Film maker Abel Ferrara is possibly best known for his controversial slasher/horror The Driller Killer. The 1979 film concerns a struggling artist who would take his stresses out on the local derelicts of New York City using his power drill. It provided a few shocking moments, and along with its graphic artwork ensured The Driller Killer ended up on the notorious Video Nasties list in the UK in 1984. The Driller Killer wasn’t released uncut and approved by the BBFC until 2002.
That being said, The Driller Killer wasn’t quite as bad as Mary Whitehouse and the fun police might have had you believe in the eighties. Sure, it did have its shocking moments of gore, and a gritty, grimy feel, and its original cover, depicting a man being drilled in the head, did it no favours in terms of its outright ban on initial releas. But the film also showed a sort of arty, neo-noir side to Abel Ferrara’s work that would have got lost amongst all the controversy. It was pretty clear that Ferrara had a vision all of his own. It was just going to be a struggle to get that vision out to the masses.
Fast forward to 1990 and the release of crime drama/thriller, King of New York. The film appeared to tick the Ferrara boxes in terms of a gritty feel and moments of shocking violence, but the story about a man fresh out of prison trying to make a go of things, along with a pretty generic cover including its main star, Christopher Walken, looking out at what you imagine are the mean streets of New York, seemed to avoid any negative attention. In fact, the reception to King of New York was generally a positive one and the film has gained cult status, which is why Arrow Video has given King of New York a brand new 4k restoration for fans to rediscover, and newcomers to – hopefully – fall in love with.
King of New York concerns Frank White (Christopher Walken), a former drug lord and kingpin in New York City, released from prison and wanting to start a new life of using and sharing his profits to help the poor. But it’s not that easy, and Frank’s shady past and involvement with dodgy characters, career criminals, gangsters and the police inevitably catches up with him.
Firstly, Walken gives a brilliant performance here. The actor, who had already impressed in 1978’s The Deer Hunter and 1983’s Stephen King adaptation, The Dead Zone, showed an ease for calm menace in King of New York as the mob boss-like Frank White which is quite unnerving at times. The character of Frank White is certainly an interesting one. Almost some sort of anti-hero as he clearly wants to use his notoriety to help the poor but he also isn’t afraid to “take care” of those who disagree with his plans and methods.
Frank also has a quirky side to his personality as he does a little celebratory dance on his first meet up since his release in front of a gang of criminal associates led by Laurence (then Larry) Fishburne’s character, Jimmy Jump. It makes you wonder if any other actor could have pulled off this role; one minute coming across as a charming businessman, then into a random dance, and then into calm and quiet menace. It’s very impressive. (It also brings to mind musician and DJ Fatboy Slims’ 2000 hit, ‘Weapon of Choice;, the video of which starred Walken memorably dancing around a large hotel to said song. It’s definitely worth tracking down if you haven’t seen it!)
Walken and Laurence Fishburne aside, King of New York also stars David Caruso (CSI: Miami, Session 9, First Blood) , Steve Buscemi ( Reservoir Dogs, Fargo, Boardwalk Empire) and Wesley Snipes ( Blade, Demolition Man, White Men Can’t Jump) in roles that may not have been major but are enough to deliver solid performances. Particularly Caruso’s burnt out and angry cop, Dennis Gilley, whose revenge for the brutal slaying of his partner is in itself quite brutal.
The violence in King of New York is actually quite in your face and brutal, which fits in with Abel Ferrara’s previous reputation. There are no power drills to the head this time, but there is plenty of gun play and it is in-your-face and matter-of-fact but at the same time not exploitative, just gritty, brutal realism which adds to the overall feel of the film.
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Extras for this release of King of New York include audio commentaries by Abel Ferrara, composer Joe Delia, producer Mary Kane, casting director Randy Sabusawa, and editor Anthony Redman; an interview with Abel Ferrara; an interview with producer Augusto Caminito; ‘Abel Ferrara: Not Guilty’, a documentary on the director; a documentary looking back on Ferrara’s career titled ‘A Short Film About The Long Career of Abel Ferrara’; original theatrical trailers and TV spots; image gallery; and a reversible sleeve featuring new artwork.First pressings also include an illustrated collectors booklet containing essays on the film.
Overall, King of New York is a gripping tale of crime and one man’s flawed, violent mission to do the right thing against the odds. A powerful, at times exciting, at times brutal, and yes, sometimes it’s a victim of its time, but nonetheless, King of New York is still a worthwhile watch.
King of New York is out now on Blu-ray and 4k Ultra HD from Arrow Video.