Tuesday, March 12, 2013


(September 1990, U.S.)

During the Fall of 1990 (Oh man, what a totally HORRIBLE year for me!), it's a wonder that Abel Ferrara's KING OF NEW YORK even got noticed by moviegoers. It was given a limited theatrical release and it was heavily overshadowed by two other high profile gangster movies, Martin Scorsese's GOODFELLAS and Francis Ford Coppola's THE GODFATHER-PART III. I saw those two big movies on screen, of course, but living so close to New York City at the time afforded me the opportunity to frequent some of the smaller, more independent films whenever the chance arose. I also knew that any gangster movie that starred the great Chistopher Walken would very likely not disappoint. I was right. Hell, I even stayed in the theater to watch it a second time!

The title of the film alone pretty much spells out what you're going to be seeing. As drug lord Frank White, Christopher Walken plays him exactly like...well, Christopher Walken! White is quirky, eccentric, violent in nature, a man with a generously-soft side (for those who truly need it) and even loves to show off on the dance floor. He's exactly the kind of guy you'd expect to brandish a gun under his belt when confronted by a gang of muggers on the subway. Look at the movie poster and you can see he's also just the kind of man who can look out of his Plaza Hotel window at the nightime city lights and perhaps think to himself, "This city is mine!" Sounds just like Walken, yes? His crew, mostly African-American men, are criminals of a different breed in that they are adapt to the ways of the street and its emminent dangers. They live their lives large, like early rap stars of the 1990s, and bloody gun violence is nothing they're afraid of. In their world, one gets a perfectly good sense of just how seedy and violent New York City was during the last decade of the 20th Century before Mayor Rudy Giuliani stepped in and cleaned it all up (I wish he'd left the 42nd Street grindhouses alone, though). It was enough for someone like myself, who was still living in Brooklyn at the time, to still fear the city streets once the sun went down.

As with any crime thriller, the flip side of the criminal coin is always the cops. These men of the law that include worthwhile actors as Wesley Snipes and David Caruso are street protectors with a genuine, bloody taste to get rid of Frank White, even if means stepping above the law by attempting to assassinate him disguised as a rival street gang. Good, however, does not always triumph over evil, even in the movies. In a war that threatens to tear up the city with more ear-piercing gunfire than I've likely ever seen on screen, the good guys and the bad guys are systematically eliminated by each other until there is nothing left but Frank White in a taxicab, struggling to live through the night. Even if movie cliche were not invoked here with Frank dying in the end, what would really be left for his life and his ambitions were he to survive? The drug war in KING OF NEW YORK claims everybody and eveything in its path. Is that realistic? Is that justice? Perhaps...perhaps not. It is surely great entertainment of a fast-paced violent nature, though. What else would you expect from a gangster film (I mean, a GOOD, slightly artistic gangster film)?

Getting back to the criminal character for a moment, I call specific attention to Lawrence Fishburne (called Larry in this film) as Jimmy Jumps, an absolute psychopath killer here. The sequence that always grabs my attention is the scene in the neighborhood eatery when he generously gives money to an old woman and some small children so they can play video games. This is man who places no value on human life, yet he choses a moment to express generousity and kindness to strangers. Does this psychopath actually have a soft heart buried somewhere very deep inside him? Not at all. We must remember that Frank White is a killer who choses moments to give generously to those in need and Jimmy is, at the absolute minimum, a loyal employee and friend of Frank, so he's very likely only obeying the principles of his employer. Life can be strange that way.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Frank White: "When the D.A's office investigated the sudden death of Arty Clay, they found that he left a $13 million estate. How do you explain that? Then there's Larry Wong, who owned half of Chinatown when he passed away. Larry used to rent his tenements to Asian refuges, his own people, for $800 a month to share a single toilet on the same floor. How 'bout King Tito? He had thirteen-year-old girls hooking for him on the street. Those guys are dead because I don't want to make money that way. Emil Zappa, the Mata brothers, they're dead because they were running this city into the ground.
Roy Bishop: "You expected to get away with killing all these people?"
Frank: "I spent half my life in prison. I never got away with anything, and I never killed anybody that didn't deserve it."

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