King of New York (Special Edition Blu-ray)

❉ Arrow Films have produced a fantastic Blu-Ray for this most deserving of films, writes Daniel Marner.

“1990’s King of New York was Ferrara’s bid to hit the mainstream, and it worked, kinda. It was inspired (according to him) by The Terminator, and although the parallels aren’t immediately striking, they’re definitely there to be seen: a tense, violent genre movie set almost entirely in the bluish glow of night-time in a major city, with a tall, quietly-spoken but terrifying central performance? Yes indeed. They’ve even got the same spiky punk haircut.”

Abel Ferrara has a reputation.

You hear about how he’s a hustler. You hear about how he’s a bad boy. You hear about how he pushes the envelope and shows you things you never thought you’d see, and things you definitely didn’t ask to see, and things you definitely won’t forget seeing. If you know Abel Ferrara at all you’re thinking of Harvey Keitel, naked and drunk, keening like a lost infant in Bad Lieutenant as his world implodes. You’re thinking of Zoe Lund (nee Tamerlis) gunning down a Halloween party in slow motion, dressed (in a sick, hollow joke on the spectator) like a sexy nun, reclaiming and redistributing the violence that was perpetrated on her in Ms. 45. You’re thinking of ‘Jimmy Laine’ (Ferrara himself hiding behind a pulpy pseudonym) bathing and exulting in the spray of blood from a victim’s head as he drills into it in Driller Killer, his most notorious film, the one that set the template for them all. Ban this sick filth. Think of the children.

But what you won’t necessarily realise till you’re sitting in front of an Abel Ferrara movie is how glacial his films are. How sedate. How stately, even. His New York, whose growth his films have slowly charted over almost 50 years now, may be full of winos, gangsters, back alley rapists and billowing trash, but they proceed at a deliberate, measured pace that Bresson would envy, and are made up of a similar accumulation of mood and detail. Everyone’s New York is different, and everyone’s New York is the same. Whether it’s Scorsese’s lurid operatics, Woody’s uptown intellectual chic or Warhol’s scratchy gutter-glamour, no other city has inhabited the American cinematic psyche quite as tenaciously. Ferrara’s New York is the same character from a different angle, and his take on the city may be the chilliest, most deadpan of all.

“You can’t fade to black. Not in the movies I make.” – Abel Ferrara

Frank White (Christopher Walken) walks out of Sing Sing Prison at dusk, a stretch Limo and two beautiful women awaiting him, and as sudden violence erupts half a city away (the first of many slayings perpetrated by his gang on his rival bosses) he gazes thoughtfully at the city lights streaking by and shares a quiet cigarette with his ladies. He’s been away, and now he’s back, and things are going to change in this town.

1990’s King of New York was Ferrara’s bid to hit the mainstream, and it worked, kinda. It was inspired (according to him) by The Terminator, and although the parallels aren’t immediately striking, they’re definitely there to be seen: a tense, violent genre movie set almost entirely in the bluish glow of night-time in a major city, with a tall, quietly-spoken but terrifying central performance? Yes indeed. They’ve even got the same spiky punk haircut.

Like most of Ferrara’s films the themes of King of New York are control and transcendence. Frank White and his crew, led by unpredictable, hyperactive enforcer Jimmy Jump (a showstopping, career-cementing turn by Laurence Fishburne, back when he was still Larry) are going to take control of the city’s twilight world of drugs, gambling and prostitution by whacking every major rival within their immediate radius, and they’re going to have fun doing it.

Equally of value to Frank, however, is transcendence: he wants to build a hospital for the underprivileged kids of his old neighbourhood, he wants to transcend the stench of blood and put that dirty money to legitimate use. Early on, in reply to a sarcastic question from a supermodel acquaintance about what we can expect from the ‘reformed’ Frank White he quips “I wanna be Mayor”. It’s a joke, but only partly. Like Michael Corleone before him White dreams of becoming a legit businessman and leaving his sordid past in the gutter.  

His ascent to sainthood will be somewhat hindered by the pesky cops, however: specifically, Bishop (Scorsese stalwart Victor Argo), Gilley (David Caruso, ginger charisma turned up to 11) and Flanagan (Wesley Snipes, brooding intensely in one of the last supporting roles he’d ever take). They don’t care about Frank’s self-aggrandising public philanthropy and sophisticated taste in suits. They care about the brutally slain corpses showing up in Chinatown and Little Italy and the TWA Airport Hotel. They care that money is able to hose away the worst excesses of the wealthy, until the lines between politician, lawyer, businessman and crime boss are blurred to invisibility. 

