King of New York. 1990. Directed by Abel Ferrara. Screenplay by Nicholas St. John.
Starring Christopher Walken, Larry Fishburne, David Caruso, Victor Argo, Wesley Snipes, Janet Julian, Joey Chin, Giancarlo Esposito, & Paul Calderon. Seven Arts/Lions Gate Home Entertainment.
Rated R. 106 minutes.
Abel Ferrara is an all-around exciting, unique filmmaker. He usually goes for subject matter and thematic material most other directors wouldn’t dare touch. Often, he likes to concern himself with the law, both sides of it; sometimes each as corrupt as the other. Mostly, Ferrara explores boundaries. He crosses them, runs to them and sees how close he can get, or how far past he can go without setting the whole film afire. From Ms. 45 to Bad Lieutenant to more fantastical stuff such as The Addiction, his films are incendiary. They’re bound to light people up, causing discussion, argument, all kinds of various angry sentiment from those who find his movies garbage, and equally from those who love his work. Either way, he is a controversial, raw talent whose films never fail to entertain me and manage to probe some of the darker spots beneath our social veneer.
King of New York is almost an answer to the call that came six years later when Hilary Clinton referred to young black folk as super predators. Of course, Ferrara was ahead of the game. But the character of Frank White is like the Conservative-Republican nightmare: a white man out there running the streets, acting like a complete sociopath, murdering, and feeling absolutely nothing for the disaster he causes from one moment to the next. Whereas all those rich white Conservatives are worrying about the supposed young black guys out terrorizing New York City, the real king and the real monster is just like them. And that’s ultimately the message, the nihilistic message, is that while the young black guys are often out there actually taking care of their friends, their neighbourhood, the kids too unfortunate not to get to play a few arcade games, Frank is out just amassing money for the sake of it. He had other options. Instead, Mr. White’s chosen to be a drain on society, and remains a white plague in snappy business suits.
An interesting moment is when Frank talks business, re: cocaine, with an associate while standing next to a child in a hospital bed. While a doctor walks past, Frank hushes his tone. But he couldn’t care any less about a developing brain hearing him do a drug deal. It doesn’t even occur to him, his criminal mind, that doing anything drug related, even talk business, is inappropriate for when children are present. Here he is a big shot-type looking flashy in his nice suits, going to fancy parties in nice hotels and so on, yet the way he acts is just like a low life drug peddler selling product out of his house while his kids run around in diapers.
The nihilism of this film is not simply embodied in Frank. It’s also embodied in the police. Specifically, Caruso’s character, Gilley, is adamant he can’t keep on living in a world where White gets to kill and kill and kill with no ultimate legal recourse ever coming down. That’s not admitting Frank has the power. That’s more so them admitting they’ve failed, that their power is not big enough to stop someone like him. So the whole remainder of the film after they’ve made their decisions really becomes extremely dark because there’s no moral line anymore. Gangster movies centered on the gangsters instead of the law usually try to at least draw some kind of sentiment out to help you relate to the characters, no matter how bad they are – Tony Soprano, Henry Hill, among many, many more. However, King of New York shows us there’s an absence of lines in Ferrara’s New York. Nothing at all. Frank often wears a grey suit, and so you can see him sitting in that grey area. That’s where he lives. While the cops are new to this sort of thing, he’s a permanent resident of the grey zone where laws, morals, emotions, none of that matters. Only money, power, fear. And above all else? Bullets. How much you can make the next man bleed, how much money you can take from somebody else, by any means necessary.
The epitome of Frank White: in one scene a masked man gets the jump on Frank in a stairwell, but Frank tosses the woman he’s with (a black woman just so we’ve noted that about equal opportunity Mr. White) at him, letting her take some bullets while he gets a couple rounds off himself. This scene is the very essence of his character.
On top of that Ferrara nihilism I’m always trying to figure out what he and writer Nicholas St. John are attempting to say with this film. There’s something – a bunch of somethings – in there about government, socialism, morality, every bit mashed into an excellent and disturbingly delicious crime tale. But the way Frank comes out of jail headlong into recruiting young (black) men into his fold, turning potential muggers on a subway train into his new business associates. Despite some of the cops and their willingness to cross lines in order to finally get Frank, they definitely represent a more proletariat-like group. Gilley even discusses how they make fairly little in relation to how much they risk their lives for the city, versus Frank’s living the high life. And at the same time, Frank does own the means of production in terms of the drug game. Although he still hangs out anywhere, no matter the class. He goes from high society mixers to sitting in a rundown crackhouse with a bunch of people dancing, high as fuck. So while Frank does sort of represent that capitalist enterprise he’s also apart from it, particularly after his indeterminate amount of time in jail. Likely a good stretch. Basically, it’s that class of people Frank is trying to break into with their ballroom parties, their black-and-white events, who represent the top of the food chain. Because though Frank runs the city in a sense, he is a gangster. Pure and simple. His dream is to fund a hospital, but he just can’t manage to outrun himself, or the life he’s chosen to lead. And perhaps that’s the ultimate message, not that there’s this hierarchy of corruption. Rather, Ferrara and St. John give us Frank as an example of those who rise from rags to riches in an underhanded way, the capitalist in his many forms, that eventually burn out rather than fade away. Just like the big capitalist money makers when they go for broke then bankrupt an economy, Frank never admits to anyone else, especially not himself, that he is a monster. Yet he is monstrous.
In a film that’s desperately bleak and has its flaws, Christopher Walken is iconic. Even The Notorious B.I.G had to talk about Frank White. That’s because there are all kinds of gangsters in cinema history, from old school Sicilian mobsters, to the Irish mafia, to Armenians, and every other ethnicity/culture possible. As well as the fact there’s a ton of more contemporary gangster stuff, including the now cult-famous Scarface with a whopping central performance out of Pacino. In the midst of great performances and others run of the mill, Walken makes Frank into an otherworldly type gangster. His style is slick, weird. Walke himself is strange, in the best sort of way, and he gives that to Frank. While also allowing him to be fierce. Frank is terrifying at times when you can honestly feel that coldness in his heart breath foggy into the world.
Then there’s the fact he’s a white guy, yet he fits in so connected, so genuine with all his black crew and friends. Meanwhile, he also fits in with the upper class types. He navigates worlds like a specter hovering above everything and everyone. That’s my best instance of providing an example for how the idea of capitalism (& all that other bullshit I mentioned) plays into this movie. Frank is the personification of capitalism, of money and capital, which is the ultimate universal, so that’s how he navigates all the different nooks and crannies of the streets in New York and its upper echelons with the fancy ballroom dancing and the martinis and the Senators. In the end, he finds nothing but death. Whereas Frank started the film getting out of jail and riding in a limo, he experiences the end – his end – in back of a taxi, far from the glamorous life he’d pictured.
This is a flawed movie at times, mostly in terms of its pacing. That being said, Abel Ferrara’s King of New York is a 5-star masterpiece. Amazing films don’t have to be perfect to be the greatest. There is no perfect film ever made in the history of cinema, despite there also being a lot of (in my opinion) 5-star works. This has thematic content worth digging into below all the sleaze and the violence and the nihilistic tone. There’s a palpable atmosphere which Ferrara achieves, slick and darkly vibrant. Also, a realism that bleeds through despite the hyperviolent sequences. The talented cast allows for smaller characters to be more than they are on paper, including an excitable role out of Laurence Fishburne, whose charisma is beyond clear here. And finally, Walken achieves one of the best performances out of his catalogue, definitely in the top five.
This is one gangster flick I’ll never, ever forget.