King of New York (1990)

kingnewykAbel Ferrara’s King of New York is a highly-stylized exploitation mob movie, about New York drug lord Frank White (Christopher Walken) released from prison and intent on regaining his criminal empire. Shot mostly (possibly entirely) on location it has a gritty, docudrama ‘look’ which is undermined by just being so stylized and overly… maybe manipulative is the wrong word, but its a brazen shock-for-shocks-sake film, so much so that with every establishing shot of a new scene you expect to see a sudden moment of violence from anywhere. Its almost exhausting at times and this ultimately works against it- it doesn’t feel ‘real’, the characters almost being gratuitous caricatures, whether they are mobsters or cops. Supreme over all of this is Christopher Walken as Frank White, a typically riveting performance when the actor was in his prime, dominating every scene and clearly a league apart from the rest of his cast. It is a good cast, mind, with players destined for big things afterwards: David Caruso, Laurence Fishburne, Wesley Snipes, Steve Buscemi, Giancarlo Esposito, but its telling that each (with the exception of Fishburne) are largely under-used by a screenplay that skirts the surface and offers little substance or depth. White is almost permanently accompanied by two women who are both bodyguards and possibly lovers but I don’t think we even get to know their names, never mind get an inkling of what they are thinking or their background/history with White. Often it has the feeling that there’s a prequel movie that the director assumes we’ve already seen. Its pulp fiction, entirely exploitation, feeling no need for any depth.

It really has the feeling of a 1980s VHS rental; you know, the down-to-basics, often violent thrillers that thrived in the home video market when people could rent out the kind of unedited films that couldn’t be shown on network television. In that respect its a pleasant kind of throwback movie, but it lacks any kind of sophistication of message or execution: indeed its so intent on shocks and taking any excuse for a graphic shootout that it becomes rather convoluted and confused, which is really quite ironic. We don’t really understand White, or get under his skin, suggestions of his Robin Hood-style ethics (his drive to finance a neighbourhood hospital) unexplained, which is a pity considering Walken’s ability and screen presence. Perhaps Ferrara wanted to maintain some element of mystery to White’s background and intentions, but I think much of this issue is the films drive to shock. White will suddenly pull out his gun and shoot an adversary simply for the surprise and thrill of the sudden violence, when really the film should perhaps pause for some kind of dialogue that deepens the drama or suggests White’s motivation. 

So King of New York is clearly a film of its time, and rather suffers from its pulpish, shocker roots: a stylish b-movie (it certainly looks pretty good). Its dated by its electronic score that again is very of its era but I suppose this is, for its fans, all part of the films charm, and I can understand why the film has something of a high reputation among those who saw it back when it first came out. Watching it in 2021 though its really something of another story.

3 thoughts on “King of New York (1990)

  1. Matthew McKinnon

    That’s interesting: I watched this back in 1990 and thought EXACTLY the same as you. And as such I’ve been pretty dismissive of the somewhat wanky cult following this has picked up over time. Even liking Bad Lieutenant a lot in 1993 didn’t make me curious to give it another go.

    However, by another of those Netflix-availability-coincidences I also watched this again, last Thursday. And it was a whole different story…

    I can’t say I take the movie ‘seriously’ (I think Ferrara is a sleazy hack who occasionally stumbles on brilliance – mostly with the help of brilliant collaborators – and is all too happy to coast on the import that his fans inject into his work after the fact), but there was a lot of enjoy.

    The camerawork was excellent, the the pacing was pleasingly eccentric, the characters were similarly likably unpredictable. I’d never class it as a masterpiece or a wholly satisfying experience, but it’s an energetic and weird b-movie, and I’ve just dropped £20 on the 4K disc to watch later in the year.

    1. Wow. I was actually tempted by that 4K disc (I think it dropped to about £15 or £17 recently on Amazon) and was glad that the film appearing on Amazon Prime had saved me the money when I realised how poor I thought the film was. It was just too disjointed and reliant on shock tactics for me- actually, it wouldn’t have surprised me to have learned of a 3-hour cut that made more sense, because it certainly FELT like there was possibly lots of stuff missing. I wonder what Walken makes of the film?

  2. Pingback: The 2021 List: May – the ghost of 82

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