Friday 17 May 2024

Article: Indulging in The King of New York

The first time I heard the name Frank White was listening to The Notorious B.I.G.  Christopher Wallace vocally gave himself the moniker on many of his tracks. The name was taken from the fictional character portrayed by Christopher Walken in Abel Ferrara's kinetic crime drama The King of New York. To see rappers label themselves with the violent crime characters of the movies is no big shock, especially in the 90s. The earlier albums of Jay-Z were filled with skits which lifted movie dialogue from Carlitos Way (1993). The 1983 version of Scarface influenced the lyrics of several rap artists, while southern rapper Scarface made it his stage name. However, I always found Wallace using the Frank White nickname to be an amusing one. By extension, giving himself the name, the artist was labelling himself King of New York emcees. His reputation grew after his fatal shooting ended his far too short career. But the self-proclaimed nickname feels like such a wry and knowing aspect of mythmaking before the bleak tragedy of his passing.

The King of New York is equally as dark. Ferrara’s film feels just as doomed as B.I.G’s seminal hip-hop debut ‘Ready to Die’. Their main characters deal with death, drugs, and money in equal parts. All with the lingering knowledge that their ideals are in no way sustainable. Frank White is released from prison with the intent to go straight. He wants to be mayor of New York City. Taking a leaf out of Micheal Corleone’s book, he’s decided to decimate the criminal underworld and consolidate his drug empire while looking to frame himself as legitimate. New York’s narcotics squad quickly catch wind of White’s activities. Leading the case are three dogged yet weary detectives. However, with no tangible evidence against the kingpin, their efforts look in vain. However, if you’ve heard Biggie’s ‘Suicidal Thoughts’ you just know that tragic consequences loom around the corner.

It's crazy realising that The King of New York stuts its stuff in the same year that Goodfellas (1990) and The Godfather: Part 3 (1990) flexed their Mafioso muscles. While the two crime films of Coppola and Scorsese waltz around with an air of prestige about themselves. The King of New York is as down and dirty as they come. Eschewing the romanticism of the larger studio pictures and becoming its own Shakespearean tragedy set within the Big Apple. Frank White holds similar, lofty aspirations to that of Micheal Corleone. To run in the halls of government, even if it means getting there by nefarious means. But no Machiavellian scheme exists here. Both Coppola and Scorsese love to manoeuvre around the hierarchy of their gangsters with an element of pomp. Ferrara is less interested in pageantry. The King of New York, like many of Ferrara’s other films, is a lean beast. Like White, there’s no time to play around.

Frank White:” I’ve lost a lot of time. It's gone. From here on, I can't waste any. If I can have a year or two, I'll make somethin' good. I'll do somethin'...

[Chuckles] ... somethin' good. Just one year, that's all.”

In a 2012 interview on the Arrow region B Blu Ray of the film, a candid Abel Ferrara remarks that the film is how a volume of prosperity gained from a newly established nouveau riche (the drug dealers) was briefly viewed from the eyes of blue-collared joes, the cops trying to take White down. Amusingly, in the same interview, Ferrara considers White as a “dreamer”. A man full of contradictions with little time on this earth. The slenderness of The King of New York as a movie eerily in parallel with the rap star who made the film’s lead character his namesake a few years later. But the plight of Frank White and the metaphors viewed by his creator are also fascinating. A focus on the conflicting idealism that often occurs in similar gangster movies. They only need to be in “the life” for a little longer. The ill-gotten fruits of their violent crimes can then be obtained without consequence. White forgets that he lives in what Ferrara deems a "life of survival". Unfortunately, none of us get out here alive. In the case of Frank White, life is more likely to be a good time than a long one. With that one good year starts to look mighty precious. But as Frank notes in the film's latter end: he doesn’t need forever.

When director Quentin Tarantino first started following the work of Abel Ferrara, he felt that the Bronx native would become the next Martin Scorsese. An understandable notion from an aesthetic point of view. The King of New York has a few visual instances that suggest that earlier Scorsese vibe. The opening scenes of Frank White surveying New York in a stretch Limo after his release feel strangely reminiscent of Travis Bickle roaming the streets in Taxi Driver. The short, sharp, bloody first shootout resembles Scoresese's earlier works. A drug deal filled with tension explodes. Bodies are strewn across the floor in a matter of a few squib-filled seconds. But the two paths diverge from each other soon after.

