“I know what this City needs.”
Shot in just 40 days on a restrictive budget of little over $6 Million, and heavily censored to avoid the dreaded X rating, Abel Ferrara’s seminal gangster classic King of New York was released on the same day as Scorsese’s Goodfellas, only to be met with stern negative critical disdain, and consequently buried under a heavy swath of controversy.
Looking back, it’s no surprise really: back in 1990 the crack epidemic was running strong and drug dealers (particularly black drug dealers) were generally labelled as the biggest urban blight; John “The Dapper Don” Gotti was yet to be indicted – still on the streets and living the good life as the most powerful mobster in not only New York, but arguably the whole of the US; and Mayor Giuliani was still a good few years away from taking up office and instigating his widely successful and much-lauded...[Read the complete movie review]
Arrow Films bring King of New York to UK Region B-locked Blu-ray complete with an impressive 1080p High Definition video rendition of the movie, in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.78:1 widescreen. Honestly, I find it unlikely that this transfer has been sourced from a different HD master to the one that was used for Lionsgate’s US release 5 years ago, but that doesn’t matter, because it looked great back then, and still looks great now.
Detail is very good indeed, often reaching a level of excellence that nobody could have ever hoped for with this particular movie, especially considering its limited budget origins. We get a sharp image that showcases some great fine object detail and longer shot observations, the stunning cinematography likely looking better than it has ever done before, with clothing weaves, hair textures, skin tones, and building and set details impressing at every stage.
The colour scheme is broad and well-represented, allowing for the inherent bias of the highly stylised look of the film, and bringing forth some gorgeous magic hour moments; tequila sunrises and stylish blue-bathed sequences. Contrast is extremely well-handled, but perhaps most surprising are the night shots – of which there are many – which boast solid, rich and deep blacks with never-ending shadows, and not even a hint of black crush amidst it all. They are some of the best night sequences ever captured, and still stand up to this day.
With no glaring digital issues, defects, damage or the like – and no heavy DNR application to ruin that beautiful filmic grain that pervades the piece – this is a demo quality rendition all the way. If you love the movie, then you’ll surely adore this presentation.
Picture score : 9
The movie also boasts DTS-HD Master Audio tracks in both 5.1 and 2.0 formats, which supposedly mark an upgrade from the US release’s 2007 track. I have to say though that, barring any specific faults that there were with the test disc that I received for the review, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track was extremely poor, tinny and badly balanced, so much so that it was not long before I had to switch over to the considerably more satisfying and well-rounded 2.0 track.
Perhaps it’s the fact that the 5.1 track is effectively a remix, or perhaps nobody checked the final version – or at least nobody who knew what the movie was supposed to sound like. The soundtrack is extremely tinny, with a grating persistent high frequency background buzz that sounds like old cassettes used to before you pressed the “Dolby Noise Reduction” button (if you can remember those days). It’s quite hard to listen to, with dialogue coming across far too softly in comparison to the music, and gunshots sounding particularly hollow. The background hiss is diabolical, the 5.1 channels boosted way beyond the way they need to be, and the audio through the different channels occasionally even comes at different times, leading to a horrendous echo; all in all it’s a truly dreadful track which is unlikely to even be a true surround mix at all.
Thankfully the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track is far more acceptable, and literally saves the day when it comes to enjoying this movie on the format. Dialogue comes across clearly and coherently, with no distortion, no tinnyness, and far less troublesome background noise – although, in part, this is because it’s a much ‘quieter’ track, so you simply can’t get it up loud enough to create that background hiss. That said, at least there’s decent prioritisation and no painful lag echo. Effects are reasonably well observed and the frequent gunshots sound far more authentic and penetrating. The excellent score – both the superb instrumental segments and the well-chosen song tracks – has solid punch and presence, and yet doesn’t overwhelm the proceedings. Although the surround tracks don’t exactly light up with consistent, all-embracing bombast, there’s enough of an atmosphere created to provide a welcome accompaniment to the film, and redeem the release somewhat.
This may not be quite what fans wanted from the film, but it’s certainly better than being left with just the problematic 5.1 track as your only option. With such a significant issue on the audio, it has been necessary to contact the issuing company with regards to this release, and Arrow are now investigating the matter. We shall report back their findings in due course.
Sound score : 5
This new release, available as a Limited Edition Steelbook and as a Standard Dual Format Edition, comes packed to the hilt with some excellent extra features. Although we were not able to obtain a finished copy of either release, the Standard Edition reportedly comes complete with a reversible sleeve that boasts the original artwork as well as a newly commissioned artwork cover, and both versions boast a Collector’s Booklet which features articles on the film written by Brad Stevens, author of Abel Ferrara: The Moral Vision (he features in the Short Film About the Long Career of Abel Ferrara Documentary too).
Commentary with Director Abel Ferrara
Reportedly paid $5000 just to record this, the reluctant but nevertheless feverish Ferrara – prompted by a mumbling assistant commentator – provides a predictably manic, disjointed accompanying track for the film, offering up some interesting anecdotes and reflections, as well as plenty of less compelling random thoughts. Talking about everything from the symbolism in the white-on-black titles to the stunning cinematography, to the framing of key scenes; shooting in magic hour for just 20 minutes a day in order to get some kind of separation between the buildings and the sky; Walken’s repeated takes to get into character, including some nice improvisations; how his crazy hair was the true star; how the story originally started off as being about the cops more than the criminals, and the influence of the real John Gotti on the character and the script. Whilst Ferrara isn’t the greatest commentator – he will grate on some people – if you can handle him, then this extra (as well as the others) is well worth a listen.
