King of New York (1990), Abel Ferrara [4/5]
Updated: Sep 19, 2022
The best thing about Abel Ferrara's hyper-stylish 1990 neo-noir King of New York is that it's so damn cool. The script is sloppy in places, the dialogue can be wooden, and its characters never reach the compelling heights of its contemporaries (Goodfellas, Reservoir Dogs, Heat) but none of that matters because the movie is always reverberating with a sexy, studied carelessness, what the Italians call sprezzatura. Laurence Fishburne dancing with a model to Afrocentric rapper Schoolly D's "Am I Black Enough For You?" in an underground nightclub before a slow-mo shootout are the coolest five minutes in 90s crime thrillers. The film revels in its sense of a world where counterculture has become the dominant culture.
Abel Ferrara and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli capture a fin de siècle empire of nocturnal New York where drug lords hole up in suites at the Plaza Hotel and Chinatown triads light up neon alleyways with submachine gun firefights. Ferrara's aesthetic is reminiscent of the 90s digitized charm of what J. Hoberman identified with Wong Kar-wai's Fallen Angels: "the acme of neo-new-wavism, the ultimate in MTV alienation... a pyrotechnical wonder."
Christopher Walken is kingpin Frank White, shifting seamlessly from smiley philanthropist at tuxedo fundraisers to dead-eyed assassin gunning down cops. Frank White is a contradiction who ignores the fact that his concrete jungle Robin Hood act depends on blood money to help the underprivileged of the city. To "look out for the little guy," White exploits poor black kids like Fishburne and turns them into his soldiers. In the public eye, he asserts that he wants to support local hospitals to thunderous applause yet at night he surfs around the city in his limo gazing over the crackheads he supplies with their fix.
Meanwhile, the cops, played emphatically by David Caruso, Wesley Snipes, and Victor Argo, are hamstrung by due process as they sing their proletariat song of making pennies on the dollar compared to the murderers and thieves who rub elbows with New York's high society. Something's rotten but the tragedy is too stylish to turn away.
This criticism of bourgeois liberal values is told not just through these clever moments of juxtaposition but also through a noir aesthetic of a decadent and corrupt city of dark blues and shadowy silhouettes swept with rain and grime. It's an indication of a society in decline; Ferrara turns New York City into a character of its own, evidence that the system is failing. Frank White is just there to pick over the corpses. 4/5, a dazzling neo-noir that suffers from an inadequate script but compensates with polychrome panache.