King of New York (1990)

Review

King of New York, a violent story of one gangster who shoots, stabs, and beats his way to the top of the local crime scene, has never had the street cred of Scarface, despite the similar themes.

And though Artisan is issuing a two-disc DVD release of the film, don’t expect it to find much more of a cult audience 14 years after its original release.

Much of the blame lies with director Abel Ferrara, cinema’s perennial bad boy, who made his most noteworthy and best-known film to date with this production. King of New York is put together with minimal deviation from the straight and narrow. Our anti-hero Frank (Christopher Walken, more on his work here later) and his band of cronies gorge on drugs, then bust caps on their rivals while evading the cops. (There’s something about building a hospital here too… with all the people Frank kills, they’re certainly going to need it.) Frank inserts himself into every gambling deal and prostitution ring, using his wallet when he senses his muscle won’t work, and shutting down the less savory elements (child hookers, and so on) that don’t agree with his twisted morality. But the cops aren’t happy about this Robin Hood ‘justice,’ leading to an all-out war between the thugs and the law.

Ferrara’s not one to dawdle on nuance.. Every shot of the criminals puts them in a drug den or a hotel suite, kicking back with piles of coke and half-naked women. Inexplicably, there’s dancing at all of these events, so much that King of New York would fit right at home among the Breakin’ movies. We long for Frank to get off the phone and make a move. Any move.

Walken is his usual, fabulous self, but Ferrara doesn’t give him much of a character to work with. He has none of the glam of Tony Montana, and we only see the brilliance of Walken shine through in a handful of scenes. Most of the time he’s sitting quietly on a couch, presumably waiting for his anger to boil over so he can go crazy on a rival crime lord. New York is delicious during its shootouts, and Walken even gets a chance to bust a characteristic move on the dance floor. It’s a little touch that makes the film watchable, if for short stretches at a time, but hardly pushes the movie into the realm of classic.

Given a can’t miss genre and a star at the top of the field, Ferrara turns in a big disappointment here. Bad Lieutenant, which Ferrara would make two years later, is a wildly better stab at the cop thriller.

The DVD set includes a profanity-laced commentary from Ferrara (he starts off by telling us the only reason he’s doing the track is that he was paid $5,000 for it) and another commentary from the rest of the crew. A documentary about Ferrara’s career (which includes interviews with Ferrara’s regular crew, but not Ferrara himself) is also included along with a featurette about gangsta rapper Schoolly D, whose music was the inspiration for the film.