Commentary with Composer Joe Delia, Producer Mary Kane, Casting Director Randy Sabusawa and Editor Anthony Redman
This multi-handed Commentary has the filmmakers fondly reflecting on the production, with the main focus being anecdotes about the cast and their experiences on the shoot. They discuss Fishburne’s zeal, Caruso putting in a career high performance, and the fact that many of the supporting cast members of the Mickey Rourke film Year of the Dragon (director by Deer Hunter’s Michael Cimino) popped up in various minor roles in this movie. They discuss the blue filter used for some of the scenes, the tight shooting schedule that was made difficult by the fact that Caruso and Snipes were filming another production at the same time, Walken’s improvisations (including the way he shoots his gun downwards from up high) and the fact that the action scenes basically only had one take because they couldn’t afford to do everything more than once. It’s a nice track but probably not as compelling as the Ferrara track, even though fans of the movie will want to listen to both.
King of New York – Possession: Interview with Director Abel Ferrara
This hefty new half-hour interview has Ferrara sitting down with a French reporter to discuss his memories of the production. He talks vaguely about how he came up with the idea, loosely working under the title of Murder One, and writing the premise before handing it over to the screenwriter; how they worked on it for several years, shifting the focus back and forth between the cops and the criminals; the influence of John Gotta, who Ferrara oddly describes as ‘the real Al Capone’ (you mean Al Capone wasn’t real?!); what Walken brought to the table; Ferrara’s friendship with Schoolly D; and how the movie didn’t go down well because of the crack problem and the portrayal of black gangsters in the film. Again, if you can tolerate the ill-tempered, swear-happy Ferrara for a further 30 minutes then this is worth checking out.
Interview with Producer Augusto Caminito
Another new interview, this time 20 minutes with the Producer, who talks about how it was entirely Italian-funded because the drug theme would have never received funding in the US; how Ferrara demanded Walken for the main role, despite never having met him; how Walken turned up overweight, but transformed himself before filming by going on a crash diet; the fact that the actors were mostly new to the game and all went on to become famous; and some very interesting discussions about not one, but two prequels that they had planned: one about Frank White growing up as a kid in New York, and the other about how he ended up in prison. Shockingly, I genuinely think that there might be actual plans to make them as he suggests named actors for the role, like DiCaprio and Wahlberg.
A Short Film about the Long Career of Abel Ferrara
Although previously available on the 2007 US Blu-ray release of the movie, this Documentary is a welcome addition here, and well worth revisiting. Featuring interviews with key collaborators, this 47-minute long offering has Ferrara’s regular Director of Photography, Script Supervisor, Producers and others talking about his eccentricities, all of the films in his career (only getting to King of New York about 25-minutes in if you get impatient), and what makes them special. It’s a nice tribute to Ferrara, even if the King of New York-specific trivia is fairly limited.
Abel Ferrara: Not Guilty
This new Blu-ray exclusive Documentary, from French TV show Cinema de Notre Temps, is a whopping 80 minutes in length and is probably going to be the hardest for anybody to sit through. Whether or not you can handle the manic eccentricities of Ferrara, here we get to see him as his most raw (i.e. worst), and it’s truly difficult to see what they hoped to achieve from this piece beyond just capturing a night in the life of a madman. We watch in horror as a camera-crew follows around a drunk and high Ferrara along the street of New York, over-excited, constantly swearing, embarrassingly interacting with random passers-by, attempting to play music (his piano and guitar-playing are great, but his vocal talents are predictably AWFUL), and occasionally briefly mentioning something vaguely to do with King of New York. Painful to watch, only hardcore Ferrara enthusiasts will be able to handle this feature-length documentary.
The disc is rounded off by a trio of Trailers, two of which are also Blu-ray exclusives.
It should be noted that although we get some welcome new material, we are actually missing a couple of items from the US Blu-ray release of the film a few years back, namely, the two Schoolly D features: “The Adventures of Schoolly D: Snowboarder” where he tries to convince us that not only did he invent snowboarding but he also inspired King of New York (neither of which are true), as well as a Schoolly D Music Video. Although not vital, it’s a shame that these were not included – I assume it has something to do with copyright issues. Still, all in all, an excellent extras package, and one which easily trumps the 2007 US counterpart.
Extras score : 10
Tightly written and superbly paced, Abel Ferrara’s tour de force 1990 cult classic crime thriller King of New York takes a dark, gritty and heavily stylised look at the underbelly of New York; this twisted reimagining of Robin Hood boasting a career high lead performance from Christopher Walken, top notch support from plenty of now familiar faces – including Lawrence Fishburne, Wesley Snipes and David Caruso – and a suitable amount of gratuitous gangster violence to punctuate its perpetually quotable script.
Amidst a sea of controversy it was critically derided on release, and it remains to this day one of the most criminally underrated crime classics in the genre. If you haven’t yet seen this near-masterpiece then now’s the time to rectify that. Highly recommended.
On Region B-locked UK Blu-ray, Arrow Global have given us a pretty impressive release that boasts a stunning video presentation and a plethora of excellent extras, and is only let down by a immensely defective DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 remix, which is actually noticeably inferior to the far more enjoyable DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 alternative. If you don’t yet own this, then this is probably the superior edition to pick up if only because of all the extras – and because the 2.0 track does save the day – but those who already have the 2007 US Blu-ray will be confused over whether or not to upgrade their extras at the expense of downgrading their soundtrack. Either way, though, you should consider this a must-have film.
Overall score : 8
2,294 word review written by Cas Harlow.
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