King Of New York was released during the most productive part of Abel Ferrara’s career so far. Arriving a year after 1989’s Cat Chaser – a filmmaking experience Kelly McGillis found so dreadful that she shaved her head and vowed never to act again – and the infamous Bad Lieutenant in 1992, King Of New York ranks among the best of Ferrara’s movies, and undoubtedly one of the most interesting gangster pictures yet made.
King Of New York also arrived at a unique time in American filmmaking. It was among the earlier (but by no means first) movies to prominently feature a hip-hop soundtrack, and appeared in US cinemas a year before Boyz N The Hood and New Jack City – movies which dealt with similar themes such as crime and drug dealing to a much more lucrative effect.
Aside from the obvious draw of Christopher Walken in the lead role, King Of New York is noteworthy for its extraordinary supporting cast, including Wesley Snipes, Laurence Fishburne, Steve Buscemi and David Caruso – all of whom were largely unknown before this film, but would later go on to forge hugely successful careers.
King Of New York introduces Frank White (Walken), a drug lord who’s just finished an unspecified but presumably long stretch in jail. His time in seclusion, it seems, has either driven him mad or at least filled his head with bizarre socialist dreams, since the prison doors have barely closed behind him before his gang of hoods is reassembled and sent to work.
Jimmy Jump (Fishburne) and his group of wise cracking, cackling killers start by offing a rival gang of Columbian dealers and making off with a huge consignment of cocaine. From his opulent retreat at the top of Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel, Frank coordinates a series of similar hits and violent take-overs of rival gangster turf – his plan being to use the proceeds to bankroll a hospital in one of New York’s poorer districts.
Understandably, Frank’s utopian vision doesn’t go down to well with his fellow gangsters. “You know what, Frank?” Triad boss Larry Wong says during one awkward meeting, “This conversation has made me realise just how fucking crazy you really are.”
Nor have Frank’s antics gone unnoticed by the local police. Weary, aging cop Roy Bishop (Victor Argo) and his colleagues Dennis (Caruso) and Thomas (Snipes) make repeated attempts to thwart Frank’s plans, but when a witness to the shooting of Columbian dealer King Tito is killed before they can testify, Dennis and Thomas decide that more violent measures are required to bring the king of New York down.
Ferrara’s film presents an intriguing world of clashing opposites, where no one is wholly evil nor particularly good. Frank is the ultimate cold-blooded businessman, whose head is full of noble intentions – and he won’t hesitate to kill anyone he needs to in order to realise them. Frank exists in a weird kind of metropolitan purgatory, with one foot in the scummy recesses of drug dens and dingy clubs, and the other in luxurious hotels, boring stage shows and expensive benefit gigs.
On the other side of the fence, there’s Bishop and his fellow cops. Ferrara depicts them as the working class – struggling to maintain order and resentfully knocking back beer while Frank sups champagne in his gilded hotel rooms. This, Ferrara seems to say, is the real New York; people like Frank merely rise to the top in a blaze of gunfire and quickly destroy themselves.
And this, it turns out, is Frank’s ultimate fate; just as he gets within grasping distance of his hospital funding dream, he overreaches himself, and his empire crumbles under the stresses of betrayal and corruption.
After a rip-roaring sequence of shoot-outs and chases, King Of New York settles back to the same meditative, chilly atmosphere it opened with. Once surrounded by splendour, bodyguards and call girls, Frank meets his end alone. He begins the film in the back of a stretched limo, and dies in the back of a taxi, gun in hand.
Shot on a budget of $5 million, King Of New York was the most expensive film of Ferrara’s to date (it was later eclipsed by his unusual dalliance with sci-fi, 1993’s Body Snatchers). As a result, it’s one of his best looking, with a slick, stylishly-lit 90s pop-video aesthetic courtesy of cinematographer Bojan Bazelli.
