* Prices may differ from that shown
This Arrow Video Blu-ray and DVD double-pack is about £14 on amazon. (Ciao has this listed as just a DVD, but it includes both formats).
Abel Ferrara has a culty sort of reputation, as a New York director who makes uncompromising, confrontational films exploring the seedy side of city life. I find a lot of his stuff pretty much unwatchable. Driller Killer, his breakthrough, is appalling, a film that flaunts its tiresome edginess in such a way as to alienate anyone over the age of 13. Bad Lieutenant is essential viewing, but only once (unless you really want to see Harvey Keitel's schlong again and again). King of New York was always the one I found enjoyable; it's a lot more accessible and entertaining than his usual films. Inaccessible and nasty are fine, but when the films are boring with it, there's not much incentive to revisit them. King of New York is at least fun.
Frank White, a mobster, is released from prison. He and his gang murder their way to the top of the criminal food chain, planning to use the proceeds from their massive drug operation to, er, pay for a local hospital to stay open. Meanwhile, the police are on Frank's trail, and will stop at nothing to stop him.
It's an odd film. The gangster as Robin Hood style benefactor of the local community is a difficult concept to accept. The likes of Al Capone would paint themselves in those terms, but it was all an act, an attempt to seem virtuous. The film seems to take Frank's philanthropic streak at face value. He's seen giving local kids a purpose in life. In fact, the film paints him time and again in glowing terms. He's not your typical mobster, being a white guy whose gang members are mostly African Americans. The old fashioned, racist Italian mafiosi hate him for this. Everyone Frank comes up against is painted in the worst possible terms, even the police. His rival gangsters are criticised for, among other things, pimping and being slum landlords. Frank is supposedly better because he's selling drugs, which is very odd. Who on earth is he meant to be selling them to? Rich people? Having him presented as a patron of a hospital that desperately needs funding just comes across as silly, as probably fewer people would need medical treatment if he wasn't flooding the streets with heroin.
It doesn't have the kind of focus we expect from mafia films like The Godfather. Frank's enemies in organised crime crumble pretty quickly. His main enemy is the police, and they're presented almost as a rival gang, employing whatever methods they feel like, especially towards the end of the film. This is more like one of those old James Cagney crime flicks, where one charismatic super-crim runs rings around everyone else until he receives his final-reel comeuppance. Obviously it's updated from the 1930s, but compared to organised-crime-as-corporate-structure as seen in Goodfellas or the Godfather movies, this feels almost quaint.
It's damn good fun, though, however silly it is. There's lots of violence, most of it very OTT. It's the kind of film where no one gets shot just once, they all have to have half a dozen bullets pumped into them before they're ready to die. These are the kinds of gunfights Steven Seagal has; King of New York was made about the time Seagal was emerging as an action star, and it has the plot of a Seagal vehicle. It's easy to imagine a film in which in which the porcine hero plays an unorthodox cop trying to take down a hypocritical drug dealer with connections in City Hall. For all his street cred and edginess, Abel Ferrara has basically made a Seagal vehicle from the point of view of the villain (not that Seagal could ever have afforded Christopher Walken as one of his villains).
The best thing about the film by a long way is Christopher Walken as Frank. This is probably where the actor's reputation as a crazy psycho came from. He's brilliant, his mournful big-eyed, pursed-lipped Pierrot face generally kept blank and inscrutible, apart from the trademark Walken twitches and eye swivels. His 80s hair is amazing, way too big for his head and kind of spiky like a hedgehog. He's fantastic whether groping a lady in a subway, dancing to rap music, or firing an Uzi at some Chinese gangsters. Without a great central performance the film would collapse under its own silliness pretty quickly; by being still and dangerous while everyone else flaps around and overacts, Walken makes the film feel better than it probably is.
His gang includes foxy, apparently bisexual bodyguards, and Steve Buscemi as a drug tester (he is given very prominent billing on the cover, but this isn't really warranted by his screentime). Walken's main henchman is Jimmy Jump, played by Laurence Fishburne. The problem with him is (and this may just be down to other parts I've seen him play) that he seems way too posh to be a gold-toothed urban drug dealer. To digress slightly, the last few seasons of the original Dr Who series had a character called 'Ace', who was meant to be some kind of edgy urban rebel kid, but was played by a well-spoken middle-class actress who had clearly never been within a mile of a housing estate. That's who Fishburne reminds me of here. I think a big part of the problem is how stylised and fake the dialogue all seems. It feels like it's labouring to be edgy and threatening, and failing. Perhaps watching it so soon after watching The Wire was a mistake.
That said, the line 'You chicken-eating mother***er' had me in stitches.
The cops are a bit better, but they behave in such a generally unpleasant way that it's hard to sympathise with any apart from the grizzled veteran Roy (Victor Argo). The younger cops (David Caruso and Wesley Snipes) are just jerks. Cops as flipside of the people they're chasing is a common enough genre trope, but it only really works in cheap action films where the whole point is to identify vicariously, however fleetingly, with the kind of pumped-up knucklehead you would never want to be in real life. James Ellroy could perhaps have pulled off a story about violent driven cops becoming worse than the thing they're chasing, but Abel Ferrara is no James Ellroy.
This is perhaps what makes the film so enjoyable - it has a kind of cult, art-film gloss (perhaps imagined because of what else the director has made), but ultimately it's an action flick, just told from the villain's point of view. And it is well made enough to generally paper over the cracks in the story. It has the dangerous urban backdrop of other Ferrara films, and makes good use of rap music on the soundtrack. It's an odd film that feels simultaneously better than it actually is, largely due to Walken; and worse than it actually is, due to the silliness of the plot.
The Blu-ray looks great. Ferrara's films always feel like they're dark and grainy even when they aren't, and this transfer manages to keep that slightly scuzzy feeling while featuring tremendous amounts of detail. Every pore on Walken's face is visible; you can count the dust motes caught by the beam of a movie projector. (One character is watching Nosferatu on his private cinema, weirdly with the scenes out of order). It's a Blu-ray that really enhances the film, which is quite rare for a movie made so late - I usually find that it's older stuff that really jumps up in quality.There's also a DVD, if you want to see it in lower definition.
There are lots of extras, mostly involving Ferrara just letting rip in interviews. An interview with a French critic is probably the most enjoyable, as it's only about half an hour, so you don't get fed-up with him. His commentary is also enjoyable. He's all over the place. He lacks the self-deprecating David Lynch inscrutability, and Werner Herzog's affable strangeness. Instead he's like his own movies - brash, loud, and goes on slightly too long. He's like a less controlled Martin Scorsese, or a skeevy Woody Allen (sorry, skeeviER). A lot of the time in the commentary he just sits back and admires his own handiwork.
A couple of longer documentaries are less good. One 45-minute piece about Ferrara's career is let down by having no clips at all. And a really long (90-minute) French TV documentary about him really induces Ferrara fatigue. The extras are OK, but really, I'd just stick with the main feature. The cover art is lame, but as with most Arrow releases, it's reversible and there's a better cover you can choose, if you want. There's also a reasonably pretentious booklet.
It is an entertaining film, and the Blu-ray looks excellent. It's a lot more entertaining than most of Ferrara's movies, and features a great lead performance. All in all, just about worth a go.