“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 zero tolerance policy.
Along comes bad boy director Abel Ferrara, with an Italian-funded independent movie that not only glamorises murderous drug-dealing gangsters (in much the way that Goodfellas did, albeit without the more comfortably ‘nostalgic’ period setting) but takes things several steps further, painting a modern-day picture – complete with gangs of ruthless black thugs – that glorified a crime kingpin, showing him to be as much Robin Hood as he was Tony “Scarface” Montana; doing considerably more good for an impoverished inner-city neighbourhood than the impotent City officials in charge. Couple that with the fact that it depicts the police as being arguably as bad as the criminals they are chasing, and throw in some interracial relationships, then-fledgling gangster rap, rampant nudity and gratuitous violence. At the time, the movie simply couldn’t have been any more controversial.
“How come you never came to see me?”
“Who wanted to see you in a cage, man?”
Former drug lord Frank White has just been released from prison. Seemingly rehabilitated, it is not long before he reveals that he has a far grander scheme for his disintegrating City than anybody could have ever predicted. Regrouping his own gang and taking to the streets on a quest to eradicate all the competition, Frank pledges to use his profits to keep the local hospital open in spite of the City’s devastating budget cuts, becoming something of a celebrity in the now-hopeful neighbourhood. Yet a dogged police lieutenant and his team of young pitbull detectives are determined to put an end to Frank’s reign, whatever the cost.
If the story for King of New York had been pitched today, it would have been picked up not only for a movie, but probably for an open-ended, ongoing, high quality HBO TV series; professionally produced, big budget and with a named cast; received with universal critical acclaim and significant viewer popularity. After all, we live in the age of the anti-hero.
From Training Day to The Sopranos to The Shield (along with shows like Deadwood and Boardwalk Empire keeping up the period side of things), contemporary anti-heroes have never had it so good, winning Oscars and other Awards across the board. Yet back in 1990, King of New York was still a daring production, and neither the critics nor the general public were quite ready for it.
“From here on, nothing goes down unless I’m involved. No blackjack, no dope deals, no nothing. A nickel bag gets sold in the park, I want in. You guys got fat while everybody starved on the street. It’s my turn.”
At the time, Ferrara had made a couple of cult indie flicks, including the notorious Driller Killer, and he came up with the idea for King of New York after seeing The Terminator at the cinemas, realising that audiences were craving a larger than life Big Screen spectacle, and shifting focus to accommodate this, albeit still within the boundaries of his own dark vision of the world. He wrote the basic premise, and the first few pages of the screenplay, before handing it over to frequent collaborator Nicholas St. John to finish the story. By the time it was done, Ferrara had spent over half a decade working on the project, and it had gone through various drafts, the story shifting focus back and forth between following the criminal characters and the cop characters (at one point it was going to be told from the point of view of the cops) before settling on a more fundamental determining factor: it was going to be about Christopher Walken.
Through the intermediary of producer Jay Julien (lawyer to the likes of De Niro, Keitel and Joe Pesci, he had a supporting role in the movie as the main attorney), Ferrara was handed a cheque by none other than Silvio Berlusconi, media tycoon and then soon-to-be Italian Prime Minister, and had but one requisite: he wanted Walken in the lead. He’d never met Walken before but they immediately hit it off on introduction, and indeed they would go on to collaborate on several further features (in fact he originally wanted him to star in Bad Lieutenant, the role going on to be one of Harvey Keitel’s most powerful).
“You know something? This conversation made me realise just how f**king crazy you really are.”
Christopher Walken simply is the King of New York. His embodiment of the kingpin Frank White has got to be up there amidst his absolute best performances, and a prime example of how he deserved to have more leading roles. For all his great supporting work – winning the Oscar for The Deer Hunter – and his scene-stealing cameo work (True Romance, Pulp Fiction, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead), he only had a few noteworthy leading roles, and Frank White towers over them.
The part may have been precisely detailed by the screenwriter, some of his best lines coming from both him (he lifted quotes directly from John Gotti wiretaps – including the “I just need a year” speech) and Ferrara himself (including the tremendous “a nick bag gets sold – I want IN” line), but Walken brought so much to it, not least his strangely compelling speech rhythm – complete with all of the sudden off-kilter pauses, unpredictable deliveries and spontaneous violent outbreaks that give him such a dangerous, menacing edge – but also his improvised dancing moves, sharp dress sense and crazy, character-of-its-own, hairstyle. Some would claim that Walken’s speech pattern was originally as a result of his perpetually forgetting his lines, and his consequent innate ability to make the ensuing silence come alive, whilst others would suggest that he would take every script given to him and put dozens of full-stops randomly in it, in order to create an unusual, slow staccato delivery – whatever the reason, it’s become something of an art form; the perfected, eminently cool and wholly unpredictable cousin to William Shatner’s own, more comical intonations.
