In this movie Christopher Walken plays Frank White who is the King of New York. He is not literally a king but actually some sort of crime boss of New York. He’s fresh out of the joint and unlike certain heroic individuals who choose to turn their life around and follow a path of Positivity, making the world a better place through art and culture, he decides to be king of new york. But he says he’s gonna build a hospital so that makes it okay.
The director is Abel Ferrara, an asshole director who I sort of like. I mean I never met the guy obviously but he’s one of those greaseballs like Vincent Gallo where, before you even see an interview with the guy, you just get the feeling he’s an asshole. In his movie DRILLER KILLER I didn’t even realize he was the star (he used a pseudonym) and I kept thinking this star really thinks he’s hot shit, it’s not just the character. What a fuckin asshole. But then I listened to the commentary track and heard Ferrara say the same exact thing about himself. So I had to like him.
Plus, some assholes are talented and I think Ferrara is, at least sometimes. He makes gritty, raw movies, alot of them bad, some of them good. His commentary tracks are always funny and even on a movie like this, maybe the best he’ll ever make, he makes fun of it like it’s some corny slasher movie. Here he makes a crime saga but he doesn’t have Hollywood germs tainting his blood so he makes it serious and brutal and unformulaic. You could argue that he’s one of these pretentious New York underground art type assholes, and that that’s not necessarily better than being a corny Hollywood asshole. True, but I prefer the New York asshole for making KING OF NEW YORK. Especially a macho guy like Ferrara.
Here he has about the best cast you could ever hope for: Walken, Larry (not yet Laurence) Fishburne, my man Wesley Snipes, David Caruso, Steve Buscemi (small part), Victor Argo, Roger Guinveur Smith (Smiley from DO THE RIGHT THING), Giancarlo Esposito. Also I don’t know if you know this guy Paul Calderon, I like him alot but he’s not all that well known. He almost played Jules in PULP FICTION but, you know, some other guy got it. (He ended up with a bit part as the bartender Paul: “My name is Paul, and this is between y’all.”) He was also Raymond Cruz in OUT OF SIGHT, a character who doesn’t do much but he’s in other Elmore Leonard books so you can imagine Paul Calderon having all kinds of adventures outside of the movie. Anyway, Calderon is good and he’s in KING OF NEW YORK.
The violence starts before Frank is even home, when his gang starts rearranging the crime landscape of New York to prepare for his arrival. Sort of their version of making a big banner that says “WELCOME HOME FRANK.” There’s a couple of classic scenes in this movie and one of them is right at the beginning, Fishburne, Buscemi and some other guys come in to buy a bunch of cocaine from one of Frank’s rivals. I won’t give away the gag but it turns out they’re actually there to gun everybody down, and one guy even yells “Room service motherfucker!” as he kicks the door down.
Another scene I liked, Frank is in the subway feelin his attorney’s tit, and three of those black subway toughs you see in all these movies try to mug him at knifepoint. Frank pulls his jacket open to show that he has a gun. Gun beats knife. As the muggers start to back away in terror he pulls out a fat ass roll and tosses it to them, tells them to come by the Plaza Hotel, he has a job for them. (Sure enough, you see them later as some of his thugs.)
The movie is not only from the anti-hero point of view though, you also got a group of cops after him. These guys are assholes but obviously they’re right to be trying to stop him. Of course, you bust somebody from Frank’s gang the prick’s out on bail in an hour, so these cops start to get frustrated. That’s when Dave Caruso and my man Wesley Snipes decide to go vigilante and take care of it themselves. This is where the main theme of the movie really comes in, blurring the line between cops and gangsters. Frank points out that all the people he’s been killing are scumbags – he actually singled out criminals who he thought were too vicious or amoral. And meanwhile he’s having these charity events, trying to build a community hospital. (The hospital is never built so who knows if it’s for real or not.) So Frank’s question is, how big of a difference is there between cops who can’t stop crime unless they break the law and criminals who do get results and help the community? In his point of view anyway.
I don’t think the movie is saying that Frank is right, but there’s definitely some connection between the good guys and the bad guys. Even when the cops talk about how badly they want to take him down, they always refer to him as “Frank.”
It’s not one of those two and a half hour epics but it has sort of a heavy epic kind of feeling to it. I like how most of the main characters are horrible bastards and noble at the same time. My very favorite scene is the one where Larry Fishburne is ordering food and doesn’t like how the cashier is treating some poor kids messing with the video games. He graciously gives the kids and their grandma money and tells the cashier off. Then right in the middle of being your hero, the cops rush in and bust him right in front of the kids. It’s alot of emotions for one scene.
When people talk about KING OF NEW YORK they usually talk about Christopher Walken. I guess Biggie Smalls was obsessed with the character and was even checked into a hotel as Frank White when he died. Walken of course is great but this is more of an ensemble than I expected. Frank White is a bad motherfucker but I think it’s the whole complicated set of characters and alliances and betrayals and the believable New York underworld that makes it interesting.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.