King Of New York DVD review

Christopher Walken's towering performance as Frank White is one of many reasons to revisit Abel Ferrara's flawed but brilliant film.

Christopher Walken's last great role? Discuss...

You may have never heard of Abel Ferrara. You may have never seen one of his films – including 80s video nasty The Driller Killer, grainy vampire drama The Addiction, infamous Harvey Keitel vehicle Bad Lieutenant – or even have seen them available at your local DVD stockist. But it’s more-than-probable that you’ve heard of The Notorious B.I.G. And if you’ve ever listened to the slain rapper’s 90s crime masterworks, Ready To Die and Life After Death, you’ll have heard numerous references to Frank White. And in that case, you already know King Of New York.

Released in 1989, King Of New York has lived on as a cult classic on the back of two things: 1. Its re-appraisal by gangster rappers and 2. Christopher Walken’s performance as drug kingpin Frank White. After being released from prison for a long spell, White hits spots of high society with his lawyers, announcing that he’s reformed, even while he and his crew are killing off their rivals in the streets. It’s an electrifying performance; with bed hair, a dead stare and constantly pursed lips, Walken has a thinly veiled, disgusted look on his face the entire film even when he’s offering to help fund local hospitals or dancing to Schooly D records. “I’ll make something good,” he says, wishing to leave some kind of positive legacy behind, even with full knowledge that his line of work leaves him with little time: “…just for one year. One year is all I need.”

On the Special Edition DVD, released today, friends of the filmmaker reminisce over the making of King Of New York, sharing anecdotes about both star and director. Filmmaker and Ferrara collaborator Lisa Krueger details an instance in which Christopher Walken picked up a child on-set and held him “like a teddy bear”, saying that the crew could shoot around him as he went out of character. In an interview with producer Augosto Caminito, we are told of a meeting where Caminito and Ferrara met possible backers for the film. Ferrara said he was going off to the toilet mid-converstion and left with no intention of returning to finish business. After hearing these stories, you can only think that these two space cadets were perfect for one another. King of New York captures Walken at his hungriest, right before the 90s arrived and he started to become a self-parody of himself. The same can be said of the supporting ensemble: Laurence Fishburne, Wesley Snipes, David Caruso, Steve Buscemi (in a tiny role). The cast (mostly male, the few actresses are given next to nothing to work with) immerse themselves into this odd world of designer violence, sex and drugs, navigating deftly through crime movie clichés with aplomb. And while the film doesn’t feel in any way real – at least until the final twenty minutes – there’s a definite intelligence within all the muck.

Ferrara’s body of work has been described as “superior scuzz”, a title that seems to suit him. Caminito says that that the intention of King of New York was to make an Italian film with Italian money but shoot it in New York, which makes sense, seeing the arthousey, European approach Ferrara takes with what is pretty much a routine gangster film. White’s exploits raise moral quandaries – Does might make right? Can we really accept good deeds as a direct result of ill-gotten means? – for the audience to think about, rather than them being shoved down our throat, and the moody lighting and tense, taut shooting style helps to create a feeling of awful dread. However, the reason Ferrara’s pretentions work are due to the way he balances “highbrow” with “lowbrow”. The DVD case claims that King is an unheralded masterpiece, but masterpieces rarely have such confusingly handled EQ levels, the feeling of shooting on the run, or moments like the one in which a nubile young woman licks cocaine off a man’s midriff, unzipping his trousers and removing the gun tucked at the waist. (The scene pretty much defines this side of the film – a melange of GSD, that feeling of hyper -trashy hyper-hyper-hyperviolence that pretty much made American exploitation cinema what it is.) Ferrara seems like a director steeped too far in his own fleapit aesthetic to really make his film the respected masterpiece the DVD case heralds it as but, to be fair, that’s also part of its allure.

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Ferrara has fallen off the radar in recent years, but he’s still up to his old tricks – appropriately, as detailed in the accompanying blethering docu Abel Ferrara: Not Guilty, scouring the streets of New York at night. Looking like a dishevelled homeless person, he bullshits to a crowd of women that he’s getting filmed for a new TV series called Last Day on Earth, plays matchmaker with a couple of young adults out on the town, acts like a sleaze by following a tall and gorgeous woman and throws a tantrum over not fitting his crew into a sufficient limo. He’s one hell of a character, one that obviously cares a great deal for the city he lives in, far more than his Frank White ever could (“I must’ve been away too long, my feelings are dead”), which is why King Of New York seems better than the sum of its parts. As a matter of fact, there’s a third reason why the film lives on: its neon-lit death gouging of the New York metropolis is a portrait of a city in freefall. “The whole system favours the scumbag,” a cop seethes at one point, and you’re left thinking about that way after all the claret has done being spilt.

4 stars
 

Rating:

4 out of 5