King of New York is a gritty and austere film, fiercely indifferent to the slings and arrows of outrageous popular criticism, concentrated on the minutiae of doomed and damaged people in a collision course with eternity. The light that shines on this story reveals desperation as a fuel for all actions and reactions in a world blanketed by despair, bloody feuds and street corner confessionals. Cops and robbers live among the same rubble and dead-end streets found in every urban wasteland and wounded city night line of the last twenty years, punctured with the dim and dying realization that many will die on streets with no names that go nowhere fast. Defiant in the face of opposition and steadfast in its pursuit of verisimilitude at all costs, Abel Ferrara’s quintessential crime drama embraces familiar themes while looking closer at the insides of good and evil. Driven to tell their story, however bleak and tattered, Ferrara rejects the prescribed outcomes of typical crime drama morality tales and the film is considerably better for it. Brutal and honest, it digs in until bleeding and exhausted we arrive together at the inevitable conclusion that in the classic war of good and evil, right and wrong, there are only victims of circumstance in the collateral damage of dreamers and sinners.
King of New York is considered by many a cult classic but when it was released in 1990 it went the other way, nearly burned up in an outrageous cacophony of criticism. Critics and mainstream audiences described the film as morally irresponsible and even an abomination that glorified drugs, violence and corruption. Of course it glorifies, the light of cinema that shines on any particular thing will enliven as it emboldens, exaggerate as much as encapsulate the filmmaker’s fight to represent it cleanly and with clarity. Yet the fires burned so very bright until finally King of New York received its just rewards, resurrected as a cult classic and remains there to this day. It was a tumultuous release, vehemently opposed as even Ferrara’s own wife walked out with a number of people in the audience when it premiered at the New York film festival. The following day Laurence Fishburne and Nicholas St. John were booed at another screening. Such things dim in contrast to the films of today, the bloody horrors with waxen veneers, the spit and polished socio-acceptable. Tarrantino, Scorsese and James Wan (Saw), Eli Roth (Hostel) and others go so very far from here. There are many reasons to recommend this film, everything from Walken’s performance to a notable supporting cast, from Ferrara’s own style and cinematic language to the effectiveness of a film to be different without being heavy-handed, to be true to the characters and fearless of story even as it unnerves and challenges our preconceived notions.
Reviewing all the films that were released at or about the time this film hit theaters would be interesting enough, seeing the way Scorsese explored themes of organized crime and incorrigible criminals in Goodfellas, Tony Scott’s stylish ode Revenge, Eastwood’s The Rookie, the Coen’s Miller Crossing, Stephen Frears The Grifters and many others. What really separates King of New York is the way in which Ferrara is willing to mine the human soul for every ounce of questionable conduct, every nuance of familiar that makes good and bad equally approachable, easily accessible. Ferrara sees no urgency in grand or small resolutions, no need to fix the broken; he chooses to populate the story with moments instead of right or wrong, articulate expressions of fears and frustrations we all understand and can relate to. It is true, King of New York is rough-hewn and imperfect, it does glamorize violence and reward extreme decisions that are very often fool hearty or obscene gesture reactions to impossible situations. The difference between this film and others in this regard is that Ferrara isn’t afraid to color outside the lines, blur acceptable and deplorable and admit it, relish it and allow it to shine through the safety glass we erect to save us from ourselves.
There are no heroes in this film, no efforts made to reward righteous and punish the despicable or the doomed. We naturally gravitate toward the bad guys even as we secretly, deep down hope justice will prevail. There are no absolutes of conscience or conduct intended to settle the troubled or explain the senselessness of violent lives, no exposition or omniscient words of reason to set the stage. Instead we ease into this world as though only moments ago departed, invited in where we find Frank White (Christopher Walken) just released from a stint in prison. The drug lord and businessman, career criminal and charismatic Mr. White quickly returns to his life of crime and business of illegalities only to find that things have crumbled in his absence. Maybe his priorities have changed or it is just old rivalries and new ones, the city itself falling down to reveal an out of control band of cops (including Wesley Snipes and David Caruso) that have set their aim on taking Frank down. Pressured to pick up the pieces in a hurry, juggling his aspirations to one day run the city above as he has the underworld below, what ensues is a series of violent confrontations that grow deadlier and closer to the center as Frank’s minions wage war on the dangerous cops long pushed to the breaking point now willing to do anything and everything.
Unlike some films set in major cities and obvious places, Ferrara doesn’t spend a lot of time fleshing out every nook and cranny. Instead he concentrates on the perfect framework for the characters, a sort of distilled down essence as if boiled for hours over intense heat; crude but effective, just enough to be believable like the only truth ever needed in stories about right and wrong is the measurable remnants of lost souls. Only the bare bone product remains in the end, 200 proof bootleg verisimilitude, the work of an outsider filmmaker before independence became a branding iron and get-rich-quick commodity. There’s no need for the perfunctory walking and talking of free-form diatribes found in an Ethan Hawke film, nor the angst laden reactions to everyday nuisances of an Ed Burns rom-com. Ferrara purposefully undermines the easy resolutions of Hollywood endings, embellishing only so far as to portray characters strikingly familiar but every bit different, a testament to the ambiguity of our notions of heroes and villains.
Such reckless pursuit of believable contributes to the films overall effectiveness and staying power, even as some of the material feels dated. The film is as unflinching as most of Ferrara’s films, his early exploitation films like Driller Killer to another articulate and brutal character study, Bad Lieutenant. Ferrara works in inky black volatility, always a tinderbox of urban nightmare shapes and forlorn conclusions at the ready to tell the stories of people living fast, dangerously close to burning up, and others charged with slowing them down or dying in the process. Scenes are mined for emotional charges, the good that invariably goes wrong, the wrong that is sometimes necessary for the greater good of moments that might not ever see the light of dawn. Believable happenstance and orchestrated acts of attrition give Abel Ferrara’s King of New York its lasting grit, instilling in the viewer a sense of inky blackness for having lived among the detritus of these characters and by proximity come to understand the irrevocable felonies of madmen and the excusable misdemeanors of dreamers searching for happiness and fame in tomorrows that never come. As much as we want to believe in redemption and finite rules of engagement, we cannot pretend to judge these characters for what lives beneath is an energy of inevitability like our own. Every now and again we believe again that opposing forces result in moments of clarity before the finality of shared and personal destruction.