King of New York, 1990.
Directed by Abel Ferrara.
Starring Christopher Walken, Laurence Fishburne, David Caruso, Wesley Snipes, Victor Argo and Giancarlo Esposito.
After being released from prison, a former drug lord sets out to eliminate the competition and distribute their wealth among New York’s lower classes.
With his bug eyes and intense stare, Christopher Walken has been one of the most interesting actors on screen in the last 30 years. From playing Russian roulette in The Deer Hunter to telling stories of mice churning butter in Catch Me If You Can, Walken has been a constant delight to watch. Always watchable, and able to elevate crap when he’s perhaps selling out (Click), we’ve been treated to an array of creepily told anecdotes and fantastically (and effortlessly) menacing characters.
King of New York is a trashy, dirty, degenerate, yet striking and engaging film from Abel Ferrara. Ferrara is perhaps the grimy, rough handed cousin of Martin Scorsese. There’s something about Ferrara’s work that is unique. His mixture of exploitative trash and dark character study were never more interesting and prevalent as his fascinating New York-set grime pieces, King of New York and Bad Lieutenant. Here he makes full use of the legend Walken, and extracts one of the man’s best, and most underappreciated, performances. Walken is Frank White, a gangster who’s just been released from prison. He’s a guy with the ruthlessness to get what he wants done, yet with a sense of morality that makes him so interesting. White wants to eliminate all his competitors and corner the drug market. There’s a great antithesis within White that also mirrors the antithesis in Ferrara’s style. This is a film that seems so raw, so trashy, over the top and cheap, yet somehow real, beautiful and striking. As White progresses with his annihilation of his rivals, whilst also trying to fund a hospital from his old district that’s close to closure, the police are trying to stop him, crossing the boundaries of their badge in order to do so.
Ferrara with this rough, B-movie sensibility still manages to get an A-list cast and make great use of them. Laurence Fishburne is superb as street hood Jimmy Jump. David Caruso excels as determined narc cop Gilley, ably assisted by his on screen partner Flannigan played by Wesley Snipes. Walken of course is the headliner and star turn with a charismatic and enigmatic portrayal of White, the violent, modern day answer to Robin Hood. There’s the threatening side of White, the charming side and then an underlying sense of a man striving to control his demons and repent. Walken has some great scenes – be it trying to condone his murderous life-style, or simply just with looks that tell a story of their own. It’s a great role and a great performance.
The film is loaded with plenty of action and as per the norm with Ferrara, it is brutally violent. There are some bloody gun fights as well as a standout car-chase whilst a subway finale is also memorable. The film’s rough feel is aided by the suitably murky photography of Bojan Bazelli who emphasises the grimy streets of New York’s turgid parts. The decision to shoot much handheld accentuates the feeling of quickness, rawness and spontaneity of proceedings. There’s an energy and buzz created by many of the performers and it seems like it was shot fast. Elsewhere the music (Joe Delia) sounds cheap, but equally it manages to remain atmospheric and effective.
King of New York is no classic, but it feels unique. Ferrara was part of that group, along with Scorsese who came out of the New York film scene in the late 60s / early 70s. Whilst he’s never achieved the status or critical acclaim of Marty of Francis Ford Coppola, he does have his own inimitable style, something quite guerrilla, unrepentantly exploitative and unrestrained (for better of worse). This remains one his best works, featuring a brilliantly on song Walken. This is an interestingly flawed work of twisted brilliance. At the same time it’s also very much a love it or hate it affair.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★