Now well-known for his psychotic turns – playing the memorable villain in big movies like Roger Moore’s final Bond film, A View To a Kill (as well as Batman Returns) – it’s strange to think that back in 1990 he was still quite averse to violence. On the first day of shooting, he was hesitant about pointing a gun at another actor. Yet by the end of the scene (the excellent sequence where he confronts Italian mobster Arty Clay), he was punctuating his dialogue with a half a dozen improvised gunshots – into a dead body no less. However, what truly makes his character of Frank White more interesting than the average drug kingpin is not the way in which he delivers his dialogue; not the fact that he does not use his own product; not even the fact that he is in charge of an almost all-black crew, with two female personal bodyguards, but the twisted Robin Hood element that makes you question just how much good this character could have actually done.
“Something that you’ve looked at all your life... it never crosses your mind that you’ll never see it again. I’ve lost a lot of time. It’s gone. From here on, I can’t waste any. If I can have a year or two, I’ll make something good. I’ll do something. Something good. Just one year. That’s all.”
Sure, we’ve already seen just how popular anti-hero characters have become, but how many gangsters have been portrayed as characters whose drive is to reform and rehabilitate a City; who confront City officials over their plans to shut the South Bronx hospital and who pledge to invest millions in order to keep it open because “privileged districts shouldn’t be the only ones with hospitals”? Few characters are portrayed with altruistic, benevolent intentions like this, and certainly never on this kind of scale. Early on Frank White announces that he wants to run for Mayor. He’s not joking. Frank believes that he can do more good for the City than any politicians or City officials can do and, to be honest, from what we see in the film, it’s hard to dispute that statement.
Even when faced with a determined cop pushing and prodding at him from every angle, his restraint is still evident – he is insistent upon trying to get the man transferred or retired, or anything; the alternative being to blow his brains out, which would have surely been the first choice for any other gangster kingpin in any other movie. Indeed, for all the times we’ve had a throwaway line like “I never killed anybody who didn’t deserve it” injected into a movie, here Walken not only manages to convince us that he believes it, but truly manages to make us veer towards thinking that he may actually be right.
“When the D.A.’s office investigated the sudden death of Arty Clay, they found that he left a 13 Million Dollar estate. How do you explain that? Then there’s Larry Wong, who owned half of Chinatown when he passed away. Larry used to rent his tenements to Asian refugees – his own people – for $800 a month to share a single toilet on the same floor. How ‘bout King Tito? He had thirteen-year-old girls hooking for him on the street. Those guys are dead because I don’t want to make money that way. They’re dead because they were running this city into the ground.”
Of course, despite Walken clearly being the star of the show, he was also undeniably ably supported by a whole bevy of young and upcoming actors, many of whom used their work opposite him on this film as a springboard to more prominent roles.
In a role originally conceived as an Italian-American gangster, Morpheus himself – Larry Fishburne – blew Ferrara away with his audition for Frank White’s fiercely loyal and equally dangerous lieutenant, Jimmy Jump. Originally cast as the cop Thomas Flanagan (a relatively small role that would eventually be filled and expanded by a young Wesley Snipes), Fishburne lobbied to replace frequent Ferrara collaborator James Russo for the part of Jimmy Jump, and went on to make it one of his greatest characterisations. In fact his performance was so dynamic; so compelling, that Ferrara originally wanted a dual-pistols shot from him to be on the poster image for the film.
Yet despite his evident – and highly stylish (Woo would have been proud) action chops – even playing this kind of gun-toting psychotic character, Fishburne managed to escape clichéd caricature, Ferrara giving him just enough room to show a different side to the part. It was none of that contradictory ‘loving wife and kids at home’ nonsense either, you know, the thing that normally applies in these cases, being some feeble attempt at falsely humanising a murderer, but instead a brief moment where Jimmy – in the middle of barking a food order to the server at a chicken shop – shows us the smallest fraction of kindness. The chicken shop guy tells off a couple of kids for messing around with the video game consoles when they have no money, and Jimmy proceeds to rip into him, and then give them all enough change to play the games. It’s not the same as White’s altruistic plans to build a damn hospital but, in his own way, it’s Jimmy’s way of showing that he cares about the neighbourhood too.
