Having recently reviewed and torn apart the lame duck slasher outing The Driller Killer, I felt like I should make amends to Director Abel Ferrara, whom I’m actually a fan of, by recommending one of his five-star masterworks as a critical counterbalance to the condemnation – welcome to Forgotten Friday Flick! This week I’m going back to 1990 for a little crime drama with a very big cast. It’s the tale of a drug lord who gets released from prison and picks up right where he left off. Guns at the ready, gals galore and drugs a plenty, this one pits gangsters with attitude vs. a gaggle of cops eager to get even and all vying to be the one and only…King Of New York!
Frank White is a career criminal about to be released from a stretch in Sing Sing and two very different groups are anticipating his return. The first is his rag tag crew, led by fast talking hood Jimmy Jump, who are more than eager to help Frank reclaim the streets and his former drug business. The second is a gang of cops driven by justice seeking Detective Roy Bishop who become bound and determines to bust Frank back to the joint. Both groups are deadly, vicious and steadfast in their desire to take over by any means necessary.
I’m not going to say that the base story of King Of New York via frequent Ferrara collaborator Nicholas St. John is all that original (police and gangsters fighting for power – let the games begin!), but was is particularly poignant about St. John’s work here is his ability to create truly original elements and scenes within a familiar framework. The humor of hip-hop character Jimmy Jump ordering chicken in his own foul mouthed way, the power of Frank dealing with being robbed by showing the thugs his gun and then throwing them both a wad of cash and a job offer and the high stakes tension of cops and criminals going head to head to the death, all get explored with cinematic savvy by St. John’s searing saga. And like William Friedkin did so masterfully with To Live And Die In L.A., the line between bad and good gets blurred on all sides and it makes for characters that are so much more interesting. There are of course other elements that ultimately enhance the written word beginning of course with Director Ferrara himself, who shows a natural ability to find style in any situation. Whether it’s a moment of self reflection with Frank contemplating his new found freedom or shadowy final moments before a murder, Ferrara captures the essence of dark deeds with surprising ease. His skilled wielding of camera pans, stark colors, mirrored reflections and moving music (the score by Joe Delia is emotionally rich!) in King Of New York is by far the best of his career. Plus it gives his already character rich city of New York, a location that’s a true Ferrara staple, another added level of lavish.
But the true genius of Ferrara and his film is his assembling of a truly killer cast – ALL of whom bring their A-game. On the criminal side you have the mighty Christopher Walken as the feisty Frank, Laurence Fishburne channeling his inner gangster via his saucy hip-hop inspired character Jimmy Jump, plus a little Steven Buscemi, Paul Calderon and Giancarlo Esposito. But the overzealous cop side has a string of big baddies too including the sullen Victor Argo as Frank’s lawful nemesis, a pre-NYPD Blue David Caruso, not to mention Wesley Snipes and even Frankenhooker alum James Lorinz. Bottom line – there’s so much cool (Walken’s Frank White oozes quiet confidence!), so much testosterone (Caruso never met an argument he didn’t like!) and so many memorable line deliveries (Walken on criminal perception – “I’m not your problem. I’m a business man.”) via the stunning cast that it’s truly a thespian lover’s dream come true.
Some people were offended by the grim realities and seedy underworld happenings in the film and to them I say King Of New York was not meant for you. More for those who yearn to see something different, something brilliantly bold and brash and yes, something sinister, such a film exists and it’s a hidden gem waiting to be discovered. If New York does indeed have a king, Ferrara and his unflinching film most assuredly wear the crown.