Though I’ve seen just two of Abel Ferrara’s films (1992′s Bad Lieutenant and now 1990′s King of New York), his thematic goals seem clear to me: eschewing the central character’s progression for the development of the seedy world that enshrouds him. While Bad Lieutenant contains these elements, King of New York is the sharper example of the two—an extended prison sentence does nothing to dim Frank White’s (Christopher Walken) lust for power as he emerges from jail stoic and focused, prepared to reclaim New York’s criminal world. He finds himself in a city overrun by slimy fat cats, many of whom have swarmed to his old turf and rackets, feasting on the leftovers of what he started before getting locked up. Unfazed, White—armed with his old entourage and lots of guns—begins meticulously eliminating the competition one by one, finding the most resistance from three determined policemen who, like Ed Exley in L.A. Confidential, are driven from their idealistic principles by their loathing for White’s existence.
King of New York’s storyline is pretty one-note, but there’s an energy and aura of fear lingering in every gritty composition. Ferrara uses frequent close-ups to capture the every-moment urgency and intensity in the lifestyle that Frank’s chosen, and Walken’s magnetic performance (and penchant for expressionistic acting—facial tics and movements over dialogue) completes a powerful portrayal of a smooth crime lord. The remaining aspects of King of New York are more of a mixed bag. The film’s first half does a good job of fleshing out the supporting characters, but after a shoot-out in a club sends things into a lunatic frenzy, King of New York falls a bit into standard, kill-everyone fare, and a sub-plot that aims to demonstrate Frank’s humane side (involving Bronx children hospitals) feels particularly out of place. Luckily, Ferrara’s direction is so confident that even its most ordinary sequences maintain some semblance of watchability. It’s more of a cult classic than other genre entries, but at least its identity and visual structure is entirely its own. That it’s not a complete success doesn’t make it worth dismissing, though it should be noted that Ferrara has yet to show me that he’s capable of elevating his craft above the technically superior, yet emotionally hollow, level.