light, a victim of circumstances who “never killed anyone who didn’t deserve it”, seeking redemption yet too noble (or something) to survive in the harsher Manhattan that evolved while he was behind bars. The mythologization of the character living large and indulging in hedonistic excesses may account for much of King of New York’s enduring popularity as a crime classic of its era, but a bit of perspective shows the limits of Ferrara’s approach. The film isn’t as profound as it seems to be, for instance, and the ending drags on far too long after an intermittently interesting plot progression. There’s a lot of posing here and while that may help build the film’s pretension, it falls apart more readily the moment you don’t believe in the style without the substance. Walken has the benefit of being supported by a cast that includes early appearances by many name actors not yet having fully defined personas, including Laurence Fishburne, David Caruso, Steve Buscemi and Wesley Snipes. King of New York is not unpleasant to watch on a pure style and attitude level, but it’s certainly uneven, and can become annoying if you don’t buy into the whole gangsters-as-heroes nonsense.
(Second Viewing, On Blu-ray, November 2018) Roger Moore is the Bond through while I discovered the series, so he’ll always remain my definitive take on the character … but he was clearly far too old to play the role in A View to a Kill. Bond’s tendency to date far younger girls gets overwhelmingly uncomfortable here, especially after the somewhat more mature heroines of the previous films. Various other structural mistakes, such as passing far too much time on the opening penny-ante villain horse-doping scheme rather than his ultimate evil plan, further damage the picture. Still, I still enjoyed quite a bit of the movie. There’s something about the action scenes that feels more modern than previous instalments, and both the chase sequence through Paris and the other in San Francisco feel well-handled. Then there are the antagonists: Christopher Walken is typically indescribable as genetically-engineered villain Max Zorin, his line delivery being much better than the actual lines. Then, of course, there’s Grace Jones: Not a gifted actress, but a spectacular evil Bond Girl more than capable of taking on Bond and make him sweat a little. Goody-two-shoes Tanya Roberts doesn’t compare, and there’s a fantastic lost opportunity here to bring back a recurring KGB agent character. Patrick MacNee shows up in a supporting role as a fellow agent, with some fun banter between him and Bond. Duran Duran’s title song is terrific, and it does underscore the peak-eighties nature of the film. Still, it’s hard to watch the film and not wonder about the wasted occasion of what a younger Bond, a tighter script, and a more daring director could have done with the raw material of the film. Still, as a swan song for Moore in the role, A View to a Kill is not quite bad. There have been far, far worse movies in the franchise and even in Moore’s tenure.
(On TV, March 2017) The real treat in Suicide Kings is watching Christopher Walken as a clever mob boss, kidnapped, amputated, slowly dying but able to turn the tables on his naïve young kidnappers. As a Tarantino-inspired crime thriller with a mixture of darkly amusing dialogue and bloody criminal action, it’s a movie of its time, which is to say a quasi-nostalgic throwback for those who haven’t already seen it. Walken is quite good in a quasi-peak performance. Props also go to Johnny Galecki as a young man who gets far more than he expected, and Denis Leary as a loquacious mob enforcer. Unfortunately, while the story of a kidnapping going awry generally work well enough to keep our interest, the overall result does feel underwhelming given the assets at its disposal. Some of the direction doesn’t quite flow, some plot beats make as much sense as a runaway eighteen-wheeler and the dialogue either works or doesn’t. At its best, Suicide Kings is decent methadone for Tarantino withdrawals. (One of the advantages of rediscovering movies that felt tired in their time is that, sometimes, you do want more of the same years later.) At its worst, however, it’s a tired pastiche without much of the flair, wit or pacing of its inspirations.
(In French, On TV, November 2016) I’m writing this a few days after the close of the 2016 American presidential election, in a haze where I’m not sure what’s real and what isn’t. It’s not necessarily the best time to tackle The Dead Zone, or maybe exactly the right time. Here, an unassuming teacher gains the power to foretell the future and see the past, leading to a complicated life and terrifying visions of what would happen if a local loon became president. Best time or worst time? I’ll tell you in four years. Until then, there’s an impossibly young Christopher Walken’s strangely compelling performance to admire and Martin Sheen as an unhinged politician that contrasts with his latter President Barlett. I’ve read the Stephen King novel too long ago to be specific about the details, but The Dead Zone seems to play loose with the details of the original story, which is not necessarily a bad thing. While writer/director David Cronenberg’s film can hit a few rough patches at times, with ambitions exceeding the means at its disposal, The Dead Zone remains engrossing throughout … and suddenly seems like a newly relevant film at a time when we’re grasping at any attempt to predict the future.
(Second viewing, On Cable TV, October 2016) I saw The Deer Hunter decades ago, but couldn’t remember much other than the Russian roulette sequences. Watching it again reminded me why. As much as there’s a lot to like in the story of blue-collar workers being irremediably damaged by their Vietnam experience, the film is just too long and meandering to be as effective as it could be. The interminable wedding sequence springs to mind as the worst culprit here (boo, director Michael Cimino, boo) although there’s enough fluff elsewhere in the film to make the running time balloon even higher. At least the film is blessed with a few terrific performance, the best being a very young Robert de Niro as a quiet hunter, an equally young Christopher Walken as the one who goes crazy, and Meryl Streep as the object of their affection. Great sequences also fill the movie, but the connective material between them kills much of the film’s urgency, and takes away from the relatively straightforward plotting. The Deer Hunter’s then-daring portrait of soldiers as real people without glorifying war heroics doesn’t come across as clearly now, given the steps taken to humanize warriors in later movies. A classic for a good reason, The Deer Hunter is not a bad piece of work—although its emotional impact is bound to vary widely.
