Abel Ferrara’s typically hard-edged crime drama King of New York (1990) finally gets the rerelease it deserves from the ever reliable Arrow Entertainment this week. Christopher Walken has never bettered his performance as Frank White, a drug lord who, after a stint behind bars, returns to a New York he no longer recognises and an industry he no longer wants to be a part of. So begins a relentlessly violent attempt to ordain himself as the single-handed saviour of the city. Like every film Ferrara has directed, from the brilliant (Bad Lieutenant, The Addiction) to the trashy (The Driller Killer), King has a grimy and often unpleasant authenticity that teeters on the brink of offensiveness.
Undeniably violent, though not as nakedly so as Bad Lieutenant, both films inspire a feeling of unease and even a mistrust of the filmmaker, whose motives and morals are not as clearly painted on the screen as one would expect. Ferrara makes a hero of a murderous gang-lord and unknowing villains of the police force whilst the extreme violence enacted in aid of Frank’s neo-Robin Hood master plan is directed with an uncomfortable level of celebratory panache. As is most evident in the director’s latest, 4:44 Last Day on Earth (2011), Ferrara’s films often have an ambitious scope but end up feeling concentrated or even slight in execution. Walken towers down from the poster for King of New York, suggesting the vastness of his empire and the film’s all-encompassing reach.
In actuality and perhaps unwittingly, Ferrara delivers a corrosive character study of a man who’s ambition, rather ironically, is his undoing. Whilst King of New York isn’t, as many have claimed, Ferrara’s masterpiece, and while it may seem muddled and even unspectacular when viewed as part of the genre, it leaves a vinegary taste in one’s mouth that is both brilliant and unpleasant. Ferrara might be unable to muster a masterpiece from his dark imagination, but each sincere and flawed slice he chooses to share clings to the skin for days afterwards, a feat few filmmakers can achieve.”