The King of New York should be boring, it moves slowly and deliberately for much of the film, the look of the film is quite washed out with drab backgrounds and much of the background music is quiet and orchestral.
But the movie also has some great action sequences, and some of the more visceral and impactful acts of violence committed to film, and when a CD (or tape, this was the early 90s after all) is playing it is invariably playing loud old-school hip-hop.
In short this is quite unlike 90% of action films made in the last 2 decades, and it is also better than an even higher %.
The aptly named Frank White is released from prison, I say “aptly named” for 2 reasons;
1/ He is white. (And his first name is Frank).
2/ He is played by Christopher Walken, who is very white even for a white guy.
In fact in this movie I am convinced that Walken glows in certain scenes he is so pasty, they actually could have used him for lighting.
So back to Frank White, now a free man Frank decides to get straight back into it in every respect. In the initial scenes the various “Its” include his limo, the crime business, and various women including his lawyer.
Frank obviously has a way with people, he is disarmingly honest (where possible) and direct, and he is very loyal to his gang. And they reciprocate. Frank also moves in different circles, as well as the lower socio-economic area that he resides in, and does business with, he also spends time with the cities’ elite, pressing the flesh and trying to broker deals of a different nature.
There is the initial montage that goes along with reestablishing turf, various rival dealers and kingpins are dealt with, the violence in these scenes is quite immediate and realistic, no amazing stunt leaps or protracted death rolls here, you are shot and you fall down, there are no dramatic final carefully scripted words. (These scenes reminded me a lot of Beat Takeshi and his films, especially Brother, which coincidentally enough had a non-black guy running a crime gang staffed mostly by black guys.)
Frank also turns an attempted mugging into an impromptu recruitment drive. This sounds odd, but is even odder when you factor in that he was interrupted mid titty-squeeze on the subway!
The difference between Frank and say Nino Brown or Tony Montana, is that Frank actually seems determined to help the very same group of people that is selling to, one of his pet projects is personally funding a hospital in a poorer area using 16M of his own money.
When he tries to co-opt a rival gang leader into assisting he is met with scorn and derision. Here we learn another thing about Frank, if you knock back a deal, he’ll get what he wants anyway, just through other more violent means.
As Frank and his crew expand and become more successful, he attracts the attention of two groups, rival gangs wary of losing turf and customers, and the cops.
We already know how Frank and co deal with rival gangs, let’s talk about the cops.
The cops are both a strength and a weakness in this film. In the early sections we meet them all, Roy (Victor Argo) is the time-weathered Boss, determined to nab Frank but rendered almost powerless by the system. Tommy (Wesley Snipes) and Dennis (David Caruso) are the younger hotheads that are willing to do “anything” to keep the streets clean, there is also a fourth newly-wed cop who anyone (who has seen an action movie at least) knows is only there to be killed.
After a forceful “Warning” scene between the cops and Frank, we are unfortunately given a long and boring “get to know our cops and see that they are just real people like you and me” scene at a wedding. The scene is unnecessary and disrupts the momentum of the film.
The cops have a minor victory when they manage to find a real living witness to a crime committed by Frank’s henchman, most notably Jimmy Jump (Larry Fishburne, wait for the digression!). In a show of loyalty Frank plumps up the sizeable bail to free his men, and this is where things change.
The cops, realizing that the normal “legit” channels just don’t work, decide to go to a slightly more shady Plan B, from here on in everything moves along towards the inevitable conclusion. Only in a film like this we can never be sure who will actually triumph, after all the criminal is loyal, honest and wants to maintain a valuable hospital servicing the inner city with his own money, and the cops are willing to use illegal means to get what they want.
There is an exceptional car chase, a shoot out and some well written and impeccably timed one-liners in the concluding sequences, though this isn’t your standard action/crime film. Key characters on both “sides” are killed, often abruptly and violently, and loyalties are tested.
The film ends in a slow languid scene that is in obvious contrast to the hectic action that preceded it, and the scene is quite fitting for a crime film in which there are no real winners.
The King of New York is deservedly seen as a cult classic, and while many so called cult classic are of the “shit films that people saw when they were high so they talk them up” variety this one is truly worth your time.
The only reason it isn’t known as a more mainstream classic is that it partially glamorizes crime (even though it does show the negatives as well), and it doesn’t fit into the standard boom-bash-crash rulesthat action films apparently must adhere to.
Now, as alluded to earlier, even though he was given scant mention in the above write up Larry Fishburne as Jimmy Jump must go down as one of the coolest motherfuckers to ever appear in a film. Larry plays him as animated, chirpy yet also skittish. He is a cold-blooded assassin that also runs around like a 7 year old full of green cordial, and in one of the shootouts near the close of the film he moves effortlessly through the scenery, even while pumping rounds into other bad guys (and unfortunately some cops).
For these reasons the main thing I took away from The King of New York is that for that 100 minute span Larry Fishburne was the coolest guy on the planet, The Matrix basically let the rest of the world know, if only we could erase the two sequels from being!
Final Rating – 8.5 / 10. Deserves to be more well known, but for now check out The King of New York. At least you’ll get to know how good it is. (Thank me later.)