| King Of New York is independent film schlockmeister Abel
Ferrara’s so-called masterpiece. I guess, given his Paul Naschy level
output, it is. But, in the real world, it’s a campy film with
self-conscious silly quote-ready posing masquing as acting. That said,
the performance of Christopher Walken, as Frank White, is really the
only reason to watch this Scarface-wannabe film. He brings a faux
gravitas to the role of modern Robin Hood gangster Frank White that is,
well, interesting. One can take all of the other over the top
performances and toss them away. Larry (not Laurence) Fishburne, Wesley
Snipes, David Caruso, and others, are not acting, but posturing. Only
Walken seems to realize that, despite Ferrara’s best attempts, the film
is a parody- a comic opera, a comic strip.
Here are the essentials: White is paroled from Sing Sing Prison, after years in the joint on a drug rap. He aims to be a different type of gangster, to take his ill gotten booty (or ill booten gotty?), eliminate his rivals and help the poor. Meanwhile, cops played by Snipes and Caruso, prove to be incompetent boobs, and Walken and Fishburne, Frank’s top gun- one Jimmy Jump- get the better of both until Snipes and Fishburne take each other out, and Walken’s White aces Caruso in a scene so silly that it takes on the level of camp attained by Scarface, in the scene where Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino pass out into a pile of cocaine. Then, White puts a bounty out on the lead cop assigned to nail him, and any other cops on the case. White then breaks into the lead cop’s home, tells him all this, and handcuffs him. The cop and White then have a final shootout on a subway train. The cop dies right away, and White later dies in a cab as the whole of the NYPD closes in on him.
Of course, hedonism and ultra-violence are rampant, and the script has logical plot holes the size of an elephant’s vagina. But, hey, why quibble? This is not real drama. It’s not even melodrama. It’s camp. The only question might be to ask if Ferrara realized this at the time. I vote no. Why? Because one need only listen to the audio commentary on the two disk DVD to see that Ferrara is utterly clueless. He feels that this is great art, and then that it is not realistic, unless it is, on his whim. Of course, he’s delusive, OR he’s just hoodwinking those of us listening into thinking he is. Of course, that’s it. And, the second commentary track, with crew members, is in on it, for they seem to be in on the circle jerk. Yes, that’s it. As for other features in the package? There’s a featurette on Ferrara’s career, on Schoolly D.- the mediocre rapper behind the film’s score, a video by said rapper, television spots, and the theatrical trailer.
The problem with this film is that it is so campy that it’s difficult to appreciate it in the Plan 9 From Outer Space sort of way. Witness the overacting of David Caruso. This poor bastrad seems to think this is a drama anyone can take seriously. When he starts kissing Snipes’ cop’s corpse, it’s a Rocky Horror sort of moment. But, is it brilliantly bad, ridiculously bad, or some other sort of bad? I mean, it’s BAD, no question, and maybe Ferrara’s cinematic inanity is an Ed Woodian turn of the tables? Another strike against the Ferrara as modern Ed Wood theory is the cameo, early in the film, of New York journalism legend Pete Hamill. I mean, he would not willingly deface his rep to appear in crap, would he? He has to be in on the gag? Well….maybe. Certainly Walken is. The most memorable and quoted line from the film occurs in the lead cop’s apartment, as White confronts him, and the cop asks him if he thinks he can really get away with the murders of all the rival scumbags he’s iced. White responds, hesitatingly, ‘I never killed anyone that….didn’t….deserve it.’
Released in 1990, this 103 minute film initially disappeared quickly from theaters, only to become a cult hit on VHS and DVD release, just like Scarface. But, since I’ve spoken of its flaws, let me linger a bit on its good parts. Rarely has the city of New York been so rapturously filmed as by cinematographer Bojan Bazelli. Only Woody Allen’s Manhattan rivals it, but in a different way. Ferrara and his cameraman, if nothing else, have great eyes. His ideas of what constitutes story and character, however, are atrocious. But give him a sensational eye, especially New York at night is gorgeous. The score, even if one likes rap, is poorly applied- it neither accentuates the moments, not does it comment wryly on them, much less punctuate them (see John Cassavetes’ The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie for a film that uses music perfectly). The lone exceptions are a couple of scenes where Walken’s White rocks out as the diegetic music almost seems to break the fourth wall; a wall that only Frank White seems to realize exists. See an early scene in the shower for a good wink and nod.
Of course, even taking the film as a parody, it’s just not that good at parody, much less grittiness. Compare some of the scenes to classic moments in a couple of Martin Scorsese films. Look at the scene from Mean Streets (1973), where one character calls another character a mook, and the other character asks, ‘What’s a mook?’ What makes that scene so great is that, on one level, the scene reveals the other character as a poseur, for mook is a common mob terms for a stolid ass who’s only good for muscle, if that. On the parody level it shows both the wannabe gangsters at odds in a moment where in other gangster films, a simple knowing word connects the brotherhood, and unable to complete the ritual. As for grittiness, Scorsese’s Goodfellas (also released in 1990) blows King Of New York away, even though it, too is stylized. There is no moment of pure savagery to rival the several explosions of Joe Pesci’s character. An early scene where one of White’s men is rebuffed at a local Mafia don’s poker game ends up with White just walking in and blowing the don away, as his henchman cower in fear. Then watch Pesci’s character blow away the young kid who works at the mobster club because he gets a little insolent. The Walken scene is funny, not scary, because it’s telegraphed. Pesci’s scene, however, is not.
Yes, MTV stylization was in vogue two decades ago, and delusion can often be invaluable to camp, but the fact is that, aside from the most often quoted six or seven moments of high camp, this film is mostly dull, filled with bad acting, an even worse script, by Nicholas St. John, and its divorce from all reality, while probably a better choice than splitting the difference, still leaves a viewer yawning far too often per capita (bodycount, really). However, if one wants to posit Frank White as a modern Robin Hood, a mortal Nosferatu, a gringo Pablo Escobar, so be it. I’ll even grant that the lack of ;realism’ in the film is in a long line of gangster film hagiography of the lifestyle, going back to the scene in Public Enemy (1931) where Jimmy Cagney smashes a grapefruit into Mae Clark’s face. But, all the pointing out of such does nothing to mitigate the film’s many flaws. Still, let me end this ambiguous review by stating that King Of New York is a bad film, but a bad film that I….liked. Sort of. A little. At times. Wink. Nod.
Copyright © by Dan Schneider
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