King of New York (1990)

<strong class="MovieTitle">King of New York</strong> (1990)

(On Cable TV, January 2019) Anyone wondering if there’s a movie with 1990-vintage Christopher Walken as a kingpin in nighttime New York City can rest easy, because King of New York exists. It may even be a good movie: under the stylish glare of director Abel Ferrara, this is a film chiefly concerned about style over substance, going through familiar plot points with some messy energy. Walken is reliably terrific here, playing a crime lord fresh out of prison with ambitions that may not survive long in the city he’s coming back to. Almost immediately, rival criminals and the police have him in their sight, and it can be difficult to distinguish the illegal tactics between both sides of the law. The protagonist here is painted in a tragic light, a victim of circumstances who “never killed anyone who didn’t deserve it”, seeking redemption yet too noble (or something) to survive in the harsher Manhattan that evolved while he was behind bars. The mythologization of the character living large and indulging in hedonistic excesses may account for much of King of New York’s enduring popularity as a crime classic of its era, but a bit of perspective shows the limits of Ferrara’s approach. The film isn’t as profound as it seems to be, for instance, and the ending drags on far too long after an intermittently interesting plot progression. There’s a lot of posing here and while that may help build the film’s pretension, it falls apart more readily the moment you don’t believe in the style without the substance. Walken has the benefit of being supported by a cast that includes early appearances by many name actors not yet having fully defined personas, including Laurence Fishburne, David Caruso, Steve Buscemi and Wesley Snipes. King of New York is not unpleasant to watch on a pure style and attitude level, but it’s certainly uneven, and can become annoying if you don’t buy into the whole gangsters-as-heroes nonsense.

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