Pulp crime and shoot ’em gangster films have always held a special place in my heart. Thanks to the efforts of Roger Corman and dozens of other 1970s producers, crime films popped off the screen in bunches. Thanks to Blaxploitation and these low-budget romps, what was once demonized for its lack of quality helped launch many of the best filmmakers of all time. Names like Demme, Scorsese, and Coppola came from the school of hard-knocks and rose to greatness. A generation of film buffs grew up on their teachings. It’s no wonder that the 1990s began a more inclusive renaissance for the gangster. While Goodfellas remains the gold standard, its impossible to discuss the era without the exploitation dripping The King of New York.
Beginning with nearly ten minutes of silence, The King of New York bombards its audience with star-making performances. Ferrara’s film follows the criminal Frank White (Christopher Walken) as he regains his control of the city. The young and dangerous captain of his crew, Jimmy Jump (Lawrence Fishburne), has a penchant for theatrics and killing. They immediately draw the attention of the police. Frank and his crew continue to get away with crime after crime, officers Dennis Gilley (David Caruso) and Thomas Flanigan (Wesley Snipes) take matters into their hands.
Abel Ferrera‘s masterful handle on creating charismatic cops and robbers makes The King of New York stand above many of its peers. His grip on tone and imagery creates an evocative landscape of the inner city. New York feels otherworldly and dangerous. In many ways, Ferrera’s New York creates a nightmaish reality the city wanted to escape.
The grime and evil on-screen recall Scorsese, but the pop sheen of the late eighties allow it to look better than many of its predecessors. Combining these two elements with the rise of hip-hop in the late 1980s, and the film carries itself, unlike any gangster film that had ever existed. On top of it all, The King of New York looks like a forty million dollar film on a five million dollar budget. Everything about this film feels ahead of its time.
Eschewing the typical camp you’d expect from a Walken performance, the veteran actor dials up the menace. As a quiet figure, Walken makes an impression as he plays into his charisma. His humor and zaniness are not totally obscured, giving him much needed moments of likability. After all, he can flip in a second, quickly becoming a murderous sociopath if pushed. Walken delivers an all-time great gangster, and there’s a reason he’s achieved true cult status.
The real triumph of The King of New York are the stars littered throughout the cast. Fishburne takes over the movie as its wildcard. The energy and electricity he brings to the film draw all eyes to him. Fishburne’s gravitational turn showcased his talent, specifically his ability to bring the rare blend of comedy and anger. His charm oozes on the screen, and if not for Walken, he would have become the iconoclastic heart of the film.
He’s at his best when paired against the Caruso and Snipes combination, as each performer brings a different style of performance to the table. The writing and performance of Caruso’s Gilley combine to create a wonderfully complex edge to the film. Thanks to Walken and Fishburne’s brilliant performances you actively root against the cops. Caruso tears into the material like a madman, displaying every ounce of his frustration with the system. He pairs well with Snipes, who gives his own superstar performance. He’s extremely likable, with his own simmering rage. His narrative fits nicely as the anti-Frank, a long black character in a force of white officers. He sells his own journey and passion for justice. Given this turn, it’s shocking that Snipes would play the career-defining Nino Brown less than a year later.
Thanks to the dichotomies and oppositional styles of The King of New York, Ferrera creates a unique vision of an antihero. Combining the emergence of hip hop culture and traditional gangster films, the film is a perfect intersection of taste. Thanks to Ferrera’s vision and the breakout cast, The King of New York remains one of the most underrated films of the 1990s.