King of New York was initially an ill-received gangster flick. Released in 1990, it was criticised for glamourising drugs and violence. It was directed by Abel Ferrara (China Girl, The Addiction, The Funeral, Bad Lieutenant) and stars Christopher Walken, Laurence Fishburne (credited as Larry), David Caruso, Victor Argo, Wesley Snipes an,d Janet Julian with a brief cameo from Steve Buscemi.
The plot is centred around Frank White (Christopher Walken), a gangster recently released from jail who is intent on helping the poor of the city. Frank intends to do this by utilising his former gang to wipe out his rivals and use the profits he gains from drugs to benefit the city such as the hospital. His charity and numerous public appearances lead to his rising popularity in the city and the police sarcastically dubbing him the King of New York.
Frank is assisted along the way by his right hand man Jimmy Jumps (Laurence Fishburne) and one of his counsellors and also a girlfriend, Jennifer (Janet Julian). Though there is a certain comparison to Robin Hood Frank isn't good and he's not seeking redemption. This man will stop at nothing to create his vision of a better city. Before Frank is even released from jail, Jimmy has the gang members ruthlessly wipe out rival gang leaders and before Frank even joins them the job of cleaning up the city is already half done.
Frank attempts to deal with a drug supplier but when he doesn't get what he wants he tortures and kills the dealer and takes the drugs for himself. When a gang rival insults him he confronts him face to face and guns him down. Frank is an antihero at best, he's not afraid to use drugs, violence and murder to get the coin he needs to help a hospital.
Frank is thwarted along the way by the cops led by Roy Bishop (Victor Argo) who is determined to be patient and play by the book with Frank, leading to a dramatic, sad and violent showdown. Fellow cops Dennis Gilley (David Caruso) and Thomas Flanigan (Wesley Snipes) have had enough however and quickly lose patience with Frank and his associates continually escaping punishment and worse, being glorified in the public eye.
After several failed arrests of Frank and his associates, who are eternally let out on bail and have the charges dropped against them due to witnesses getting killed, Gilley finally cracks and concocts a plan to level the playing field by making it look like Frank and his gang are killed by a rival gang. Sinking to Frank's level the renegade cops use an inside man to sneak into a party Frank is at. Entering masked and armed they fire undiscriminately at people in the building, leading to the death of one of Frank's girls- Melanie. This fight continues to the streets with a violent car chase in which a recently married cop is killed. It ends with a shootout between Jimmy and Flanigan with Flanigan being killed by Jimmy. Jimmy is then gunned down by Gilley.
A remorseful Gilley attends the funeral of his friends but is too guilty to remain throughout the service. He departs to his car, which won't start and is ruthlessly killed in a driveby shooting carried out personally by Frank.
The film reaches its bloody conclusion with Frank confronting Bishop in his home. Frank tries to justify the murders of his rivals to the cop by stating they were dealing in human trafficking and child prostitution. Frank seems blinded to the fact that just because he has standards does not make him good or his actions justifiable. He has Bishop at his mercy but fails to kill him, leaving him handcuffed to his seat. Bishop frees himself and pursues Frank to the subway where Frank takes a hostage on the train. The film ends with Frank killing Bishop before being surrounded in his car by cops. He then realises that Bishop has shot him too and he is doomed.
Laurence Fishburne chews the scenery as Frank's right hand man Jimmy Jumps, he plays it straight as Frank's loyal second and only briefly is there a suggestion that he could be a rival for power when Frank asks why he didn't ever visit him jail and Jimmy just dismisses the notion by saying no one wanted to see him like that, behind bars. I feel there was a missed opportunity here in developing Jimmy's character or exploring the role he played while Frank was in jail or why Frank is so trusting of him despite him assuming power in Frank's absence and never visiting him.
David Caruso plays a cop, a role that seems to have suited him well in life, this cop, Dennis Gilley, is one with mixed morals. Not a dirty cop but rather a frustrated one who, like Frank, seems to think a criminal act could be for the greater good. Gilley misses the irony of this similarity between himself and Frank. He offers more of a presence than Bishop and easily manipulates the other cops into a suicide mission against Frank. He persuades his fellow officers that disguising themselves as gang members and attempting a hit on Frank and his cronies is the only way to truly defeat him after the system fails them. Gilley also resorts to carrying the body of one of Frank's rivals in the trunk of his car and effectively kidnapping Frank and taking him to the outskirts of the city to confront him with it as a method of intimidation to get Frank into confessing to the murder. He does this all under Bishop's supervision without much protest from Bishop. When this fails they are forced to abandon Frank. He later arrests Jimmy Jumps for another murder and when Jimmy is freed he spits in his face in disgust.
Gilley shows great loyalty to his friends and is seen as the best man at one cop's wedding. He also demonstrates a great sorrow when his partner Flanigan is fatally shot by Jimmy Jumps. He shoots Jimmy and leaves him writhing in pain while he attempts to save his friend. When Flanigan dies, he is noticeably grief stricken and gives him a kiss farewell on the forehead before coldly shooting Jimmy dead.
Later, at the funeral of his friends, he is overcome with emotion and guilt and departs mid service. He heads to his car to vent out his rage and guilt and finds his car won't start. It is here that he is gunned down by Frank.
I liked Gilley's character best because I found it interesting to see a cop not being a standard good cop but equally not being a cliche bad cop either. Gilley's not in bed with the criminals but he is not as far from them as he would like to believe either. His partnership with Flanigan is sweet and he shows a humorous side at the wedding, even though some of it is at the groom's expense. Sadly, he lets his temper get the better of him and is ultimately responsible for his friends' and co-workers' demise, for whilst they made the decision to join him the idea was his and he went against his superior to carry it out. Whilst his death is cruel it wouldn't be fair for him to escape unscathed whilst everyone else perished.
Jennifer is the film's only real female lead. She is one of Frank's two lawyers, the other being Joey Dalesio (Paul Calderon) and is one of three of Frank's girlfriends, the other two being Melanie (Carrie Nygren) and Raye (Theresa Randle). Whilst Frank is frequently seen with Melanie and Raye clad in lingere he shares a memorable moment in the subway with Jennifer. Their heated moment of passion is interrupted by young would be robbers. Frank difuses the situation by offering the kids notes but also suggesting they come to the Plaza Hotel if they want a job with him.
As a character Jennifer has little development, the police query her morals and she is cold in her response to them. She seems to have no guilt over being in bed with Frank and it is unclear what her motivation in the film is. Her attraction to Frank seems little more than lust and it's unclear if she is aware of his other girlfriends or bothered by them and if either she or Frank sees a future in their relationship.
Initially a film that slipped under the radar it became a cult film to the point of being popular enough to garner a blu-ray release. It now stands out as one of Christopher Walken's best performances and a popular gangster film. Though it perhaps seems just as noticeable as being a launching pad for David Caruso, Laurence Fishburne, and Wesley Snipes. Apparently David Caruso and Wesley Snipes were friends at the time of filming and it was Caruso who persuaded Ferrara to cast Snipes.
Whilst it's not at the standards of The Godfather or Martin Scorsese's many memorable gangster flicks (Casino, Goodfellas, The Departed) it's still a film worth seeing. The performances are all solid and memorable, the setting is suitably dark with contrasts of the poor impoverished streets and hospital to Frank's pad with its chandeliers and large rooms and the dialogue is memorable, particularly Christopher Walken's. And yes, Christopher Walken does manage to sneak in a brief dance performance as well. It's low budget and for most of the cast an early performance, both of which are noticeable and it's script is flawed, Frank's motivations seem murky at best, all the characters could do with more development and the plot is almost too simple but I still recommend giving it at least one watch.