King Of New York (Abel Ferrara, 1990)

“You think ambushing me in some nightclub’s gonna stop what makes people take drugs? This country spends $100 billion a year on getting high, and it’s not because of me. All that time I was wasting in jail, it just got worse. I’m not your problem. I’m just a businessman”

Introduction

It is worth noting in this section that Christopher Walken is a legend. His simple prescence in a film puts it automatically into ‘classic’ status: Annie Hall, The Deer Hunter, Pulp Fiction and, I would even include True Romance in there. Thing is, this is – by far – his best film. I knew about this film a while ago after it was mentioned in one of those ‘Rough Guides to Gangster films’ and it was a shot of Walken in King of New York that was on the sleeve. The minute I saw that sleeve I thought – “my god, Walken as a boss… incredible”. It really is. But, over the past few weeks I have been attempting to perfect a Christopher Walken impression myself … I am failing magnificently, thought I can do one word well: Dad. So, I guess that leads to any word whereby the ‘a’ is pronounced the same so, Fad, Bad, Sad, etc. I’m getting there, one word at a time. Nevertheless, this is not a blog about my Walken impression (and my god, what a blog that would be) it is a film blog and thus, I discuss Walken’s best film: King of New York.

What I reckon …

Well, it begins as Frank White (Christopher Walken) is released from prison and observes the slums of NYC (Just like Travis Bickle does at the start of Taxi Driver) sitting in the car with two women – one black, one white – who, we soon find out, he has relationships with (Good times for Walken in the hotel room). So, without him speaking we understand he has power and has the women and – having recently watched Scarface – it is as if the first two hours of Scarface is erased. Frank White has got everything Tony Camonte wanted as he steps out of prison – except he is high on coke. This entire opening sequence with Walken is juxtaposed with a drug dealer who goes by the name of Jimmy Jump (‘Larry’ Fishburne), who is crazy. You often find this cliche black drug criminal who laughs like a maniac and wears expressive clothes and, I always think is to some extent, like Robert De Niro’s character in Mean Streets – except without any sympathy. Jimmy kills some Columbian dealers (those Columbians got a raw deal in Scarface and King of New York) in this introduction (Steve Buscemi lurks in the background too!) and then meets Walken in The Plaza – are they friends? is Jimmy going to ‘jump’ Walken? Alas no – Jimmy works for Walken. It is quite strange because the whole of Jimmy’s crew are lower-end drug dealers who take the drugs they deal also – bar Buscemi – they are African-American also so suited-and-booted Christopher Walken with his calm attitude is the last person whacko-Jimmy to respect but, we have a group hug and even some impromptu dancing from Walken (no doubt the reason for FatboySlims ‘Weapon of Choice’) to establish their strong bond.
Having a gander on the IMDB message boards the comparisons to Scarface are immense (Don’t get me wrong, I saw the comparison especially having watched Scarface the day before but its just striking that everyone else could see it too!) – and I think that is just, but there is something so much more gritty and, not so-much realistic, more as closer to realism as a style in King of New York. So many roaming shots of New York to establish the setting – we are dealing with the underworld here and so the gutters and dodgy crack houses and muddy under-the-motorway sections are so key to the realism of the film. It doesn’t take long in Scarface before we are in Miami – and although we thrown into the ‘gritty-ness’ of Scarface pretty soon (having a guy sawn apart and all), the fact is they all wear Hawaiian shirts and Pacino shoots the Colombian in the middle of the street and gets away with a certain ‘edge’. When Jimmy Jump kills the-only-black-cop, Wesley Snipes, and is in turn himself, killed by the-Irish-cop-from-CSI (David Caruso), it is dirty, it is messy and is anything but classy. The cinematography is by Alex Tavoularis – a relation to Dean ‘The Godfather’ Tavoularis perhaps? (Alex worked on Godfather Part III with Dean …) – who creates and uses shadows that look absolutely stunning – very dark sequences whereby very few colours are used – I swear the crack-house is just different shades of black and blue and this does remind me of the huge use of shadows and black in The Godfather.

Moving back to the story, the police are portrayed as weak, powerless, suicidal di*kheads. They have hot heads and are always ready to blow a gasket whenever anything goes wrong – opposed to the calm and controlled manner Walken and his two-faced consigliere, Dalesio (Paul Calderon – in Michael Jackson’s Bad music video and Pacino’s Sea of Love all watched in the last month by me – how weird) are. Calm, controlled and professional.