“Who made you judge and jury?”
“Well, it’s a tough job, but somebody’s gotta’ do it.”
On the flipside to Frank’s twisted Robin Hood organisation we get three superb players rounding out the opposition. The late, great Victor Argo plays the head of the police team on Frank’s tail, a beleaguered veteran who looks like he’s popping pills for an ulcer – or worse – and who chain-smokes (which would ultimately be his real-life demise) and drinks, whilst seldom being given any reason to smile. Even at a police wedding celebration he is eager to leave early and get back to his obsession: putting a stop to Frank White’s rise to power. Argo was a good friend of Harvey Keitel’s, which was how he got this gig in the first place (Keitel was, in turn, close friends with Ferrara), and he made his name playing tough roles like this – frequently found in Scorsese films (including Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ), but also going on to appear in a half a dozen movies done by Ferrara. He’s simply perfect as the dogged detective on White’s trail, cynical from the legal restrictions that prevent him from actually putting an end to White’s criminal career, but also, ultimately, determined to obey the law.
Less willing to play by the rules are two of his best detectives, played by David Caruso and Wesley Snipes. Snipes gets the smaller of the roles – the part that Fishburne was originally cast in – but, despite both this and his relative inexperience, he actually still makes you feel for his character, particularly during the later, more violent confrontations. Snipes was apparently living out of his car at the time, and landed the part thanks to Caruso, who recommended him to Ferrara (they were both working together on a shortly lived TV series at the time); he would go on from this role to take the lead in the following year’s New Jack City, catapulting him into stardom.
Then there’s David Caruso. Nowadays he’s more famous for his sunglasses-on; sunglasses-off CSI: Miami role as tough lieutenant Horatio Caine, almost becoming a caricature with his trademark acting style, but back in the late eighties and early nineties he had some real presence, and veritable promise. Back in 1990 he had already done the Romeo & Juliet reimagining, China Girl, with Ferrara, and it wouldn’t be long before he would put in his seminal performance as Detective John Kelly in NYPD Blue – and in-between he brought his A-game to King of New York, exhibiting contagious energy and charisma, not least in the more dramatic sequences, but also in the smaller scenes like the police wedding. However the best and most memorable scene (probably for all three actors/characters) is the violent night-time exchange between Fishburne, Snipes and Caruso towards the end of the movie. Indeed it’s difficult to choose between Fishburne and Caruso as to which one gives the better performance, but even if you favour the former, it would be hard to dispute the fact that Caruso gives it his all here.
“I thought people like you didn’t believe in the legal process.”
“I thought people like me were the legal process.”
Amidst the rest of Frank White’s ‘merry men’, we get a host of variably familiar faces even in the tiniest of roles, some of them not getting a single line of dialogue, yet all of them perfectly chosen. From Theresa Randle (who would go on to become a frequent Spike Lee collaborator, as well as doing the Bad Boys films) and model Carrie Nygren as White’s sultry bodyguards, to Janet Julian as White’s enchanted lawyer girlfriend; from Steve Buscemi (The Big Lebowski, Boardwalk Empire) as White’s drug chemist, to another frequent Spike Lee collaborator, Giancarlo Esposito (The Usual Suspects, Breaking Bad) as Frank’s intermediary on negotiations. It’s a fantastic ensemble cast of predominantly fresh faces who all showed undeniable promise with their performances here.
Ferrara was famous for giving his cast room to shine in even the smallest roles, and this was certainly no exception. He was also famous for his meticulous attention to detail as a filmmaker. Rebellious, obsessive, eccentric, hyper-energetic, antagonistic and short-tempered, it would be easy to assume from his behaviour (and his movies) that he is always either on drugs, or just perpetually suffering the side-effect from long-term use of them. Ironically, the more dangerous reality would be the idea that he wasn’t actually on drugs – that this was his natural state.
I honestly have no idea how he can make the movies he makes for such small budgets. Sure, they don’t have many grand stunts, or any effects, but they have fantastic casts, with Ferrara making the most of real locations – here utilising landmark bridges, Sing-Sing prison (the first time anybody ever filmed there), and famous hotels and clubs to suitably set his scenes – as well as stunning moments of violence; and with his supreme editing and very stylish direction the end result is almost always a marvel to watch.