(In French, On DVD, April 2016) There’s been a glut of kids movies with CGI animal characters lately, but an early (and enjoyable) prototype of the form can be found in 1997’s Mousehunt, in which an exceptionally intelligent mouse goes to war against two brothers trying to renovate an old house. While the film does feature a handful of CGI creatures (usually easy to spot), most of the mouse scenes are shot using real trained mice, and the result, in all of its limitations, is surprisingly enjoyable. It helps that Mousehunt features some real good physical comedy, and earns a number of honest laughs along the way. Nathan Lane and Lee Evans are fine as the brothers battling against insolvency and a smarter-than-they-are mouse, but Christopher Walken has a very good small role as an exterminator who finds his match. Still, the star here is director Gore Verbinski’s efforts at orchestrating mayhem as the war between the mouse and the humans escalates to pure chaos. There’s quite a bit of wit to the way the film is put together, balancing entertainment with a darker-than-necessary tone. Much of the film can be seen coming in advance, but there are enough small surprises here and there to keep things interesting and funny. For some reason, Mousehunt doesn’t seem to have endured all that well twenty years later, which is a shame given how it combines humour, action and small furry creatures appealing to kids, while having just enough cleverness and suspense to appeal to adults. (One note, though: the opening cockroach scene is disturbing to young kids. Heed the PG rating, especially given the small much-darker hints in the dialogue.) It’s quite a bit better than you’d expect … or possibly remember.
(On Cable TV, July 2013) Getting old isn’t easy, and that goes for actors as much as for criminals. Stand Up Guys has the merit of addressing both by featuring Al Pacino and Christopher Walken as a pair of aging gangsters trying to figure out the rest of their lives during one particularly event-worthy night. Pacino’s character is freshly out of prison, while Walken’s character has orders to kill him before the night is over. What happens next is a blend of good screenwriting, decent directing and capable veteran actors: Stand Up Guys becomes a breezy way to pass an hour and a half, coupled with a few things to say about aging and how people can break free from their past. Some of the humor is extremely easy (much of the bordello scenes read like wish-fulfillment for older men) but some of the rest feels on-target as a reflection of older-tired characters that can’t wait for the end to come. After a slow start, Stand Up Guys improves midway through as Alan Alda joins the proceedings for a few faster minutes. While the episodic structure of the film can’t patch over a few unfortunate narrative choices (such as the avenging sequence), the ending is strong enough to satisfy in a somewhat-predictable fashion. Fans of Pacino and Walken will get plenty to like, although Walken’s conflicted arc is more compelling than Pacino outright bombast. While this isn’t a classic-in-the-making, it’s not a waste of time either, and it joins a small “aging superstar thriller” sub-genre alongside now-franchises such as Red and The Expendables.
(Video on Demand, June 2013) Writer/director Martin McDonagh clearly isn’t happy doing the usual or the expected: With this crime comedy, he plays around with structure, experiments with form, and uses a comic crime thriller to reflect on the place of violence in movies. Collin Farrell is low-key but effective as a screenwriter who turns to a friend in order to get some inspiration for his next screenplay. Sam Rockwell is quite a bit flashier as said friend who finds himself creatively inspired, and starts bringing the screenwriter into his own criminal enterprise, where we meet an unusually reflective Christopher Walken. It quickly leads to a clash between true psychopaths, repentant ones and unexpected ones. McDonagh’s dialogue is as good as could be expected from a playwright, and his directorial technique feels a bit more natural than in his previous In Bruges. Seven Psychopaths takes a turn toward meta-fiction in the third act, as it tries to reconcile the impulses of thrill-seeking viewers with the humanistic instincts of a filmmaker trying to avoid gratuitous violence. While the result feels a bit more scattered than it should, it’s an unusually intriguing film, and one that has quite a bit more thematic depths than the usual crime thriller. As a bonus, it’s also quite funny… except when it decides not to be.
(On DVD, June 2009): It goes without saying that a horror monster is seldom “just” a horror monster, but Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction takes things to a conceptual extreme by cramming vampires in a film chiefly about addition and the philosophical implications thereof. Pretentious? Very much. Intriguing? Definitely. Shot in stark black-and-white, The Addiction features a number of notable names (including an unusually fetching Lily Taylor, and a scene-grabbing cameo from Christopher Walken) and an improbable number of soliloquies that, stripped of their pretentiousness, still manage to deliver a number of fascinating ideas. The vampire here is a junkie who has managed to blame others for his addiction, and whose appetite is only matched by self-loathing. As horror, it’s generally lame (although there is a vampire feeding frenzy late in the film), and yet there’s no denying that The Addiction is a lot more worthwhile to watch than any half-dozen cheap vampire movies.
(In theaters, November 2000) The first time I tried to watch this film on TV, I drifted off fifteen minutes later, distracted by housework. This time, stuck in a second-run movie theater, I had no choice but to keep on watching, and I must that that the end result isn’t bad at all. A lot of famous names and faces (including one good sequence between ever-dependable Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper) plus an odd script from the pen of Quentin Tarantino, built around only a few sequences that last a long time each. Some surprises, a good action finale and crunchy dialogue make up for ridiculous plot development seemingly lifted from teenage fantasies and a roster of largely unsympathetic characters.