24 Nov 2009

King Of New York (1990)

Despite being one of the most popular actors of all time, it remains a tragedy that Christopher Walken never seemed to get the parts he deserves. Any fan can gleefully recall his memorable roles in True Romance and Pulp Fiction, but he only appears onscreen for one scene in both. Even his award-winning performances in The Deer Hunter and Catch Me If You Can were playing second-fiddle to other, more famous actors. One wonderful exception to this rather depressing rule comes in the form of Abel Ferrara’s grimy masterpiece, King Of New York, which, thankfully, has just been released on DVD. King Of New York is the story of Frank White (which would become the alias of rapper Notorious BIG, as good an indicator of the films cultural impact as any), a New York drug lord and gangster who has been released from prison and is coming home. The sparse, dialogue-free opening, where the Monk-like White is seen leaving his cell sets the tone wonderfully. Frequently derided as a pornographer of violence after the release of the highly controversial Driller Killer, Ferrara is often dismissed as a minor filmmaker, offering cheap thrills, but no substance. It appears he was aware of these criticisms here, as he certainly appears to be raining in his operatic instincts. It is almost five minutes before a word is spoken, and when it does, only to be followed by a shockingly brutal act of violence, the effect is astonishing. King Of New York is meticulous and utterly ruthless in achieving it’s aims. Like a turbo-charged Martin Scorsese, Ferrara’s films are stuffed with the traditional Catholic themes of sin, mortality, and redemption (see his tour de force Bad Lieutenant in particular) and this is no exception.

Walken plays Frank as a 21st century Robin Hood with ambitions of becoming Mayor, robbing from the rich so he can donate the money to Brooklyn schools and hospitals. Despite the weighty themes on offer though, the film remains a joy to watch throughout, chiefly on the strength of Walken’s maniacal performance. He fluctuates between a Buddhist-like serenity and a deranged, frenzied state that constantly keeps the audience on their toes. The part feels like it has been catered specifically for him (Walken is a trained dancer, and White and his entourage frequently celebrate good news by dancing together) and the ecstasy with which he brings it to life is infectious. Though it is yet to be mentioned in the same reverential tones as The Godfather and Goodfellas, maybe this DVD release will go some way to restoring its reputation.

Matthew Kleebauer

Director: Abel Ferrara

Cast: Christopher Walken, David Caruso, Laurence Fishburne, Wesley Snipes

Runtime: 103 Minutes

Certificate: 18


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