King Of New York

King Of New York

****

Reviewed by: David Graham

Guerilla film-maker Abel Ferrera's 1990 crime opus is a simultaneously gritty and flashy, no-holds-barred account of a man with no respect for laws, rules or any kind of social order. Like his later masterpiece Bad Lieutenant, King Of New York deals with an unsavoury character having a crisis of conscience, but here it's internalised, held at bay beneath Christopher Walken's implacable death mask of a face. His spine-tingling performance combines with Ferrera's raw approach - largely filming without permits and with everyday people as extras - to create an ice-cold thriller that's as darkly funny as it is morally bankrupt.

Frank White has just got out of jail for drug-related offences, and immediately returns to his gangland fold. He finds his lackies have remained loyal, but now he's aiming higher than dominating the criminal underworld once more - White has hopes to be New York's next mayor. He's shocked by how how his beloved hometown is going to the dogs - dealers are getting more unscrupulous, hospitals are closing and a crack epidemic is sweeping the streets.

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White realises he may have to use his drug money as muscle to fund a hospital's renovation, a gesture which would force the politicians to take his lofty goal seriously. Meanwhile he's taking the anger generated by the years spent inside out on his rival ganglords, and ruffling the feathers of the increasingly frustrated police. White thinks he's cleaning up the streets, but his dubious crusade is being jeopardised at every turn by his inescapable infamy.

Ferrera's take on the gangster movie is even more amoral than most; aside from his crew, White has absolutely no regard for any of his peers and is completely deluded when it comes to his ambitions and the ramifications of his actions. He's a fascinating character, and a perfect showcase for Christopher Walken's serpentine menace. He's utterly magnetic, slinking through every scene with his utter contempt for everyone he encounters all too obvious. His motivation in rescuing the hospital is left intriguingly ambiguous - it's never clear whether he's doing this just to get into a position of power, or if he really is having a crisis of conscience. Utimately though, Ferrera doesn't shy away from portraying White as a hedonistic and nefarious scumbag, and just about avoids glorifying his party-hard lifestyle, despite lingering on several scenes of half-naked mistresses and hard drug use, all to a blaring hip-hop soundtrack that's bang on the money for its period.

Laurence Fishburne is on scene-snatching form as a brilliantly slimy hood, with his overblown Eighties bling and ridiculous swagger masking a gleefully psychotic streak. He and Walken are gifted several stand-out scenes that are as cool as anything Tarantino would later attempt, and wickedly humorous in their brutality. These almost cartoonish moments give the whole film a charge of vicious energy; you're never sure when one of the gangsters is going to explode, and how far they'll go to take down their enemies.

Elsewhere, an interesting conflict is established between the cops eager to bust White; the young rookies see no wrong in resorting to the sort of violence the mobster is perpetrating in order to take him down, while their superior tries to stick to the book lest they all end up as corrupt as their pursuit. This culminates in some genuinely painful scenes, where the hunters realise they might not have the steel to deal with such hardened killers. David Caruso and Wesley Snipes are excellent as the fired up young guards, while Victor Argo is note-perfect as the ageing detective struggling to acclimatize to the chaos of the modern world.

Where the film falters is in failing to keep control of its various plot strands and multitude of characters; various Ferrera regulars appear several times but never really seem to be given much to do. White's lawyer/lover is particularly poorly-sketched and just disappears eventually, depriving the film of what little female interest it had. The final 20 minutes are a bullet-strewn blast, but they do stretch credulity to the limit, with a lengthy car chase in which ammunition appears to be unlimited. Ferrera winds his film up with a bleak whimper rather than a bang though, the director's trademark nihilism in full effect with an ending that offers no easy answers for any of the characters or the audience.

Overall, King Of New York is distinguished from similarly themed films by its willingness to embrace the gangster genre's exploitative nature; it's as shallow as a puddle but it's riveting viewing all the same. A clutch of amped-up performances enliven proceedings no end, and the director has an authentic feel for his city that sets him apart from the slightly rose-tinted style of Scorsese and Coppola. It's one of Walken's most memorable roles, and the film is a true cult classic; without it there'd probably be no Reservoir Dogs. If you can handle the lack of sympathetic characters and the throwaway nature of the violence, Ferrera's unflinching thriller is one hell of a ride, and deserves recognition for its borderline satirical take on well-worn themes.

Reviewed on: 09 Sep 2011
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A drug lord aiming for redemption sparks a mob war.
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