The Fun Lovin’ Criminals took it as the title of one of their tracks and it’s not much of an exaggeration to say Biggie Smalls claimed to be it every other line in his raps, but the popular use of the phrase ‘King of New York’ originates with Abel Ferrara’s 1990 film about a drug lord who eliminates his competition in order to make enough money to save a Harlem hospital. At long last, King of New York gets the special edition treatment this month.
Frank White (Christopher Walken) has had years in prison to think about his life and articulate the motivations behind his bloody campaign for redemption. On his release, he argues that crime has increased without his controlling influence, that drugs are a problem endemic to society and that he’s just a businessman trying to give something back to the community. Of course, Frank is a psychopath and his arguments aren’t convincing, but it’s a great part for Walken, who revels in the contradictions of the character. Frank is a traditional Italian-American mob boss, but he’s also progressive in the sense that he allows both blacks and women in his gang. Laurence Fishburne’s performance as Frank’s number one guy Jimmy Jump, a black man fully emancipated by virtue – or should that be vice? – of being a sociopath, hasn’t dated well – more Fresh Prince than fresh – but does retain some of its original power and is still eminently quotable.
As well as being notable for early appearances by Fishburne, Wesley Snipes and Steve Buscemi, King of New York has a great hip hop soundtrack featuring Schooly D. The action is hit and miss, but the cinematography is remarkable and is the best element in the film. Never before had New York looked so sinister, nor has it since.
Despite the satisfying weight of the SteelBook case, this ‘special edition’ is disappointingly light on extras. The second disc fails entirely to justify itself, containing only a handful of repetitive documentaries recycled from previous releases and TV. In the director’s commentary, Ferrara comes across as technically brilliant, but personally repulsive. With a mixture of nostalgic enthusiasm and reluctant obligation – he starts out saying he’s only doing the commentary because he’s been handed a few thousand dollars in cash – he points out killer shots, explains how they were achieved, then leches over the female cast members. Still, King of New York is a worthy addition to the Italian-American gangster section of any DVD library.