Judge George Hatch was undaunted by Abel Ferrera's lack of geopolitical acuity.
Our review of King Of New York, published September 7th, 2000, is also available.
"I must have been away too long because my feelings are dead. I feel no remorse and it's a terrible thing. But I never killed anybody that didn't deserve it."—Frank White
At the start of his outstanding scene-by-scene commentary, Abel Ferrara says he agreed to the gig only because he was paid $5000, but his passion for the film (even after fourteen years) is evident in every detailed, information-packed revelation about the shoot. He cites Christopher Walken as the King of Close-ups, and Artisan's revamped release of King of New York confirms it—and acknowledges Ferrara as the most dedicated and inspired independent director since Sam Fuller.
Facts of the Case
After a long prison term Frank White is back, moving with equal grace and menace among politicians and drug lords as he plots to reestablish his gangster empire and reclaim his sole kingpin status. With a small crew of dedicated street assassins, he methodically eliminates the competition, from Colombian cartels to Italian and Chinese Mafia clans. Police chief Roy Bishop wants to stop the killings by taking Frank out of the picture legally, but he has no control over rogue cops Gilly and Flanigan, who just want to take him out, vigilante-style. When Frank gets wind of the plot, he decides to put out a contract on the cops.
For Abel Ferrara it was "a seven-year nightmare" to get King of New York released the way he wanted, and Artisan's stunning new widescreen anamorphic transfer enhances all of the film's beauty and ugliness. The cinematography by Bojan Bazelli (winner of that year's Independent Spirit Award), color-coded in deep electric blues and doleful ambers, counter-points the two worlds Frank inhabits, and when combined in the same frame they reinforce the complex nature of his personality. It also emphasizes the film's surreal atmosphere and allegorical elements early on when Frank is picked up at the penitentiary in a limo and driven through the city's most desolate, crime-infested lower depths to his posh Plaza Hotel headquarters, where he glad-hands with the social elite and reorganizes the low-life thugs who have been waiting for his return. In the extra "A Short Film about the Long Career of Abel Ferrara," biographer Brad Stephens makes one of several insightful comments: "[Ferrara's] characters refuse to be limited in any way…There is never an adequate psychological or sociological explanation for these people because they are always too complex for any reductive formula that the films might impose upon them."
That's Frank White in a nutshell: On one hand he's offing rivals, while with the other he's offering fiscal support to a South Bronx hospital, and he has no qualms about negotiating the terms of a pending drug deal in the children's ward of that same hospital. Ferrara's films—particularly his mid-career crime trilogy that includes Bad Lieutenant (1992), The Funeral (1996), and King of New York—demonstrate a motif of a disreputable character seeking to understand, justify, and atone for his life. It's obvious that Ferrara puts his heart into every film he makes, but he bares his soul in this trilogy. Bad Lieutenant was a bit overwhelmed by its religious symbolism, while The Funeral, a truly unique 1930s period piece that I consider Ferrara's best film, omitted the Catholic iconology and concentrated on the character's internal ideological conflicts. Both come into play near the end of King of New York when, after a subway confrontation with Bishop, Frank crawls into a taxi and sees rosary beads hanging from the rear view mirror and a guardian angel statue on the cab's dashboard.
Frank White has more of a mystique than a reputation, and Christopher Walken's charismatic performance elevates this character to mythological proportions, making him a fearsomely legendary threat to the law while being idolized by his small band of trustworthy cutthroats, most of whom are black (drug tester Steve Buscemi is also a part of this group). In his commentary, Ferrara points out that he originally asked James Russo to play the role of Jimmy Jump because he felt "a white guy should be Frank's major accomplice, but Russo turned it down." Laurence Fishburne wanted the part and convinced Ferrara by changing Jump from an Italian lunatic to a borderline psycho hip-hop dude. Some critics found this loyalty unrealistic, but when Frank challenges head honcho, Jump, with "In all those years, how come you never came to see me?" and Jump replies, "Who wanted to see you in a cage, man?" it's Walken's delivery that justifies the relationship when, after a two-second pause, he shrugs off his own question, smiles, and says, "Of course."
Ferrara has often been cited for his "color-blind" casting, but like Sam Fuller, there is always something more calculated and subversive in his use of interracial actors than being an equal opportunity employer, and it's especially evident in King of New York. In addition to Frank and his crew, the two bad cops, played by David Caruso and Wesley Snipes, share an intense brotherly relationship, with Snipes at one point singled out as the only black man at an all-Irish wedding. After a deadly shootout, Caruso refuses to deliver a merciful coup de grace to a black assailant writhing in pain so he can mouth-to-mouth Snipes in an effort to save his life. The film and its characters exist in a gray area where color is irrelevant, while survival in a criminal empire takes precedence.
