Abel Ferrara’s King of New York was a milestone film for me in many ways. In my early years as a voracious film fan, I graduated from typical adventure fare through the 80s action classics into the gangster genre. While many cineastes of my age went down the horror path, that was never really a thing for me at that age. Instead, I was attracted to the work of Coppola and Scorsese, which in turn opened the doors wider to more challenging journeys into the criminal underworld.
I have an enduring memory of the first time I saw the theatrical trailer for Bad Lieutenant. I remember how the growling, probably rather clichéd voiceover hailed the film’s creator as “the most uncompromising director in motion pictures today” only for his name – Abel Ferrara – to draw a complete blank with me. I had never heard of him before. Around the same time, his previous film, King of New York, hit video shelves in the UK, and so I saw the perfect opportunity to familiarize myself with his work.
The first thing that stands out about King of New York is its incredible cast. Christopher Walken was already a familiar face to me thanks to his roles in The Deer Hunter and A View To a Kill, and I knew Larry (as he was then) Fishburne from Apocalypse Now and Boyz N The Hood. Add to that Wesley Snipes (Major League, New Jack City) and David Caruso (that ginger guy off NYPD Blue) and I knew I was in good company. What I wasn’t prepared for was a vision of New York’s gangster scene that could not be more different to the world of Mean Streets and Goodfellas.
King of New York is an incredibly cold, hip yet also sleazy affair. Walken’s Frank White – a drug kingpin newly released from prison – is frighteningly unhinged, unafraid of getting his hands dirty or recruiting street punks to his cause. From the moment he sets foot on Manhattan island White proceeds to take out the rival Columbian, Italian and Chinese gangs with his predominantly black crew, while boldly thumbing his nose at the increasingly frustrated blue collar cops who can seemingly do nothing to stop him.
Ferrara manages to depict his antiheroes living a life of decadence and luxury without it ever seeming glamorous or enticing. His characters are unpredictable, unlikeable – regardless of which side of the law they stand – yet we can’t tear our gaze from them. The film never glamorizes Frank or his lifestyle, but at no point do we feel we should be on the side of law and order. Caruso’s mick cop is equally repugnant despite his best efforts to uphold the law.
While it should come as no surprise that by the end of the film pretty much everyone is dead, we feel the most compassion for arguably the film’s most detestable character. Larry Fishburne’s Jimmy – Frank’s first lieutenant – is a wise-cracking pitbull, a force of nature who is utterly fearless and seemingly has no safety valve. When he finally meets his sticky end he is lying in the dirt, writhing in pain, yet still finds the callous energy to begin cackling with laughter as Caruso weeps over his fallen partner. We love him and hate him right to the bitter end, and when he finally is put out of his misery we are stunned, forced to feel something that comes close to compassion.
Back in the day I watched King of New York countless times, but this was the first time in easily a decade, if not longer, and the film just gets better. The performances are uniformly excellent, Nicholas St. John’s script remains as eminently quotable as ever, Ferrara’s direction is at once clean, yet unflinching in its depictions of violence, excess and vice, and its vision of New York City is that of a blue fluorescent hell, where everyone fights tooth and claw just to survive. And inevitably, none of them does.