KING OF NEW YORK
Director: Abel Ferrara
Writers: Nicholas St. John
Stars: Christopher Walken, David Caruso, Laurence Fishburne, Victor Argo, Wesley Snipes
Release Date: September 28, 1990
All the credit for me tuning into King Of New York goes to The Ringer’s Rewatchables podcast. They had a trio of episodes with the one and only Quentin Tarantino, and this was one of the movies he personally requested. If Tarantino deems it a must watch, then the least I can do is tune in.
King Of New York is a battle for back alley streets of New York. Frank White (Christopher Walken) has just finished a finish sentence and his eyes on the becoming the biggest drug kingpin of New York. His motivation for doing so is moral: to give back to the community. He has many on his side, including Jimmy Jump (Laurence Fishburne), but the men in blue are against him. Dennis Gilley (David Caruso) and Thomas Flanigan (Wesley Snipes) are two rough-and-tumbling cops who violent intonations for ending White’s rise, and their elder Roy Bishop (Victor Argo) is to complacent to stop them.
The story of King Of New York takes a backseat to the characters of the movie. The spotlight shines brightest on Laurence Fishburne as Jimmy Jump. From the opening scene when he is performing an eloquent soliloquy and blasting drug dealers, to his exotic dancing and wonderful way of ordering takeout food; King Of New York’s violent brashness is in human form with Jimmy Jump. Fishburne takes up the entire screen with all his swaggering walks and unbelievable one-liners.
To the antithesis of Jimmy Jump is Frank White. For all of Jump’s one-liners, White is as cool as a cucumber. Just look at this dialogue exchange between the two:
Jump : He’s a fucking glitter-boy! He’s looking to get sprayed, laid, played, and slayed. You know what I’m saying?
White : I heard that.
White and Jump are like the odd-couple, but in drug-filled New York City. What’s amazing about the two characters is that for all their odd eccentricities, they have the most amount of respect for one another. Their first interaction when White is in his penthouse is both unexpected and hilarious. Walken, when he wants to, can crank up the physical comedy aspect of any performance. There is also the drastic turn at the end of their first interaction when White asks, “How come you never came to see me?”. Most movies would use that plow to sew a seed of doubt, but instead Jump simply responds: “Who wanted to see you in a cage, man?”. It’s perfect. It shows how White looks for respect, and it shows how Jump truly knows what White is and what he can do with all the shackles off.
Now here comes the part of the movie where I am fuzzy on it, but Tarantino and others freaking love it. The police side of The King Of New York. I know who the characters are, and I know they act like as the “good guys” but have more negative traits than the “bad guys.” That is the way they shaped up the story and it serves a purpose in shifting an audience’s expectations. Strictly on my personal level, there was not the connection to the cops for me. The main scene I remember was the wedding toast scene in the bar with some of the classic barbs and jokes, but everything else just slips into the background.
One other comparison between the drug dealers and cops is the one outlier for each demographic group. Frank White is the only white man set within the traditional villainous community, and Flanigan is the only black man in the traditional heroic community. Again, playing with the stereotypes of viewers expectations in a good way.
King Of New York is directed by Abel Ferrara, and he puts a few very distinct touches into the movie. There is a blue hue that shades every nighttime shot of New York. It’s most noticeable when White first is driving through the city, reacquainting himself with the town he was caged away from. However, there is an aspect of Ferrara’s style that lacks.
Whenever there is a violent set piece, the action is too chaotic to follow. The climatic raid of the drug lord’s house is bombastic, loud and filled with blood…but the whole scene struggles to get into a flow. This may be a bit of personal bias, but the bombastic version of violence has never tickled my fun buttons. I need more than just bodies flying into walls and close-up of gun muzzles.
King Of New York is best served when the characters can shine. Jump and White cook with the temperature on high, and while other parts of the movies aren’t nuked all the way through, there is still plenty of hot parts to eat this movie up.
Watch King Of New York on Amazon Prime.
STANKO RATING: B- (2.5/5 Stars) (Man I was harsh on the star rating…I should have rated this higher but it was initial grade before hearing Rewatchables podcast).