Frequent collaborator Bojan Bazelli truly captures the gritty streets of New York in all their glory; the magic hour shoot allowing for some beautiful sunrises; the superior shots of the New York subway would go on to be used as stock footage for numerous movies (and feature in the NYPD Blue opening credits sequence). There are some truly spectacular moments, with perfect framing of the scenes – from the split-down-the-middle shot of Frank walking out of prison to the flawless reflection of a passing subway train in the rain-drenched street; from the city’s skyline mirrored in front of Frank’s balcony view to the blue-filter nightclub shootout.
“You think ambushing me in some nightclub’s gonna’ stop what makes people take drugs? This country spends 100 billion a year on getting high, and it’s not because of me. All that time I was wasting in jail, it just got worse. I’m not your problem. I’m just a businessman.”
Then there’s the soundtrack. Now the inspiration for King of New York has often been falsely attributed to a song by Schoolly D, commonly regarded as the man who created gangster rap. The reality is that Ferrara loved hip-hop, and in particular Schoolly D’s music and lyrics, and that he used a couple of the rapper’s tracks in the soundtrack to great effect, with Schoolly D going on to write a song entitled “King of New York” which Ferrara would later describe as summing up some of the themes in the film very succinctly. Aside from the rap contribution, which works wonderfully in the relevant sequences, the score itself is a mix of diegetic elements and haunting instrumental work, only adding to the depth and darkness that envelopes the characters. Perhaps the most noteworthy moment comes when the subway train screech is morphed into the start of the scoring for the chase sequence through the rain. Sublime.
At just 1 hour and 46 minutes in length, there’s also simply no wasted footage. Every single shot counts. Indeed, you have to wonder what was cut from the purportedly ultraviolent original first cut of the movie which was cursed with the dreaded X-rating. After all these years I doubt anybody will ever find a copy, but it would have been nice to know more about it – supposedly running at over 2 hours in length, there may have been some significant additions. Which is not to say that this version isn’t pretty damn violent and action packed to boot – indeed the streamlined runtime means the film rollercoasters along at a fairly hefty pace, cramming in numerous assassinations, several noteworthy shootouts, and, of course, that brilliant rain-battered car chase through the streets and across a bridge into the night.
“I’ve done things in my life you wouldn’t even think about.”
Often compared to the likes of Goodfellas and Scarface – indeed one of the taglines was “Where Scarface left off... King of New York begins!!” – it’s all too easy to dismiss King of New York with such misplaced rhetoric. Even Brian De Palma’s own companion piece to his seminal 80s crime epic, the 1993 masterpiece Carlito’s Way – which portrayed a reformed career criminal who was desperately looking for a way to avoid returning to the ‘life’ – did not go into the altruistic Robin Hood territories of Ferrara’s cult classic; and Tony ‘Scarface’ Montana had even less in common with the ‘I want to fix this city’ intentions of Frank White, his equivalent violent rise in the ranks being instead merely out of an obsessive quest for more money and power, rather than a necessity in order to clean up the streets.
When all is said and done, however, even though the film is so masterfully handled within the constraints of the budget and the shooting schedule, the end result is certainly not a perfect film – a little refinement would have gone a long ways towards further fleshing out the timescale of the events in the narrative; a little more time could have fully rounded out the myriad characters and their dark and malevolent world. Falling just shy of an outright masterpiece, it’s still an absolute classic, and one of the best gangster films of not just the nineties, but of all time. Indeed the terrible shame in its utter failure at the Box Office and massive critical disdain was the fact that it took so long for the film to get noticed. Now it’s heralded as a classic – or a cult classic at the very least – but at the time the filmmakers were booed out of the New York Film Festival for making such a ‘monstrosity’. Hopes of the planned prequels fleshing out the backstory to the enigmatic character of Frank White were immediately dashed, and we will likely never see any more from this vibrant (under)world.
Still, the legacy of Frank White lives on. Apparently the late infamous rapper Biggie Smalls (aka Notorious B.I.G.) often referred to himself as the ‘black Frank White’, and even checked into a hotel under the name Frank White the day before he was slain, and to this day gangstas – wannabe and otherwise – pay tribute to ‘Frank White of New York’. So take the time to pay your respects to this classic crime story – persistently quotable and utterly compelling – and revel in the electric tale of the King of New York.
“Frank. He made it. The King of New York.”
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