One difference is Ferrara embracing the melting pot of New York. Despite the cynicism within The King of New York, Ferrara appears fascinated with dynamics not so keenly approached by his peers. In his review of The King of New York, Roger Ebert constantly looks for a logic that Ferrara cares little about. Frank White is a Caucasian criminal with an army of loyal black men under his wing. Ebert spends time wondering why. Wanting the script to tell us more. Yet we are left with an ambiguous commentary on race relations. Handled with a contradictory earnestness and community not found in earlier Scorsese features. White’s relationship with black street criminals is frowned upon in the film and questioned in film reviews.  However, the mixed racial groupings of both cops and criminals hold a dramatic contrast to the more dismissive or aggressive relationships found in the likes of Goodfellas and Taxi Driver. Granted those films are not about racial harmony. Nor is The King of New York. However, the dynamic found in Ferrara's film gives a fresh sense of precedence. Reflecting the audiences who would connect with the film. Despite a tepid box office performance, The King of New York did very well with black audiences. Suddenly The King of New York had me thinking of films such as Kanas City (1996), One False Move (1992) and, of course, the boom period of hood movies that graced the 1990s. The addition of music from Schooly D, one of the originators of Gangster Rap, not only cemented a sense of immediacy but also strengthened the ties to inner-city black America. A far cry from the misty-eyed, segregated period pieces of the same year. The idea of The King of New York being a racial trendsetter might be reaching for some. However, Ferrara’s desire to let such provocation linger for a viewer does make King of New York even more compelling. Bringing forth the overriding statement that the only colour that matters is green.

For all this talk about racial commentary, The King of New York is also a formidable exercise in style and mood. So much of the charisma of Frank White is compiled in how Abel Ferrara, Christopher Walken, and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli construct the world. From the first moments of White swaggering out of prison to the cold, pensive close-ups of him as he is driven through the underbelly of his desired kingdom.  Is Frank White cavalier on his idea to be New York’s Robin Hood? Of course, the imagery of Walken dancing with his stoned mistresses, bathed in golden diffused light, or gazing out at the New York skyline is seductive enough to gloss over the practicalities. It delivers the conviction. Bazelli’s work is of standout here. Capturing faces in mesmerising close-ups. The sense of power felt watching Walken in those early moments is palpable. In addition to this, Bazelli indulges scenes by bathing them in bold primary colours. So much so that I was reminded of another film: Deep Cover (1992). Guess who the cinematographer was. A quick glance at Bazelli’s filmography also features his potent work in features like The Ring (2002) and A Cure for Wellness (2016). Although one wonders how the cinematographer feels about revisiting Boxing Helena (1993).

But for all the style, it's astounding that The King of New York maintains an air of B-movie grit about itself. Ferrara combines lean, kinetic energy with the extravagant criminal indulgence found within sensationalistic second features and Blaxploitation fare. The King of New York never shies away from its thorny racial comradery nor its brazen sexuality and over-the-top violence. And it's all the better for it. Where else can you see such a scummy Laurance Fishburne performance? The type of off-the-chain display that could only exist in a film with one foot still in the exploitation world. How can a man with such calm, commanding roles like Furious Styles and Morpheus have a performance like this in his locker? Will mainstream cinema ever have such a charismatic anti-hero display his lustful desire with such wanton abandon on a subway train? Possibly not. But we should be lucky The King of New York exists as a jolt of lightning in a bottle, almost forgotten in a year where two of the New Hollywood champs came out with some big swings. Goodfellas became ranked as one of America’s best crime films. The Godfather: Part 3 became the uneven brother to its muscular siblings.  The King of New York stumbled out of the blocks but became the cult cousin that rewards viewers willing to give a little time to films that lay off the beaten track. When Biggie Smalls crowned himself as New York royalty, he saw the swagger and energy of Frank White that he wanted to replicate within his music. Both Frank Whites were here to excite, and each did so with aplomb. 

The King of New York can be found on Amazon Prime. However, I recommend picking up the great Arrow 2 Disc Blu-ray if possible. 

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