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King Of New York
cast: Christopher Walken, David Caruso, Laurence Fishburne, Wesley Snipes, and Steve Buscemi

director: Abel Ferrera

99 minutes (18) 1990
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Arrow DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Jim Steel
This was Abel Ferrara's crack at the big time and if it doesn't quite match the intensity of Bad Lieutenant, it benefits from the gloss of a bigger budget. Ferrara can be seen to be orbiting the same rotten sun as Scorsese, but the main difference with Ferrara is that his main character, Frank White (Christopher Walken), is clearly insane and defies any attempt on the part of the viewer to decipher his motives. In truth, Frank is probably not too sure of his own motives for being a crime lord. At one stage he breaks into the home of detective Roy Bishop (Victor Argo) who is heading the investigation into his activities and tells him, in no uncertain terms, to stop. He also goes on to make a fair fist of justifying his own activities. Most of the people he has been responsible for killing have been worse than him, he says with some truth, and as he was in prison for most of the past decade, he could hardly have been responsible for the growth of the drugs market. All he is doing is making money from something that would be going on anyway. However, his reasons for going to the detective's place are much more interesting, for all that they remain unsaid. He's obviously been rattled and angered by the (sometimes illegal) attempts to stop him, but is this a subconscious cry to be stopped? After all, where can he go from here? Or does he feel that he is immortal, and this is a logical thing to do?

Roy Bishop's team of young cops have a tendency to take things personally, and when they see Frank on television being lauded by the great and good, they snap and decide to throw the rulebook out. David Caruso and Wesley Snipes give fine performances although, with all the years that have passed since the making of the film, it is now difficult to image Caruso, in particular, playing any other sort of role.

Like all people, Frank has more than one thing going on in his head. There is a subplot where he attempts to raise money to keep a hospital open in the Bronx. It is possible that he really cares for the plight of the poor people who use it, but then again, this could be a way for him to buy respectability. Or maybe it's just something to do. We all need hobbies. A mixture of all three motives is probably the best bet - but, as one drug baron tells him during a tour of the hospital, he's crazy. Frank blows that deal by appealing to the humanity of a man who doesn't have any. The crazy thing is that Frank obviously thought that his argument would work.

At the start of the film, Frank is released from prison and picked up in a limo, taken to the Plaza hotel, where he makes his home and office for the remainder of the film. He is flat and unresponsive, and throughout this Ferrara cuts away to scenes of high violence that, it is inferred, Frank is the direct cause of. Orgies and drug deals are brutally interrupted as if by a cleansing force. One of the hoodlums is Jimmy Jump (Lawrence Fishburne in badly dated hip-hop gear), and when Jimmy pimp-rolls (rather woodenly, it must be said) into the Plaza with his buddies, Ferrara ensures that an air of uneasiness is projected on to the viewer. The macho posturing is soon shown to be a front as they greet each other with an open display of friendship that gives Walken a chance to dance like a loon in his own trademarked fashion. From that point onwards it is impossible to identify with him as a character. He's barking. He's also one of the most riveting creatures to ever appear on screen, and you can bet that when he starred opposite Dennis Hopper in True Romance they compared notes to see who did the craziest Frank.

It's a joy to watch. Ferarra seasons the film with little dashes of genius all the way through, and Walken owns the screen whenever he's on it. There are tiny flaws scattered through it, but it is never dull.

This DVD re-issue is a delightfully named '2 disc steel-book edition', and the second disc is packed with three and a half hours worth of bonus features. There is a 19-minute interview with the Italian producer, Augusto Carminito, who seems like a genial enough person but doesn't have much of interest to say, and a 42-minute documentary about Schooly D, which mostly consists of an interview with the rapper. Either you're a Schooly D fan or you're not. The worst offender by far is an episode of Hollywood Superstars about Christopher Walken. You know the sort of thing: glued together with a heavy syrup of music: next week, Billy Crystal. The Deer Hunter, it won't surprise you to hear, is dealt with in a sentence while Brainstorm benefits from lengthy clips.

Ken Kelsch (director of photography), Charles Lagola (art director), Anthony Redman (editor) and many others all are interviewed for a documentary overview of Ferarra's career, which does focus heavily on King Of New York, and is worth watching. Most of his people obviously still have a great respect for his ability and retain a fondness for the man in person. They do frequently have weary smiles on their faces when recounting the stories, though. Ferrara is not an easy man to work with at times, and eccentricity combined with low budgets makes for a great many fascinating anecdotes. Ferrara does not appear, although several of those taking part do impersonations of him.

We find out why in the last of the documentaries. This is an 80-minute French film where the crew just followed Ferrara around as he scouts for locations, directs, and generally lives in New York. Ferrara comes on like a cross between a middle-aged Brando and a Neanderthal wino. His hair is a mess, he wears one of those poverty row jackets that are made from off-cuts of leather stitched together, and he walks the streets with a bottle of beer in his hand. Taxis won't stop for him and restaurants refuse him entry, and it can safely be assumed that Frank White is not an autobiographical creation. Jello Biafra once said that if you dress like a tramp you can go anywhere and no one will hassle you. Ferrara probably doesn't dress the way he does through such a cynical motive, but he can walk into the working class areas (and worse) without any problem. He's not a tourist. He is, however, incredibly full of zest and is a very happy man. You'll like him a lot.
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