The thing that screenwriter Nicholas St John captures so brilliantly is the idea that every one of these characters is the hero of their own movie. Robin Hood gangster, cleaning the streets of his less scrupulous rivals while trying to turn his assets into philanthropy: firebrand Irish-American supercop bending the rules until they break as long as the outcome is right: loopy Joker-esque mob enforcer, dandying around in the height of fashion streetwear, menacing a fast-food server in one breath and being kind to a homeless old lady in the next: stoic, almost priestly police captain, doggedly working the long hours into the night to pin something on his man. Any one of these could be the focus of this film, and in lesser hands they’d blur into background noise. But St John and Ferrara believe in these guys, so WE believe in them.

The film is full of small cameos and supporting parts inhabited by faces you now know well, all on their way to bigger things: Steve Buscemi testing drugs in a hotel room, Paul Calderon getting his designer shoes pissed on by a Mafioso, Giancarlo Esposito toting shotgun and shades in a gangland hit, a baby-faced Harold Perrineau as a subway mugger who gets a reaction he doesn’t expect, Theresa Randle icily alluring, but coiled like a spring ready to pop.

Like all Ferrara’s New York stories the city itself is the film’s biggest supporting player. He famously recreated a classic set-up of the Brooklyn Bridge from Woody Allen’s Manhattan in Ms .45 (or, more than likely his cameraman Ken Kelsch just happened to have the same visual instinct as Allen’s cameraman Gordon Willis in the same year) but the effect could not be more different. Allen used the shot to illustrate how his narrator idolised (or was it romanticised?) the city out of all proportion: Ferrara used the shot as the backdrop to a misanthropic rant followed by a public suicide. Ferrara knows what the city’s real glamour is and he won’t flinch from shoving our face into it.

The cinematographer here is Bojan Bazelli and he divides the film into distinct palettes of light and shade: steely blues and blacks for night time on the streets, a suffusion of champagne-gold for White’s gilded luxury suite VIP lifestyle. This stylistic dichotomy is reflected in the film’s sound mix: the scratchy, tinny rhythms and profane rhymes of Schoolly D vying for attention with the slow-motion stateliness of Vivaldi (synthesised by long-time Ferrara collaborator Joe Delia). Frank White’s divided personality, his ruthlessness and quick temper versus his aspiration to a higher plane, to a legitimate status. Violence as control, charity dinners as transcendence.

None of this would mean a thing without Christopher Walken at its centre. Ferrara never had any other actors in mind for Frank White, and it’s impossible to think of the character existing in another body, with another inflection. Walken is constantly in danger of becoming thought of as a living caricature: his eccentric phrasing, scrubbing-brush hair, unique bone structure, cold gaze and fluid, dancer’s body language are ripe for parody, and he’s as famous for his frequent guest slots on Saturday Night Live (” I gotta fevuh. And the only cure…is MORE COWBELL!”) as he is for being the beautiful, doomed heart of The Deer Hunter or the tortured clairvoyant on a suicide mission to save the world in The Dead Zone. Arguably it is The King Of New York that will serve as his epitaph, as he gives us the measure of a whole man with barely a flicker of his eyelid. He’s playful and joyous with his friends, slick and charming with lawyers and politicians, suddenly, shockingly violent in the presence of rivals. In his final confrontation with Bishop, he doesn’t lower himself to just shoot the man point-blank (which he could easily do) but he tries to explain his motives, trying to reach the man who wants him in jail with reason and logic: his nemesis deserves that much. And in a short, punchy monologue he’s almost convincing, to us and to himself. Crime is going to rule the city, always. If New York is going to have a king, he reasons, it might as well be one with some flicker of conscience.

King Of New York wasn’t a huge hit when originally released, but it found (as many great films do) a second life on home video, especially among the hip-hop community. Biggie Smalls was notorious (ahem…) for signing into hotels under the name ‘Frank White’ and Schoolly D recorded a song in direct tribute to the film shortly after its release. And you can see why: it may sound like a dour treatise on guilt, innocence and capitalism but it’s packed with action. A hotel room drug deal goes bad in a hail of bullets (“ROOM SERVICE, MOTHERFUCKEEEEEERS!”), Frank’s mob take on the Chinese mob and turns the streets of Chinatown into a war zone, and in the film’s incredible late turning point Frank’s club is assaulted by masked assassins, leading to an extraordinarily sustained set piece which starts as a massacre, continues as a thrilling multiple-car chase over the Queensboro Bridge through curtains of lashing rain, and ends as a balletic game of cat and mouse in the shadows beneath an overpass. Ferrara has become known as an increasingly cerebral director as his career has progressed, but here he shows his other side, an action director who could have given Michael Mann or James Cameron pause for thought, if he’d decided to chase the money instead of preserving his soul.

