Blu-ray Review: King of New York (1990)

King of New York BR CoverDistributor: Arrow Video

BBFC Classification: 18

Director: Abel Ferrara

Starring: Christopher Walken, David Caruso, Janet Julian, Laurence Fishburne, Victor Argo, Wesley Snipes, Steve Buscemi, Joey Chin

When you look at the history of cinema there are often films that are released around the same time that never quite get a look in or reach the same status as the so-called ‘classics’. These films are often just as good – if not better – than their more successful brethren but don’t get the same exposure and usually get branded ‘cult’, which is a word that gets used far too often and often loses much of its meaning. However, filmmaker Abel ‘Driller Killer‘ Ferrara’s 1990 film King of New York certainly fits the bill as a cult movie and one that blows away many similarly-themed and more successful crime movies of the time.

Crime lord Frank White (Christopher Walken – The Dead Zone/The Deer Hunter) has just been released from prison and returns to his old haunts to start strong-arming the other gangsters who have moved in on his territory. Looking to add a little legitimacy to his image Frank decides he wants to become Mayor of New York and sets about wiping out his criminal competition in a bid to clean up the streets, have total control of all operations and distribute his wealth with the needy and poorer parts of the city. Catching the attention of the authorities, Frank becomes the prime target for a group of strung-out cops determined to put him and his rapidly expanding gang of enforcers away but the lack of evidence means they may have to turn to more unorthodox methods to achieve their aim.

A slightly twisted take on the Robin Hood theme, King of New York has enough clout and star power to have been a sizeable hit upon release but unfortunately it was released on the same day – not just week or month but day – as Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas, which is pretty big competition if you’re going to release a gangster movie. No matter, though, as King of New York has a flavour all of its own which eschews the polished glamourising of Scorcese’s mobsters in favour of Ferrara’s trademark grittiness.

Undoubtedly the star of the show, Christopher Walken oozes dark menace in a way that none of his onscreen personas before this had done. There is a scene in the film where Frank White is sat in a cinema with Triad leader Larry Wong (Joey Chin) watching F.W. Murnau’s 1922 classic Nosferatu, and Walken’s own performance can be likened to that of the vampire – cold and soulless, yet calculating with a simmering rage that threatens to boil over at any given moment. His movements throughout the film are also comparable to those of a monster movie villain, swiftly observing the carnage around him before making his next crucial strike.

But there are many other notable performances in this film. Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix) is excellent as White’s main enforcer Jimmy Jump, who lacks the fatal charisma of his boss but has more than enough moves of his own to make him an uncontrollable force. Steve Buscemi (Reservoir Dogs) also makes an early appearance as the drug dealing Test Tube (no need for an explanation there), another integral part of Frank’s gang.

Frank’s adversaries are also an intriguing lot, as the law seems powerless to convict Frank so they take matters into their own hands. Wesley Snipes (Blade) plays Flanigan, who seems to have a bit of a rivalry with Jump, but it is David Caruso (First Blood) as the reckless Dennis Gilley who provides most of the best moments in his confrontations with Frank and his hoodlums. He is also the main focus of one of the films most shocking moments.

This remastered version of the film is probably one of the best looking to have come from the Arrow Video stable. Ferrara’s love of New York and his capturing of the city’s character is greatly enhanced by the crystal-clear visuals and gorgeous colours that permeate the dark city backdrops. The famous car chase in the rain looks absolutely stunning and the films climax set in the neon-lit city streets is as colourful and striking as it is mean and uncompromising. However, the one thing that does let this release down slightly is the muddy 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio on the Blu-ray that seems to have a persistent hiss all the way through. Not that it ruins the film and in the scenes set on the busy streets of New York it isn’t much of a problem but during some of the quieter, more intimate scenes it does make some of the dialogue a bit difficult to make out.

Overall, King of New York is an underrated gem that got a bit buried upon its original release. It hasn’t dated as badly as a lot of the crime/action thrillers of the late ’80s/early-’90s – in fact, it looks pretty damn good considering what the fashions were like at the time – and even the pumping hip-hop soundtrack doesn’t seem too incongruous when compared to some of today’s standards. Christopher Walken gives his best performance here and probably his last proper performance before he started to become a bit of a parody of himself, and the supporting cast are all great, creating some memorable characters which is something that a lot of gangster films don’t always do all that well. The film looks fantastic, is totally engaging throughout and has some really well-staged scenes that will stick in your mind after the film has finished. The sound is a little bothersome (stick it on 2.0 stereo for a cleaner mix) but not a deal breaker, so if you’ve yet to experience this brooding tale of mixed morals and violence then now would be a good time to catch up.

King of New York

Special Features: Audio commentary with director Abel Ferrara, audio commentary with composer Joe Delia, producer Mary Kane, casting director Randy Sabusawa and editor Anthony Redman, interviews with director Abel Ferrara and producer Augusto Caminito, Abel Ferrara: Not Guilty documentary from the French TV show Cinéastes de Notre TempsA Short Film About the Long Career of Abel Ferrara documentary, trailers, collector’s booklet featuring writing on the film by author Brad Stevens, reversible sleeve with original artwork and newly commissioned artwork by Tom ‘The Dude Designs’ Hodge.

UK Release Date: 25th June 2012

Arrow Films – Website

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