Thursday, 6 March 2014

King of New York (1990)

You could imagine during production that Abel Ferrara must have felt that his stylized neon saturated gangster film, The King of New York, complete with his biggest budget thus far, may prove to be his most mainstream and accessible feature, harking back as it did to the similar celluloid criminal mayhem that James Cagney would feature in in earlier days. 

But upon its release in 1990, critics and audiences alike didn't see it that way at all. They gave it a resounding thumbs down, whilst some even booed the cast at screenings and demanded the profit went to drug rehab programmes in the titular city. Such reactions only further served the notoriety of Ferrara as an enfant terrible of American indie cinema scene. And so he came back with Bad Lieutenant. Kinda you want bad? You got bad!

Perhaps the 1990 audiences and reviewers just couldn't stomach the moral complexities of the piece. At its heart is Walken's anti-hero Frank White, a drug kingpin/cold hearted killer as well as a good natured philanthropist (he wants to finance a hospital in a the disadvantaged Bronx) who must go toe to toe with a jaded and frustrated NYPD who will break the law in the most bloodthirsty fashion to nail him once and for all. 

After all, Hollywood like their characters to wear white and black hats...not grey.

It's only in the intervening years that the once vilified movie has achieved the status and esteem it deserves and at last Christopher Walken's effortlessly cool, deeply and intensely enigmatic and insouciant performance receives both the merit and the iconic status it has long deserved. 

But it's not just Walken's show; though admittedly it comes damn close. There's also fine support from Laurence Fishburne as a two gun toting giggling enforcer, Steve Buscemi as Test Tube, the gang's drugs expert, Wesley Snipes and David Caruso as young turk cops willing to cross the line and lastly, Ferrara favourite Victor Argo as their weary, ashen captain who knows his  fate is inexplicably entwined with White's.

Ferrara's film is as I say a stylized joy filled with sharp and sporadic bursts of violence akin to the deadly rattle from the Uzis the gangsters wield, notably from the sun roofs of zig-zagging limos in car chases shot through torrential rain. But that's not to say it's not without its authenticity; fittingly, it's a great New York movie with the same arresting visuals that Friedkin or Scorsese had employed in the 1970s, whilst the narrative's canny grasp of politics and crime going hand in hand in the big city is equally accurate and predates the likes of The Wire on TV.

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