Think of this as a guide through each of Christopher Walken's films, starting with his first and moving forward. Each review will provide analysis, factoids and opinion on the ninety-plus films in his career.
Walken in Short: Walken plays a sleazy, sweet-talking boxing promoter/criminal named ‘Wesley Pendergrass’. He’s a common criminal, with aspirations of being a successful common criminal, but y’know: one with style. He’s vain, petty, duplicitous, and as mean as a hungry seagull.
Movie in a Sentence: Johnny Walker (Rourke) is a perpetually punch-drunk alcoholic cowboy, vulgar and rather stupid, but with a heart that may have gold somewhere in there hidden, and he’s still trying to succeed in the ring after too many years of getting rocked in the noggin, when one day he meets a pretty girl (Feuer) and a smooth-talking handler (Walken) who each have different ideas about what Johnny should do.
So Why’s It Called HOMEBOY? No, this isn’t a hip-hop film, it’s just a veiled reference to the main character’s alienation and failure to succeed. Though the word ‘homeboy’ is never spoken in the film, there is a scene where Rourke has just lost a close fight by decision, and his cut-man, Lou, is explaining how it has more to do with the other guy being the ‘local favorite’ than with either being a better boxer. The other fighter has the ‘home advantage’. Awww, poor Johnny. In my opinion a better title could have been found, but hey, what do I know.
Director: Michael Seresin – This is his only credit as a director, but as a cinematographer he’s been working since the ’70s. Amongst others, he’s done: MIDNIGHT EXPRESS, FAME, ANGEL HEART (this is a good one, made in 1987, also with Rourke, and De Niro plays the Devil!), HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN and more recently: the psych-thriller ALL GOOD THINGS with Ryan Gosling. Not bad at all, cinematographically speaking. So he tried his hand at directing, found it wasn’t for him, and chose to focus on what he does well. Smart.
Writer: Mickey Rourke (credited as Sir Eddie Cook)
Duration: One hour and 56 minutes
MPAA Rating: ‘R’ – Junkies shooting heroin in bathroom stalls, graphic murder scenes, sex (did she just grab his junk right there in the bar? yes she did.), a whole lot of swearing, and boxers’ faces that look like soupy hamburger helper. All these things validate the ‘R’ rating this film received.
Actors Other Than Walken:
Similar Boxing Films: Cinderella Man, Rocky (only I, V, and VI though), Resurrecting the Champ, Real Steel
I also want to mention two other films: THE WRESTLER (2008), and HARD TIMES (1975). Now, granted, THE WRESTLER is of course about wrestling, but it also stars Mickey Rourke as a washed up fighter who may have brain damage and has screwed up his life and now has no other option but to get back in the ring. Sound familiar? 20 years between these two films, and it has some really interesting symmetry. THE WRESTLER was directed by Darren Aronofsky, whose entire filmography is absolutely worth checking out.
And HARD TIMES is just an awesome movie. Gritty, mid-Seventies film about a laconic and bad-ass bare-knuckle boxer (played by Charles Bronson), set during The Great Depression in the South, with James Coburn playing his unscrupulous and flashy manager. This is Walter Hill’s directorial debut. Hill went on to direct (among others): THE WARRIORS, LAST MAN STANDING (a great Walken-film), and the soon to be released Stallone film BULLET TO THE HEAD (2012), which looks like it could be pretty sweet.
Walken Content: 50% – He’s the bad influence, the devil on Rourke’s shoulder telling him to keep on fighting, and then later, to give armed robbery a try, just once to see if he likes it.
When Walken’s not on screen, the film is pretty slow and quiet, but he seems to talk the entire time we do see him, which is nice. He speaks with a hint of Southern drawl, that only shows itself sporadically, and mostly disappears within his familiar unique NewYork-ese. When he’s not watching boxers box, he has a night-job. We see him as he dances, sings (rather badly), and does an awful (but hilarious) amateur night-club act at Moe Fingers’ strip club (heh heh: Moe Fingers), telling jokes and what-not between the strippers’ sets.
Though the film definitely drags whenever he’s not around (go figure!), there is a substantial amount of Walken-goodness to be found here, enough to endorse a viewing of it on that alone, but more on that later.
FUN FACT: Until 2009, this film was only available on VHS!
Walken Quote: So this is Walken’s big recruitment speech. Walken, Rourke, and Ray are sitting around a kitchen table. Walken’s trying to get Rourke to forget about boxing for now and help him rob some Hasidic jewel-merchants. In the middle of the speech, Ray’s beeper goes off, it’s the cop looking for a snitch, Walken doesn’t know this, but he can tell something’s wrong, and you can see it on his face, but he only pauses for a moment and then goes right back to the story. Walken’s talking to Rourke the whole time while Ray paces around looking like a fretting housewife. You got it? Okay. So Walken says:
“You think I’m any different from you? Or anybody? I want the better things in life. I want a Rolls Royce. Convertible. 50 silk suits. 100 pairs of custom-made shoes. Handmade Chinese silk shirts the colors of the rainbow.”
“See John, I’m originally from Savannah. That’s Georgia. That’s where I was. Dropped off. That’s what they tell me. I don’t really know, cause when you’re a kid they tell you so much shit you don’t know what’s real. They said that I was blue when I was found, that I was real small. I was found in a mailbox, sometime after midnight during the winter. [beep beep beep]… Who’s calling you? (Ray says it must be a wrong number.) … Must be.”
“But I’ve tried to better myself over the years. Oh there’s been obstacles and minor disappointments but I very sincerely feel that my time is near. And I don’t even want to get even. That’s bullshit. I say forget the past. Live in this moment. (He says this next part in his guttural whisper) And I know something’s out there calling my name: Wesley. (laughs at himself, says it normal) Wesley-Wesley.”
“It’s all timing. Process of elimination and self-preservation. It all boils down to one thing: Take care of yourself. Cause if you don’t, you’re just gonna die and be nobody and…”
(Asks Ray) “What’s my point?” (Ray is bored, doesn’t care, shrugs)
“All I need is one big score.”
~Wesley Pendergrass (Walken)
Should You Watch This? It’d be hard to say just ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on this one. Objectively, as a film, I’d have to say ‘no’. It’s a grim, depressing story, with a lethargic and erratic pace. Also, the end is hasty crap. Though the supporting cast does a great job, the love story (which unfortunately is the core) falls flat, and neither character in the relationship is likeable or engaging enough to resuscitate it on their own.
People go and on about how Eric Clapton wrote and performed the score for the film, but I personally didn’t care for it much. I know I’m in the minority here, it’s just a matter of taste, but I found the music took me out of the film too often, instead of enhancing the story.
On the other hand, despite these flaws, I do love me a good boxing film! And what-with Rourke ACTUALLY being a professional boxer for much of his life, the fights, the training, and all the gym-characters scream verisimilitude, and are a lot of fun to watch.
Also, Walken is great in this, as are most of the other supporting performances. Dramatically, this film is a collection of interesting scenes, and there is a fair bit of humor to be found among all the scowls and the insults. So watch it for the performances. Know, going into it, that the film is going to piss you off in some places, and bore you in others. But also know, that there are some really good moments that deserve to be seen and enjoyed.
If nothing else, you should be able to enjoy watching Walken react to getting a knife pulled on him, by taking off his shoe and beating the guy with it.