King Of New York – DVD review

King Of New York (Arrow Films)
DVD/Blu-Ray DVD, Blu-Ray & Limited Edition Steelbook
Released 25th June 2012

Respect for Abel Ferrara’s intelligent, kinetic cult classic 1990 gangster picture King of New York has been a very long time coming. Upon its original cinematic release the critical reaction was mostly negative for Ferrara’s crime saga. “A meretricious bit of sleaze, incompetently put together,” wrote the late Alexander Walker in the Evening Standard, while Christopher Tookey in the Sunday Telegraph dismissed it as, “Yet another foul-mouthed, ultra-violent thriller about a gangster wasting his rivals.”

Others loved the picture. Gavin Smith in Film Comment was fulsome in his praise: “A stylishly executed gangster movie that harnesses the up-for-grabs energies of New York’s multicultural streets with classical poise and state-of-the”“art genre film-making.” The legendary New York rapper Biggie Smalls (aka the Notorious B.I.G) would watch King of New York continually on video, refer to it in his raps and always use the nom de guerre Frank White, the name of the central mobster character in the movie, when checking into hotels.

During 2002, Iain Sinclair, the eminent London essayist, poet and author of the superb books Lights Out For The Territory and Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, completely bucked the general critical trend. In Sight And Sound, Sinclair wrote an exceptional, lengthy essay (entitled Welcome To The Circle. Bang Bang), in which he seriously and articulately argued that the King of New York was a reasonable contender for a inclusion in a All-Time Top Ten films list. In the past ten years the critical kudos for King of New York (and the sorely missed Ferrara: films completed, never given UK releases) has only continued to rise (in a similar fashion to the film that so often eclipses it; De Palma’s 1983 epic remake of Scarface, which also initially received savage reviews).

Insistently blending extreme artifice, harsh reality and juxtaposing cultural opposites (the brooding classical music of Vivaldi and the equally timeless punchy hip-hop of Schoolly D, the upscale restaurants of the ruling class elite and the glimpses of dog-eat-dog underclass street life), Ferrara and his gifted script writer Nicholas St John transpose the 30’s Warner Bros gangster films of James Cagney (The Roaring Twenties) and Edward G. Robertson (Little Caesar) to the violent late 1980’s/early 1990’s streets of the ultimate city of the twentieth century.

Sporting a bizarre blow-dry haircut, Christopher Walken is at his most utterly alien (he could be The Gangster Who Fell To Earth) as the very unlikely hero/villain, drug kingpin, Frank White. The plot is simple, essentially the tradition rise and inevitable fall of an American gangster, with a few starling innovations.

Just out after a long stretch in prison, White (looking like he has been revived from a slab in a morgue, an anaemic mobster vampire) has his implausibly mixed-race black clad gang ”“headed by crazed, two-45 automatic pistol-toting, leather clad, Clockwork orange bowler hat sporting Jimmy Jump (Larry Fishburne, in a star making performance, delineates a character who is either created by hip-hop/gangsta rap music or is the living embodiment of the type of character who inspired it) ”“ rebuild his empire by wiping out the similarly black clad Colombian, Italian and Chinese competition. Like the real-life mobster John Gotti (St John incorporated elements of actual transcripts of FBI wiretaps of conversations Gotti had with his familiars ”“ specifically Frank’s “give me one more year” speech), White becomes a media star, aspiring to use his dead rival’s drug millions in a doomed attempt to rebuild a community hospital in Harlem.

Frank White is so deluded that he truly believes that he should not be the quarry of his most tenacious opponent, dedicated veteran detective Roy Bishop (the marvellous Victor Argo, one of Scorsese’s favourite actors) and his hot-headed young Irish cops (David Caruso and Wesley Snipes, also making their breakout feature film debuts), but the Mayor of New York (“I’m not your problem. I’m just a business man,” he informs Bishop). Ironically, in a film filled with spectacular gunfights (a shootout in a suite within a Travelodge International Hotel, a street in the heart of Chinatown, a hole in the wall club and from the roof a speeding limousine) White goes out quietly ”“slumped in the back of a New York cab in heavy traffic in a pre-Disney sanitised Time Square, bleeding from a single shot to the stomach.