In an interview on the Blu-ray re-issue, Ferrara distanced himself from this polished approach to making movies, but it’s King Of New York’s clashing textures and tones which make it so interesting. Swanky ballrooms quickly give way to ugly warehouses and run-down shops with peeling walls. Classical music is drowned out by pounding hip-hop.
The film begins and ends in lengthy scenes of almost complete silence, which sandwich stylised action scenes of almost John Woo levels of outlandishness; Laurence Fishburne wields dual pistols which never need to be reloaded, and cars engage in endless chases down empty moonlit streets.
Ferrara has said that he and writer Nicholas St John were inspired to create King Of New York after watching The Terminator, and there’s certainly some of that film’s violence and superficiality. There are also enough hedonistic scenes of topless dancing and decadent coke snorting to rival Scarface, another glossy gangster movie with a hypnotic central performance.
But beneath the diffuse lighting and comic book violence, there’s something else going on in King Of New York. Ferrara understands how to capture the grit and unseemliness of the city’s streets better than any director other besides Scorsese, and his constant use of real locations (one Chinatown shoot-out aside) keep the film tethered to reality.
Then there’s the performance he gets out of Walken, which is possibly one of the best in the actor’s career. Moving from apparently improvised mumbles to blood-curdling rants and back to soliloquising of almost Shakespearean proportions, Frank White is a fully-realised, thoroughly convincing character, even if it’s never quite clear how on earth he assembled such a racially diverse gang of pushers and killers.
On the topic of killers, Fishburne is outstanding here. Ferrara caught the actor at a time when he was still young enough to pull off Jimmy Jump’s gold chain-wearing, streetwise hoodlum – his tittering, raving performance is a world away from the later, sage-like roles with which he’d become associated. And again, he’s a rounded character – although he’s a merciless assassin, he’s not without a dash of humanity, as seen in an oddly compelling moment where he gives a group of kids some spare change so they can play an Operation Wolf arcade cabinet.
Even incidental characters get well-written moments; the Chinese gangster Wong, mentioned earlier, is a connoisseur of vintage horror movies, and has a terrible knack of picking the wrong target in a gunfight.
Like so many of Ferrara’s films, from Ms 45 and Driller Killer right up to the present, there’s an irresistible spontaneity in his filmmaking which sometimes trips him up. Sublime though Walken’s turn is, one scene appears to show him reading his lines from a piece of paper just off camera. Closer inspection will also reveal various other goofs and minor continuity errors, which you might not expect to see in, say, Goodfellas or Casino, but are perhaps inevitable in a relatively low-budget movie like this. Five million may have been a lot to Abel Ferarra and his Italian financial backers, but it’s small change in the grand scheme of filmmaking.
King Of New York is a tonally and narratively strange film that wasn’t to everyone’s taste in 1990 (after its premiere at the New York Film Festival, someone in the audience labelled it an abomination), and probably still isn’t. It is, however, full of atmosphere and energy, not least from Walken himself, who brings integrity and charisma to a difficult character.
He’s a creepy, unusually still sort of gangster, with his improbable blow-dry hair and pressed grey suit. On a Venn diagram, he sits perfectly in the middle of such amoral pop culture figures as Tony Montana, Patrick Bateman and Gordon Gecko.
In terms of 21st century relevance, it could even be argued that Frank’s the murderous equivalent of a rich, dodgy banker – someone who exists outside the normally accepted sphere of morality, but always has a moral justification for his actions. Like all great screen characters, Frank doesn’t think he’s evil, even if the things he does probably are.
“How about King Tito?” Frank asks during an extended monologue that serves as his epitaph. “He had 13-year-old girls hookin’ for him on the street. Those guys are dead, because… I don’t wanna make money that way. Emile Zappa. The Mata brothers. They’re dead, because they were running this city into the ground… I never got away with anything. And I never killed anybody who didn’t deserve it.”
It’s this conviction, from actor and filmmakers alike, which makes King Of New York a flawed yet enduringly brilliant gangster movie.
King Of New York is out now on Blur-ray.