Abel Ferrara is one of those anything goes kind of directors. He has a knack to show gritty urban scenes and not hold back the violence or any other sin or vice that goes along with that lifestyle. He’s also really proficient at turning the black and whites of morality and turning them into one big gray area. A prime example would be his film from 1990, King of New York, a kind of Robin Hood tale if Robin Hood lived in New York City in the early nineties and was a figurehead in the criminal underworld.
Frank White (Christopher Walken) is a very powerful and very wealthy player in the criminal underworld of New York City who has just gotten released from Sing Sing prison. Upon his return, he meets with an old associate, Jimmy Jump (Laurence Fishburne), and his gang to get back to business. This time, Frank believes he is reformed and begins robbing and killing criminals because he doesn’t like how they do their business, with the prime goal of helping to fund the construction of a hospital. Some police officers (played by Victor Argo, David Caruso, and Wesley Snipes) don’t like Frank’s tactics and wage an illegal war against him since traditional legal methods have proven unsuccessful in bringing Frank down.
King of New York is an entertaining movie, but definitely not perfect by any means. In fact, it’s pretty far from perfect. What makes this movie memorable is its strong headed style to show all of the drugs, violence, and sex that happen within the course of the story in graphic detail. A lot of film makers would opt to censor this, or at least tone it down, but Ferrara and his writer, Nicholas St. John, are perfectly comfortable showing the brutality of these criminals.
The main problem with this movie is that it doesn’t really know what it wants to be. There are scenes where I felt like I really needed to take the content seriously, but the way it plays out seems like it exists mainly for pulp entertainment. The lighting, the set design, and even the characters all seem very over the top, but the themes of drug use and gang violence are all played as very serious things. This makes the movie very uneven. The film also moves at such a break neck pace that I can’t really fully understand and feel for the complex characters that make this film what it is. Everyone is very complex, and I really want to appreciate their characters, but I didn’t feel like I had the time.
Back to the positives, however, I dare someone to watch this film and not completely love Walken’s performance. He has this way of really enveloping himself in his character to the point where you as the viewer are convinced that you are no longer watching Christopher Walken. Just look at The Deer Hunter. While i did complain about the contrast between the realism and the complete disregard for realism both in the same movie, I will say the over the top scenes are really entertaining. The gun battles and big car chase are really fun to watch, and the strange, almost Argento-ish, kind of lighting in some scenes is real eye candy.
King of New York is completely uneven and an absolute mess when it comes to character development and a strong plot. What makes this movie interesting are the thematic content, brutality, and the performances by Walken and Fishburne. I can’t see this movie being taken very seriously, but I would be so bold to put it in a cult classic category after doing some research on it. I’d definitely watch King of New York again, and I’d even go so far as to say it is an inspiration for some of the projects that I am working on.