Tuesday, August 08, 2006

King of New York (1990)

King of New York (Abel Ferrara, 1990)

Frank White (Christopher Walken) has just been released in prison. Somewhere in the city, a Colombian drug lord is murdered point blank inside a telephone booth, and another one, inside a posh hotel room. Frank is escorted by two beautiful women, and for the first time after several years in prison, sees the streets of New York. It certainly doesn't look good. His kingdom has fallen, and it is up to him to recreate it. He separates his loyal allies from the uncooperative enemies, and kills the latter, if necessary.

Abel Ferrara's King of New York builds up the character of Frank White with royal, or eminent ease. He is unpredictable, ruthless, yet classy and charismatic. He is surrounded by the likes of Jimmy Jump (Laurence Fishburne), an over-the-top and amoral murderer-crack addict, yet he can also rub shoulders with the upper crust. His girlfriend is his lawyer, a famous counsel who manages to deflect criminal charges with surprising ease. Their idea of romance involves fucking inside a subway train. Interestingly, Frank White literally and figuratively fucks the law in public, simply because he can get away with it through hi philanthropy, his under-the-table tactics, and his famous violent zest. The first half of the film introduces us to Frank's world, a world of contradictions and rampant amorality. Humanity is deprived but is seen only in a few instances. Despite everything, Frank sees himself as in the right, and he merely makes money out of the city's inherent sins. He fashions himself a mere businessman.

The other half of the film concerns the coppers, a team of three: Roy Bishop (Vincent Argo), Dennis Gilley (David Caruso), and Thomas Flanigan (Wesley Snipes). Since Frank White's release, they've been finding loopholes to finally pin him down. Frank, like a snake, evades everything they put against him, to the point that Dennis and Thomas finally give up on the law's processes, and attempt to kill Frank instead. The resulting action sequence is the film's highest point: a high octane car chase, pumped up with bullet play by a hyperactive Lawrence Fishburne whose onscreen insanity is leveled by Christopher Walken's unintimidated cool. It's a thrilling setpiece, and showcases the best by cinematographer Bojan Bazelli who lights the underbellies of New York City with careful intensity, evoking danger and eventual demise.

The film suffers from sloppy writing by Nicholas St. John. Many of the characters' decisions in the film seem convoluted and unnatural, especially those coming from a carefully and intricately designed Frank White. The film ends however in a very powerful scene. Frank White just escaped a close gunfight against Roy Bishop, and bloodily walks to a crowded street and gets a cab. Traffic won't move, and the sounds of sirens of the cops' cars are heard. Frank White, the big boss of New York's underworld, and the emerging financier of New York's public works is finally venerated for what he is. A horde of immobilized cars and cabs, armed coppers ready to shoot at will, and Frank White, finally dying from loss of blood. It's a terrific ending, I think. It's an ending that justifies Frank's character yet doesn't belittle him into a petty criminal. The king of New York certainly deserves something more than being caught by the law he literally fucked the moment he walked out the prison, let him die a death he deserves, honorable in an oddly acceptable way.

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