I mentioned Wesley Snipes role – its quite funny really, because his role is incredibly small but, in my opinion, is pivotal. His character is Thomas Flanigan and – as mentioned in the cops wedding sequence – he is one of very few (if any) African American cops and this is mocked by both Jimmy Jump and his cronies. One sequence when Jump manages to squeeze his way out of any arrest -an arrest that was humiliating and overblown managed to be squashed very quickly by Walkens top-end lawyers. CSI-cop spits in Jimmy’s face. He wipes it off. But Snipes just stares at him – you question how much Jimmy cares but you can see the anger and frustration in Snipes face. Something that spitting-Caruso will never understand. It nevertheless evens the score – as humiliating as Jimmys arrest was and being spat in the face, Jimmy completely mocking the justice system and mocking Snipes position in the force was far more humiliating for Snipes himself. While discussing the race representation in the film, Walken himself is one of the very few white criminals – within a gangs of African-americans, Chinese, Columbians, Italians, etc. This racial divide gives Walken – by far the worst criminal of them all – the opportunity to not only mix within the underground groups but also the upper-class politicians and congressmen and women (to the point that a top-class female lawyer he goes out with represents him and his clients – wilfully, he even reduces her up-class status, as he has a quick fondle of her on the train, in the subway. Could she get more underground?), therefore gaining a political prescence in the city.

The irony is in the finale – his ‘gang’ and business is not wiped out. In fact, it is quite clear that they inevitably continued. Hence my choice of rank’s words at the top of this overview. The unit deovted to catching Frank White are all wiped out. Two killed in a failed ambush that, in itself, was illegal and showed how corrupt the NYC police were, another killed at the funeral for the previously mentioned dead cops. (Frank pulls up in a limo, shotgun out, bang – killed). The last one is the only one with some sort of dignity. Frank has the power to get into his apartment and tell him his stance – as a businessman – then leaves under the assumption that he will stay out of his way. But he decides not to – appearing on the train Frank has got on for a showdown. Remember the cops are portrayed as di*kheads and, consequently, rank sprays him up with bullets and, in response, the cop manages to squeeze out one bullet.

We see Frank stumble away – was he shot? he see’s the commotion of the streets and gets into a taxi. We see he’s been shot in the belly. The music starts up as we see brilliant crane shots over all the New York cars residing around this one taxi … the police surround the taxi. He drops his gun. He’s dead. Alone in a taxi. I assume the point is that this one last cop – a decent man who was in no part of the failed attack on Franks crack-house – was the one that succeeded in their mission to catch him. Bishop (Victor Argo) is the cops name and he clearly is aware of the problem in the city and, to some extent, doesnt care anymore – its gone to far. The film lacks any hope for the future and this is merely pointing out the flaws in the legal system and the power of criminals and in this way, on a much smaller scale, it has themes which are similar to The Wire. A programme which, ultimately, is superior to King of New York, showing every side to the very complex story of crime, law and justice. If anything, it is this in comparison to The Wire that shows how TV is a better medium to present stories through.

Quickly – in Michael Jacksons music video to You Rock My World, Marlon Brando shows up as some Godfather-esque bad guy. When MJ first see’s him, he says “bang bang” in a very similar tone to Walken as he leaves Bishops house. Maybe all of Brando’s lines in that music video are taken form kick-ass Gangster films … it would make sense whether this was referenced or whether, more likely, it is simply coincidence.

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2 comments

  1. When the D.A.'s office investigated.. the sudden death of Arty Clay… they found that he left a $13 million estate. How do you explain that? Then there's Larry Wong, who owned half of Chinatown when he passed away. Larry used to rent his tenements… to Asian refugees, his own people, for $800 a month… to share a single toilet on the same floor. How about King Tito? He had thirteen-year-old girls hooking for him on the street. Those guys are dead… because I don't want to make money that way. Emil Zapa… the Mata brothers, they're dead… because they were running this city into the ground.

    You expected to get away with killing all these people?

    I spent half my life in prison. I never got away with anything… and I never killed anybody that didn't deserve it.

    Who made you judge and jury?

    Well, it's a tough job, but somebody's gotta do it. For the likes of Arty Clay and the rest of those bums… you slap a tag on me for fifty thousand dollars? You make me public enemy number one?

    Is that some kind of joke?

    I got a message for you and your friends. You tell them… I got a quarter-million
    dollar contract… on anyone involved in this case. Now we all get to know what it's like… living without knowing when some asshole's… gonna step outta the dark and blow your head off. I want you to know what it's like to live that way. You tell them what I said.

    What makes you think you're gonna be around… long enough to see that?

    Where's the fucking phone? We're not talking about me. We're talking about taking over drug cartels. You think ambushing me in some nightclub's… gonna stop what makes people take drugs? This country spends… a hundred billion dollars a year on getting high… and it's not because of me. All that time I was wasting in jail… it just got worse. I'm not your problem. I'm just a businessman.

  2. Yeah, I largely agree with you here I think. My general thoughts are that Walken is ace although that is true of most things he is in, one of the most underrated actors in history. Gotta perfect that impression. Violence is bit over the top and the sex is a bit random but the sheer anger of the police and the morality of Frank White give it an interesting edge.

    So instead of discussing the film how about talking about the legalisation of drugs? I think it's what Frank was alluding to in the incredible dualogue with Bishop and things have only got worse in the twenty years since he said it. I'm just putting it out there, prohibition don't work so let's let people do what they're going to do anyway. Someone please tell me why things should stay the same.

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