Monday, August 20, 2012

...And He Lives in Queens

Film: King of New York
Format: DVD from personal collection on kick-ass portable DVD player.

Consider Christopher Walken for just a moment. When did he become extreme version of himself, the sort of Christopher Walken parody that he frequently is these days? At what point in his career did he go from being a well-respected, excellent actor into a guy who can still pull off a great performance but is just as apt to turn into caricature? I don’t know. What I do know is that it happened at some point following King of New York, which is much more in line with traditional Walken.

King of New York is a deceptively simple film, one that draws immediate comparisons to stories like that of Robin Hood. Frank White (Walken) is a career criminal just released from prison. As he is getting out, his second in command, Jimmy Jump (Laurence Fishburne) is both killing off the competition and stealing their cocaine as a sort of welcome back present for Frank. Frank continues in the same line, offering deals to other criminals to join his new enterprise, and when they refuse, he wipes them out. Frank also picks up with his girlfriend/lawyer Jennifer (Janet Julian), creating a new criminal empire comprising the entire drug trade in New York.

What becomes strangely evident, though, is that there is a streak of altruism in Frank White. One of his offers, for instance, is to use some of the drug profits to benefit a local area hospital that is on the verge of being closed down by the city for a lack of funding. This comes on even more strongly at the end of the film, and initially does feel like a weakness in the story—it doesn’t jibe much with the ruthless killer that Frank White is everywhere else. Regardless, to run the crime syndicate the way he wishes, Frank needs everyone either on his side or dead, and he goes about doing this with a ruthless efficiency.

The main foils standing in his way are the police, represented here by Bishop (Victor Argo), Gilley (David Caruso), and Flanigan (Wesley Snipes). Aware that the system is essentially stacked against them in favor of the criminals, Gilley comes up with the plan to masquerade as a rival gang and attempt to wipe out Frank’s network by shooting everyone possible. This leads to a massive firefight, a lot of death, and the final scenes of retribution that allow us to fully understand Frank’s motivations for what he is doing.

King of New York was a controversial film upon release, and it remains controversial today. Opinion is sharply divided, with many disliking the film’s story structure, characters, and tone. Others see it as a natural son not of The Adventures of Robin Hood but of Scarface, and there is certainly a number of possible avenues of comparison here. It would not be completely amiss to suggest that the main reason it doesn’t hold the same sort of fanbase as the earlier film is its indie production and lack of publicity.

What’s very interesting to me is a number of the characterizations here. Many of our actors have roles here that seem to go against their typical screen personae. David Caruso, for instance, is not the by-the-book cop, but the loose cannon, foul-mouthed, smart-assed, and willing to break laws to clean up the streets. The Laurence Fishburne known for his cool demeanor and for being in control here is out of control, thugged up, and sporting a sort of gangster cool not in keeping with his image. The biggest switch is Wesley Snipes. Snipes is certainly used to playing a good guy when necessary, but it’s not often we get to see him get the snot beaten out of him, and by Christopher Walken, no less.

King of New York is also noteworthy for being one of the first films to have a soundtrack liberally spiced with old-school rap, featuring a couple of songs by Schooly-D. This provides an even rougher urban edge to the film, adding to the grit and feel of the film.

There are some things that don’t work as well as they should. Laurence Fishburne’s final scene, for instance, is so over the top that it’s difficult to believe in any sense. A much larger problem is that there are large gaps in the action. Some of the scenes are only loosely connected to the preceding ones, causing the film to feel disjointed in places. I didn’t mind this yesterday in Down by Law, but that film was focused on the relationships, while King of New York is very much centered on the plot. Having spaces in the plot for a film so dependent on that plot to move it forward feels like a significant error.

For as interesting as this film is, it feels like an also-ran film, one that could have been great but isn’t quite there. It feels rambling and messy when it should feel tight and polished. It’s close, but it’s not quite there.

Why to watch King of New York: A cast that in many cases became stars later.
Why not to watch: A sizable proportion of viewers find it detestable.

2 comments:

  1. Once in college when I came to my dorm room my roommates were watching this. I only saw a couple scenes and always wanted to see the rest. It looked like a great film. Your comparison to Scarface is interesting because Pacino has also become a caricature of himself.

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    1. That he has, more's the pity. It's good to remember that these guys swung a lot of talent back in the day.

      This is worth watching, even though it sort of feels incomplete.

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