If you judge New York City off its millions of portrayals in various TV shows, films, books, video games, tweets, etc. you’ll either think it’s some kind of shining bastion for artists and lovers alike or a perpetual hellscape filled with wise talking gangsters and alien vortexes in the sky all vying to tear down the city. Abel Ferrara’s take on New York in his explosively violent KING OF NEW YORK falls more into the latter category (with an absence of any world ending shenanigans) hearkening to the gritty, decaying streets found in the likes of THE FRENCH CONNECTION or TAXI DRIVER. However, where director Ferrara takes his story of a recently released kingpin (played by the uniquely intimidating Christopher Walken) running amok on the streets of the Big Apple isn’t into any new territory but it nevertheless provides a solid supply of entertaining thrills.

Indeed, KING OF NEW YORK hardly overturns any established clichés of the “NYC Gangster” subgenre but it does happen to harness a strange chaotic energy of violent joy in the exploits of Frank White’s (Walken) revenge campaign. With a script from frequent Ferrara collaborator Nicholas St. John, the story begins with Frank’s release from prison and his subsequent violent quest to take back the streets that were taken from him while he was cooped up in the pen. With a fiercely loyal group of ne’er-do-wells at his side (played by the likes of Laurence Fishburne, Giancarlo Esposito, and Janet Julian to name a few) Frank’s street quest soon rockets into the political realm of NYC as a group of rough and tumble cops (played with aggressive glee by David Caruso, Wesley Snipes and Victor Argo) aim to take down the increasingly powerful kingpin.

Despite a rather plain tale of good (but dirty) cops vs bad (but morally solid) criminals on the deck, Ferrara and his powerhouse cast turn a standard crime story into a film that never lets off the gas. With a pace that quickly pushes Frank and crew to the top of the New York crime scene through seamless time jumps to a seemingly never-ending barrage of hard boiled dialogue and bloody shootouts (with a smattering of weird/funny/unsettling/entertaining Walken dance scenes in between), KING OF NEW YORK is one of the more action-packed “NYC Gangster” films out there. It’s also has some dope ass acting. While not wholly familiar with Mr. Ferrara’s other works, I like to think I’ve mustered a solid outside understanding of the man’s approach to world building which falls somewhere between a cynical reality and a bonked out fever dream which is reflected here in its characters. With Walken headlining the cast, the performer lets his unsettling glares and stares do most of the work so that when Frank finally does let out some emotion through his words or body language, the film receives an unsettling jolt. While on paper, Frank operates as just an agent of violent change to the status quo of the criminal empire of NYC, Walken at least attempts to imbue a plain protagonist with some complicated inner workings based on the Robin Hood-esque ideals of giving back to the community he just so happens to peddle bullets and drugs in. Most of the characters after further observation similarly fail to bring much depth but it’s a testament to the quality of the performers that one-note characters become something close to memorable. This is exemplified in a good portion of the side performances, ranging from the volatile explosiveness of Fishburne and Caruso’s antagonistic characters to Argo’s much more subdued role as the tired old cop caught in the bombastic carnage of Frank’s reign. Whatever the case, each character occupies that unique ground between over-the-top and true-to-life in a way that only Ferrara can create.

This balance between the absurd and the harsh reality of crime life is also found in KING OF NEW YORK’s impressionable production design. In this film’s world, night rules the streets of New York City and on those dark streets, illuminated by vast strays of blue backlights, everyone looks like a criminal (or something close to a creature of the night). Ferrara and his cinematographer Bojan Bazelli effectively bring to life those dark, gloomy streets of NYC with a boots-on-the-ground approach that continues to balance the bombastic violent action sequences of shootouts with the quiet saunters through the simmering city streets and lonesome subway stations. But despite KING OF NEW YORK’s effectively staged surface thrills, the film never elevates past anything into something with any depth. While Ferrara and St. John attempt tantalizingly draw close the behavior of the law and the lawless, seemingly implying the former may be doing more harm than the latter, the film never really commits to taking a deep dive into either side as both the criminals and the rough cops are handled more as toy soldiers than effective characters, robbing the film of an emotionally resounding conclusion.

While not every crime/gangster movie has to have something profound to say about its world or characters to be good (as this film clearly demonstrates), this flaw becomes more apparent when the filmmakers actively try to impart nuggets of intriguing observation into their wild tale of trigger happy gangsters and cops. Even so, KING OF NEW YORK is entertaining from start to finish and despite a story that never elevates beyond your standard crime fare, you can’t find many films that have Christopher Walken playing a ruthless crime lord who just has to have a few boogie sessions here and there.




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Justin Norris

Aspiring Movie Person. To get more personal follow @DaRealZamboni on Twitter.