It should be noted that an extremely bloody ambush—at a police funeral, no less!—follows this scene and proved to be so controversial that the producers and censors wanted it deleted. The original script, with this scene intact, had been circulated through the major studios, as was the final cut, but no one expected it to be so shockingly realized and refused to touch it. Ferrara ultimately found "a distant cousin of New Line" to release it independently and it was "miraculously shown at the New York Film Festival, where it was a nightmare…that blew everything else off the screen." But in a promotional Q&A following the first 10:00PM screening with the entire cast on stage, the first question was, "This film is an abomination. Why aren't you giving the proceeds to some drug rehab program?" The next morning, only Fishburne and screenwriter Nicholas St. John were present and promptly booed off the stage. I've read that the original running time was close to two hours and the film was given an X rating for its violent content, but I think the current 106 minutes represents Ferrara's fine-tuning of the narrative for maximum impact rather than his succumbing to the pressures of censorship. Yes, the film's violence is graphic and intense, but no more so than the groundbreaking set pieces in Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch two decades earlier. However, a screenplay involving New York's Finest playing an integral part of a Byzantine, backstabbing plotline centered on drugs, race, and retribution may have touched too many conservative nerves.
King of New York never got the theatrical recognition it deserved and was overshadowed by Martin Scorcese's GoodFellas released about the same time. Another reason is offered by one of Ferrara's cinematographers, Ken Kelsch, in "A Short Film." He says, "One of Abel's personal curses is that he finds people who are not really strong in the honesty department when it comes to the distribution of his films." I think King got a fairly decent release, though most other films like The Funeral and The Addiction played only in a handful of big city theaters. I find it shocking that, because of Ferrara's reputation and filmmaking style, King was ignored—not overlooked, but ignored—at Oscar time. Fishburne should easily have been a contender for Best Supporting Actor, and the technical categories of cinematography, editing, and sound should have at least been acknowledged with nominations. That's the curse of independent filmmaking, though things are slowly changing with films like The Usual Suspects, Memento, and Requiem for a Dream. The problem here is that these directors have gone commercial, a direction I seriously doubt Ferrara will ever take. He'll keep his integrity and continue to do things his way, along with the likes of Larry Cohen and Sam Fuller, and I'll bet that five grand he got for the commentary is going toward another film that, to quote Brad Stephens again, "have a constant sense of life breaking out at the edges of the frame."
There are rumors circulating about a prequel to King of New York to
be titled "The Last Crew" with Mark Wahlberg playing the young Frank
White. While Ferrara said he was interested in exploring the young King's
background and how he ended up in jail for the first time, in his commentary he
mentions only his current project Go Go Tales scheduled for 2005, but
"The Last Crew" sounds like a project definitely worth looking forward
I think Artisan placed too much emphasis on Schoolly D's musical contribution, because the gangsta rap doesn't really kick in until the second half of the film, deliberately following an inspirational power ballad sung by Freddy Jackson at a hospital fundraiser. And Ferrara admits that his music was three years old at the time of filming. Maybe they're trying to cash in on the rap connection to the release of Brian De Palma's Scarface a few months back, but it's totally uncalled for. The real mood of the film is sustained by Joe Delia's poignant original score, and it complements Anthony Redman's brilliant editing, which ranges from Peckinpah-style rapid-fire cross-cuts for the action scenes (the phone booth assassination early in the film is a knockout), to measured pans and dollies, most effective in the unexpected finale.
As mentioned, Bojan Bazelli's cinematography finally gets the crisp anamorphic transfer it deserves, and could only look better projected on a big theater screen. The 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby Digital Surround both deliver powerful sound effects and the dialogue is much clearer than on Artisan's earlier release.
Disc One presents the remastered film in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and includes a definitive and often hilarious audio commentary by Ferrara himself that is more revealing about the man and his movies than any of the other extras provided, including the commentary from producers Mary Kane and Randy Sabusawa, Redman, and Delia.
Disc Two shows the standard full frame version followed by "A Short Film about the Long Career of Abel Ferrara," a 45-minute talking head interview with the regulars who have been involved with Ferrara, including composer Joe Delia, editor Anthony Redman, production designer Charlie Lagola, and biographer Brad Stephens, whose book I'm looking forward to reading.
There is also another short, "The Adventures of Schoolly D: Snowboarde,r" a sloppily edited and unwatchable portrait of the father of gangsta rap and one of his music videos. TV spots and the original theatrical trailer round out the package.
Artisan's enhanced sound and widescreen remastering of King of New York and Ferrara's honest and genuinely informative commentary make this DVD a must-own and a recommended replacement for their earlier release.
Charges are dropped, case is dismissed, and King of New York is free to rule.
Artisan, however, is hereby sentenced to deliver an equally substantial reissue of The Funeral.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Abel Ferrara
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