King of New York (1990, dir. Abel Ferrara)
Starring Christopher Walken, Laurence Fishburne, Victor Argo, David Caruso, Wesley Snipes, Giancarlo Esposito, Steve Buscemi
When I was a child, I noticed a bleak tone in many films and the music of the era. I think of Nirvana and other grunge artists and films like Terminator 2. It felt like there was a darkness over all these things. Now, many years older I look back and realize that it was in part a response to the downturn of the self-indulgent 70s and greedy 80s. This is why Abel Ferrara’s King of New York is such a excellent culmination of this sense of burning out after decades of success.
The story opens with the release of Frank White (Walken), a crime boss who has finished serving his term in prison (We’re told he’s been gone for years, but never given an exact number). Frank’s lieutenants on the outside begin a systematic execution of rival bosses as a signal that Frank has returned. Frank’s new outlook on life has him redirecting his criminal enterprise into helping keep a hospital for low income families open, an admirable goal indeed. However, Roy Bishop (Argo), the cop who took him down originally is keeping an eye on Frank. Both men, Frank and Roy, have metaphorical children, young soldiers who were raised in their service and owe everything to their “fathers”. And both sets of children are the victims of their fathers’ legacies in the end.
Walken plays things in his trademark bizarre way. Frank never approaches anything remotely human, he is forever emotionally distanced from everyone around him. His devotion to saving the failing hospital is admirable but he has no strong reaction when he own men are gunned down around him. On the flip-side, Roy is shattered when his “boys” are gunned down. It’s regret that separates these two men, Frank stance summed up nicely in the line, “I never killed anyone that didn’t deserve it.” Frank is able to justify his actions because he is so distanced from them, he assuages any guilt by taking up a cause in the community like the local hospital.
The film is much more about style than substance though. The soundtrack and visuals are all meticulously crafted to generate a very specific tone. The picture never feels like it could take place in reality until the final sequence. For the majority of the pic, Frank and his crew’s actions are incredibly over the top, specifically a shoot out in Chinatown where every single person on the street seems to have access to an automatic assault rifle. What this picture does best is create palpable tone, from the opening frames you have no doubt about the type of world you are entering and get a feeling for the bleak, hopeless finale its heading toward.