King of New York - 1990
Director(s): Abel Ferrara
Writer(s): Nicholas St. John
Cinematography by: Bojan Bazelli
Editor(s): Anthony Redman
Cast: Christopher Walken, Laurence Fishburne, Wesley Snipes, David Caruso and Victor Argo
Synopsis: A drug kingpin is released from prison and is hell bent on taking back his criminal empire.
To make a crime / gangster drama set in New York and stand out is no easy feat. When you think about that genre your mind automatically, I’m assuming, would go to Taxi Driver, Godfather: Part II, Serpico and, to some extent, The French Connection, even if it’s more cop focused. That’s just the top tier when it comes to movies of that ilk, but among the other titles one deserves a little recognition, and that’s Abel Ferrara’s King of New York. This is somewhat a retelling of Robin Hood as this drug kingpin, Frank White, played by Christopher Walken. He comes back to take his criminal empire in a new direction, giving back to the community by building a hospital in the poorest sections of the burrows. This new direction is met with hostility and he doesn’t hesitate to take out his fellow gangster and the cops that try to get in his way. But, as White will tell you, “I never killed anybody who didn't deserve it,” and that moral compass, even if its broken, is the driving force of this movie.
Ferrara has always valued making stylistic choices with his movies. All of them, from Bad Lieutenant to Body Snatchers, have a distinct look and feel that makes them his. At the time, King of New York was his highest budget and he utilized every single penny to deliver a slick looking film from beginning to end. Cinematographer Bojan Bazelli gave the movie almost a music video look, especially with the great hip-hop soundtrack playing in the background. Yes, the places were gritty, and yes, the character can be described as shady at best, but somehow, someway, it felt shiny and new, despite it being the mean streets of New York.
Nicholas St. John penned this script and I both love and hate it. I love how he wrote the opening sequence. We are introduced to our main antagonist and there is barely a word spoken. We see him get released from jail and at the same time a gangster gets murdered in the streets of New York as a sign that the king is on his way back. This sequence tells you everything you need to know as a set up to the story we will be told. I love how fleshed out the characters are despite us not getting their full backgrounds. White recruits a trio of muggers, knowing that their loyalty can be bought since they are in rough times, even when he could’ve killed them easily with his gun. Lawrence Fishburne plays Jimmy Jump as an over-the-top, gun-wielding, gold-tooth-wearing gangster. In any other movie, he would’ve been a one-dimensional character, but they gave him moments of humanity, especially when he gives the little kids in the neighborhood money to play in the machines.
I hate the loose ends. Like I said above, White recruits the trio in a great powerful scene, but they never appear again in the movie. Simple scene of them saying thank you or a simple nod of gratitude would have made that scene land harder for me. We never get why he was in prison, why this gang follows him, how he started or why he is changing his ways. It’s never explained who is going to build this hospital, how the funds are going to be used, or even if they have a specific location for the hospital. I’m fine with a vague plot but it just felt like something was missing for me to fully buy in to this world that I was watching unfold. Small qualm, but I felt I need to say it.
What the movie lacks in a clear plot, it delivers with the performances. This is the best acting I have seen from Christopher Walken. Maybe I have gotten used to him doing his Walken impression in every single movie that this took me by surprise, but he killed this role. He is cool, calm and collected, delivering monologues and threats left and right, commanding each second he is on screen. Laurence Fishburne is energetic, loud and charismatic, a complete contrast to his famed role as the wise Morpheus in the Matrix trilogy. Victor Argo as Roy Bishop, the lead cop in charge of taking White out, is conflicted and troubled with the methods being used to stop this gangster.
Quick note: it was fun to see Wesley Snipes playing Thomas, one of the cops trying to stop White. He was great, and his racial conflict with the black gang members is a stand out. I loved the contrast from this role and his follow up role in New Jack City where he plays a crime lord. In my head, Thomas survives King of New York and becomes Nino and takes over White’s empire.
King of New York on the surface can look like style over substance. But when you dig a little deeper, you see a struggle of good versus evil in where nobody is truly good and nobody is truly evil. Both sides use tactics that are deemed by society as wrong, but they think that the means justify the ends. When both sides believe, truly believe, that they are working towards the better good, even if bodies start to pile up around them, who do you root for as an audience member? That conflict within the movie and us as an audience member is what makes this movie worthwhile. A solid script, great filmmaker and great performances, King of New York fits my definition of a modern classic. Christopher Walken dancing with Fishburne is why I love movies.
King of New York is available to rent on Amazon Prime. Rent it. Watch it. And let me know if it falls on your list of crime dramas.
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