King Of New York is a highly stylized modern masterpiece of (relatively) low budget intemperance, profanity and violence, with dazzling cinematography by Bojan Bazelli and vivid production design by Alex Tavoularis. Iain Sinclair has rightly praised the beautiful melancholy fatalism of the opening of the picture, with Frank White’s long limo journey from jail (actually shot on location at Sing-Sing maximum security prison) to Manhattan that “invokes that earlier cinema, the masters honoured in the ”ËœTen Best’ lists: Bresson, Jean-Pierre Melville.”

Incisively written by Ferrara’s long time collaborator Nicholas St John, with a great ensemble cast (with an early appearance by current Boardwalk Empire star Steve Buscemi as ashen cocaine tester Tubes), King of New York can be viewed as a metaphorical piece charting the small accomplishments and hard fall of the post-1968 multicultural counterculture/leftfield filmmaking, a meditation upon the ultimate futility of ”Ëœthe war against drugs’ or a prescient view of the collapse of high capitalism. The unhinged Catholic Frank White does actually wish to perform major altruistic deeds for charity that will genuinely help the poor and needy who are always visible on the periphery of the action in King of New York. Yet White realises that the only way to affect real change within the crumbling and utterly corrupt American capitalist system is through violent entrepreneurial criminal endeavour.

Frank White desires to establish a new order, wiping away the empty pretentions of the Italian mob (romanticized twenty years before by Coppola in The Godfather) and the ruthless and highly immoral Chinese Triads and Colombian drug dealers and pimps who exploit “their own people.” Obviously, the new established crime underworld (that the doomed White releases he can never really achieved) would be ruled by the Jesus fixated Frank White, through the sale of a dangerous, uncontrollable ”Ëœproduct’: “Well, it’s a tough job”¦ but somebody’s got to do it,” White lectures a handcuffed Roy Bishop. For all of Frank White’s talk of constructing a new hospital, the building is only glimpsed as a large illustration at a fund raising dinner and upon a cake presented to him at a celebrity studded function.

Of course, ultimately, the King of New York belongs to Christopher Walken. His performance as Frank White – a nod here, a sly wink there, and a half-executed gesture ”“ is a master class of resigned, quicksilver, minimal reaction and a mysterious otherness that is utterly unique to Walken. No other character in King of New York can ever be sure of what he is thinking behind his dead eyed gaze or what he will do next. Though at ease at social functions and charity fund raising balls, Frank White’s natural habitat is the New York subway. Shortly after his release from prison, White takes his WASP girlfriend down to the subway train for sex and when interrupted by black amateur teenage muggers, he further corrupts them by offering gainful employment within his organization, located at the Plaza Hotel. The dark Stygian depths of the New York subway (beautifully shot by Bazelli) suit the vampire-like Frank White, and their tunnels are his conduit to hell and his final confrontation with Bishop.

This special Arrow Films edition of the King of New York on Blu-ray/DVD features a highly spirited commentary by the renegade director Ferrara. “This is so far out in Brooklyn you need a passport to get there,” the director comments on the scene were Jimmy Jump and his sidekick are arrested in a fast-food joint. “We had to take all the bullet proof glass out of the place. Right around the corner was the black Hell’s Angels club. Imagine that?” At the close of the picture, Ferrara plays an acoustic guitar and sings a rowdy version of Schoolly D’s ”ËœKing of New York’. The special edition also contains with other extensive extras.

These include another revealing audio commentary featuring composer Joe Delia, producer Mary Kane, casting director Randy Sabusawa and Ferrara’s regular editor Anthony Redman (who takes great delight in every scene of skilfully choreographed violence), A Short Film about the Long Career of Abel Ferrara: a documentary that includes interviews with his key collaborators, Abel Ferrara: Not Guilty: an excellent documentary from the French TV show Cinéastes de Notre Temps [Blu-ray only] which follows the director around the streets of Manhattan as he works and plays, an interview with the film’s Italian producer Augusto Caminito (Ferrara states that the five million dollar budget for the film was raised over one dinner in Italy) and a new exclusive interview with Ferrara.

Together with a collector’s booklet featuring writing on the film by Brad Stevens, Sight and Sound contributor and author of the erudite Abel Ferrara: The Moral Vision, 3 Original Trailers [2 Blu-ray exclusive trailers], Optional 5.1 / 2.0 Stereo Audio [DTS-HD Master Audio on the Blu-ray] and a reversible sleeve with the original artwork and newly commissioned artwork cover (stick with the original poster), this is the ultimate release of this stone cold masterwork.

King of New York – Arrow Films DVD, Blu-Ray & Limited Edition Steelbook
UK Release date: Monday 25th June 2012

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