Plus or minus 5 movies (I think I might have forgotten to put a handful on my big list of all of my review scores), this will be my 448th review. That’s a lot of movies in the last three years. And, if there’s one thing that I’ve learned having reviewed nearly 450 films, it’s that there’s a depressing homogeneity to the vast majority of movies. The stories are nothing more than a variation on a theme, the details never vary too far, and years of watching movies have trained you to guess every twist and turn. Silver Linings Playbook was one of my favorite films of 2012, but even it is a conventionally structured romantic comedy that just happens to change up all of the details to beautiful effect.
But, occasionally, movies come along that are truly their one. There are few coming-of-age films as beautiful and insightful as Life of Pi. There are few American comedies as riotous and “screw-the-rules” as Wet Hot American Summer. Charlie Kauffman’s entire ouevre is one-of-a-kind, but when Being John Malkovich came out, it was one of the most revolutionary films of the already revolutionary 90s. 1990’s King of New York is far from a great film, but it’s dedication to pure style and its glorious subversion of the 80s crime picture make it one of the most memorable and unique crime films of the 90s.
After serving years in prison, powerful New York City drug lord Frank White (The Dead Zone‘s Christopher Walken) is released into his beloved city and his only goal is to make up for lost time. With a primarily African-American gang, Frank White isn’t your tpical 80s/90s crime boss. He’s a committed community activist that is willing to spend $16 million of his own cash to build a children’s hospital, and (mostly) he only resorts to violence when people aren’t willing to play ball with him in a civilized and cooperative manner. But, if you’ve pissed off Frank White, prepare to die in a hail of bullets that would make John Woo jealous.
Frank doesn’t have much trouble consolidating power back under the umbrella of his organization upon his release from prison. When tasked with violence, his men (including a young Laurence Fishburne who was still calling himself Larry at the time) are more than up to the task. Frank’s troubles come from a group of overzealous cops who are willing to get their hands as dirty as Frank in order to bring him back under the heel of the law. And when Frank’s men walk away clean from a clear murder conviction, the cops decide vigilante justice is the only answer.
The number of great character actors in this film besides the always mesmerizing Christopher Walken is ridiculous. King of New York predates Boyz N the Hood by just one year, and it’s astounding to see Laurence Fishburne in a role that is less Furious Styles and more Ice Cube’s Doughboy on PCP. Breaking Bad‘s Giancarlo Esposito has one of his more recognizable non-Do the Right Thing roles as another of Frank’s henchmen, and although he isn’t in the film very long, it blew my mind to see such a young Steve Buscemi as a technology-minded henchman.
And, the cops are another Who’s Who. David Caruso (Session 9) steals the show as Dennis Gilley, one of the cops who is most hellbent on bringing Frank in by any means necessary. Between this and Session 9, I was reminded how great he can be in eclectic character roles, and it was a shame he had to waste years of his life on a network crime procedural. Wesley Snipes isn’t given much to work with as another of the rage-fueled cops, but there’s a scene where he’s arresting Laurence Fishburne where Fishburne threatens to “slap the black off” him and Snipes’s reaction is priceless.
Christopher Walken is absolutely transfixing as Frank White. There are many things that make King of New York such a unique and “different” film, and Walken’s take on Frank White is chief among them. Moving beyond Walken’s unique diction and the phrasing of his sentences with the deep, pregnant pauses, Walken’s Cheshire cat grin and electric magnetism make it clear why all these gangsters would want to work for him. But when the role calls for it, Walken flips the switch and White becomes an explosive outlet for violence. Frank White is like “What if Tony Montana were actually an interesting character?”
King of New York is “urban” to its core. The hip-hop soundtrack is always spot-on; there’s a scene where Schooly D’s “Am I Black Enough For Ya?” is played where the Public Enemy-esque political lyrics and hard-pounding beat perfectly fit the bloodbath that’s about to arrive. And while there are moments where Fishburne’s Jimmy Jump seems like a Run DMC stereotype, the movie’s urban sensibility is always played with tongue slightly in cheek. And in a decade where crime movies were either white mobster films or black “gangsta” movies, it’s so god damned refreshing to find a film that is both.
King of New York‘s cinematography is also neo-noir perfection. Whether it’s capturing the neon-streaked lights of late 80s/early 90s New York or following Frank and his crew through their criminal enterprises, King of New York is a beauty to behold. On the other hand though, the film also knows not to take itself too seriously. Too many “crime epics” think they’re high art (*cough* Scarface *cough*); King of New York knows it isn’t and plays its hand accordingly. There’s a moment in the film where Frank backs down a group of thugs on the subway that exists just to show what a bad-ass Frank is, and the film is better for it.
If you’re wanting deep characterization or a serious commentary on urban crime, look elsewhere; Baby Boy this ain’t. When King of New York first came out, it was a critical disaster because of its over-the-top “glorification” of crime (that’s not really what the film does though), and if you like your films centered in reality, King of New York is going to disappoint. But for those with a taste for films with the touch of a true auteur’s style, Abel Ferrara’s King of New York is one of the most memorable and entertaining crime dramas of the 90s.
Final Score: B+