Arrow Films have produced a fantastic Blu-Ray for this most deserving of films, positively groaning with engrossing extras. No less than two commentary tracks, the first (with producers Mary Kane and Randy Sabusawa as well as editor Anthony Redman and composer Joe Delia) provides a wealth of anecdotes about the film’s chaotic production history. The second however (with a POSSIBLY inebriated Ferarra himself) is its own work of art: opening with what sounds like the clank of a bottle opener and punctuated with profanity and guttural laughter it’s a startlingly frank, part-confession, part-rant, part-deconstruction of what a director’s relationship with his past work can be, and ends with his acoustic guitar rendition of Schoolly D’s King Of New York, aptly enough.

As well as this there are three pretty comprehensive documentaries. Firstly, a half-hour French TV interview with Ferrara where he veers between thoughtful re-appraisal of the film and somewhat self-deprecating barbs at its expense: when the earnest French interviewer praises Bazelli’s lighting, Abel replies “You like all that huh? You don’t think it’s a bourgeois way to light a film, all that diffusion?”

Then there’s A Short Film About Abel Ferrara wherein collaborators and scholars take turns (sometimes noisily, sometimes bitterly, bit mostly with humour) in trying to pin the guy down: especially entertaining is flamboyant editor Anthony Redman, who recalls living with Ferrara for a time and bawling him out for re-editing behind his back when he finds white audio-splice tape all over the celluloid.

Best of all maybe is the feature-length Abel Ferrara: Not Guilty which follows our profane, nocturnal hero as he directs a pop video, rehearses actors for his next project, talks money with a producer and bends the ear of his local guitar merchant, all the while slouching around like a hobbit in a leather jacket and baseball cap, falling in and out of taxi cabs and gliding through the city that never sleeps like a cross between Travis Bickle and a Bronx Keith Richards, his rasping delivery pure audio nicotine.

4K Ultra HD Special Edition Contents:

New 4K restoration from the original negative by Arrow Films, approved by director Abel Ferrara and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli
4K (2160p) UHD Blu-ray presentation in Dolby Vision (HDR10 compatible)
LPCM original stereo and remixed DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround audio options
Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
Audio commentary by director Abel Ferrara
Audio commentary with composer Joe Delia, producer Mary Kane, casting director Randy Sabusawa and editor Anthony Redman
Interview with director Abel Ferrara
Interview with producer Augusto Caminito
Abel Ferrara: Not Guilty, a documentary on the director from the French TV show Cinéastes de notre temps
A Short Film About the Long Career of Abel Ferrara, a documentary looking back at the director’s career, including interviews with his key collaborators
Original theatrical trailers and TV spots
Image gallery
Reversible sleeve featuring newly commissioned artwork by Tracie Ching
FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collectors’ booklet containing essays on the film by Iain Sinclair and Abel Ferrara biographer Brad Stevens

Blu-Ray Special Edition Contents:

New 4K restoration from the original negative by Arrow Films, approved by director Abel Ferrara and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli
High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
LPCM original stereo and remixed DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround audio options
Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
Audio commentary by director Abel Ferrara
Audio commentary with composer Joe Delia, producer Mary Kane, casting director Randy Sabusawa and editor Anthony Redman
Interview with director Abel Ferrara
Interview with producer Augusto Caminito
Abel Ferrara: Not Guilty, a documentary on the director from the French TV show Cinéastes de notre temps
A Short Film About the Long Career of Abel Ferrara, a documentary looking back at the director’s career, including interviews with his key collaborators
Original theatrical trailers and TV spots
Image gallery
Reversible sleeve featuring newly commissioned artwork by Tracie Ching
FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collectors’ booklet containing essays on the film by Iain Sinclair and Abel Ferrara biographer Brad Stevens

DVD Special Edition Contents:

New 4K restoration from the original negative by Arrow Films, approved by director Abel Ferrara and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli
Standard Definition DVD (PAL) presentation
Dolby Digital original stereo audio
Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
Audio commentary by director Abel Ferrara
Audio commentary with composer Joe Delia, producer Mary Kane, casting director Randy Sabusawa and editor Anthony Redman
Interview with director Abel Ferrara
A Short Film About the Long Career of Abel Ferrara, a documentary looking back at the director’s career, including interviews with his key collaborators
Original theatrical trailers and TV spots
Image gallery
Reversible sleeve featuring newly commissioned artwork by Tracie Ching


❉ King of New York – UHD, Blu-ray and DVD was released by Arrow Academy, 16 November, 2020. Running time 138 mins. RRP: £15.99 (DVD)/£29.99 (Blu-ray)/£29.99 (4K ULTRA HD).

❉ Daniel Marner is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.

Like this feature? Why not support us on Patreon?

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*