Director Abel Ferrara is so obsessed with giving "King of New York" an artsy, edgy, improvisational feel that he doesn't seem to realize what he has here is really just another angry gangster picture.
So he shoots the film in a manner that drips "art," in a pretentious sense, while his characters run around in coke-induced stupors, firing automatic weapons at anyone who crosses them.In a way, because of the film's bizarre tone, Christopher Walken is perfect for the title role of drug kingpin Frank White, who is just getting out of prison when the film opens.
Walken has never seemed more strange and enigmatic than he does here, playing a character who muscles his way back into the drug-dealing business by setting up his headquarters in New York's posh Plaza Hotel and literally blowing away the competition.
White, whose gang is almost all black, bullies his way back into business in a manner that makes the brutal title brothers in "The Krays" seem meek. His lawyer-girlfriend is there when the law starts breathing down his neck. And the cops who are trying to put him out of business feel frustrated because the law seems to be on the side of hoods instead of cops.
That last point is driven home in a barroom speech by one of the police detectives who wants to get rid of White the old-fashioned way and make it look like a rival gang's vengeance. But the cop in charge (Victor Argo) won't have it. Or at least he won't approve.
The press kit for "King of New York" makes quite a bit of the Frank White character being a Robin Hood who wants to funnel the profits from his drug dealings into humanitarian efforts.
But the film itself is a bit vague on that point; the closest it comes is showing White's attempts to help save a hospital in the slums. Mostly, White seems to be in it for the money.
For all director Ferrara's efforts to give "King of New York" an artistic sheen, the action scenes are edited so frantically that it is occasionally hard to tell which bad guys and which good guys are dying. Not that there are any good guys here, save the one cop who won't be corrupted.
There are also a lot of weird little scenes that seem rather dreamy, or perhaps nightmarish in tone. Two come immediately to mind: In the first, a drug dealer discusses business while watching the old silent horror movie "Nosferatu." As a character departs, the dealer asks him to stay because he's going to show `Frankenstein' next. In another scene, Walken and his lawyer get romantic in a subway car when they are approached by young muggers. Walken tosses them a wad of money and tells them to drop by the Plaza and he'll put them to work.
Such surreal moments are apparently meant to heighten the film's edginess, but instead they merely add to its sense of bizarre confusion.
There are a lot of fine actors in supporting roles here, including three Spike Lee regulars - Larry Fishburne, Wesley Snipes and Giancarlo Esposito. But only Walken, Fishburne and Argo have enough to do to distinguish themselves. No one else is allowed to go beyond skimpy caricature.
"King of New York" is extremely quirky, and hardly the best gangster picture in town at the moment. Only fans of flashy trash need apply.
It is rated R for considerable violence, sex, nudity, profanity and drug use.