Frank White (a haunted, yet volatile, turn by Christopher Walken) is a notorious drug lord who has just completed a lengthy prison sentence and is looking to move back up the ranks as swift and ruthlessly as possible. Hooking up with his old associates, he begins to do just that, although his ultimate aims sit firmly outside the drug business, as he see’s himself as a benefactor to the poor inhabitants of the city, whom he seeks to help and provide the appropriate support for.
A team of no-nonsense detectives are a little less enamoured by his rebirth as a philanthropist, and as the bodies of rival gangs start mounting up while White once again asserts his dominance (and seeming to appear above the law whilst doing so), the police toy with taking drastic actions to eliminate their nemesis.
Made in a 1990 pre-Giuliani New York, the film captures those mean streets in all their sleazy splendour, and many of the locations have a wonderfully seedy, broken-down look. But aside from being an interesting time capsule of that era, one of the main reasons why the film has endured is that White himself is a fascinating and complex anti-hero. The film’s IMDb page describes the character as a Robin Hood figure, but his altruistic actions aren’t as clear cut as that and offer a contradictory figure.
While he tours the most deprived inner-city hospitals to find out which will benefit the most from funding, his means of amassing that money is achieved through both the (bloody) elimination of competitors to gain territory, and pushing a product which causes prolonged harm to the very citizens he is trying to help.
One of the frustrated cops jokingly refers to White as the King of New York due to his constant ability to beat the system and his political aspirations. His social commitments also filter down to his old, faithful crew of violent hoodlums (including a young-looking Steve Buscemi) and in one scene, his antagonistic second-in-command Jimmy Jump (an effectively repugnant turn by Lawrence Fishburne) hands out a wad of money to a poor family eating in a low-rent takeaway before he’s unceremoniously pounced on and arrested by the cops.
As interesting a figure as White is, and the moral ambiguity the films presents, Ferrara’s vision is sometimes hobbled by his insistence on working in some B-movie thrills and needlessly cranking up the action, some of which (in particular the car chase towards the end) would look more at home in the exploitation films from that era, and this ends up clashing a little with the quieter, meditative aspects of the film.
Nevertheless, for the most part, King of New York has stood the test of time and rightly earned its place on that list of revered gangster films (Biggie Smalls allegedly used the pseudonym Frank White when signing into hotels). With it’s blistering hip hop soundtrack by regular Ferrara collaborator Schoolly D, and memorable turns by a distinguished New York-centric supporting cast (the late Victor Argo is superb as the seasoned detective uneasy with his colleague’s D.I.Y plans for dispensing justice), it’s well worth a revisit.
Arrow are renowned for their exhaustive and comprehensive set of extras, and they don’t disappoint here. This is a veritable treasure trove for Ferrara fans. There’s a 30 interview with the director (entitled ‘Possession’) which looks like it’s been specially commissioned for this re-release.
Originally part of the French cinephile series Cinéma de notre temps, Abel Ferrara: Not Guilty is a fun 80 minute feature which observes the director as he acts as a guide around his natural habitat of New York at night.
Another documentary, A Short Film About the Long Career of Abel Ferrara, is packed with talking heads from some of the key behind-the-scenes players who have helped bring the director’s vision to screen throughout the years. It’s a humorous and revealing doc, and thankfully, there’s no attempt from his old collaborators to whitewash some of the more problematic productions.
There’s also a director and crew commentary, plus three trailers for the film.