King of New York (1990)


Second time with Abel Ferrara after Bad Lieutenant.

After a penitential Christopher Walken is led out of his scantily monkish cell he’s escorted through a steaming night-time New York which looms up at him through the windows of his limo. The buildings are drenched in a Gotham electric blue (check the neo-noir poster); Badalamenti synths wash through the scene and increase the sense of intimidating alienation. KoNY (paint the night) is best when NY takes on the status of a character, as towards the end, after CW has hacked away at his inner circle like Richard III (having dispensed some killer lines – “bury it with him”), when its neon blocks rear above the seedy basement and remind him that he can never win (“If I can have a year or two I’ll make something good”). CW is King in a king-of-the-jungle way: the suffocating, tentacular city is the only winner.

KonY is a predictably hard-nosed and unflinching but surprisingly sleek depiction of the drug war that pulled snarling antagonists from both side of the law into a moral black hole. CW, though, is looking at the stars after a supposed reformation and a convincing conviction to drain his nihilistic associates and partners for cash to prop up a hospital in the deprived local neighbourhood. His performance is great – there’s a subtle disengagement, which goes beyond world-weariness, in his eyes from the tense weigh-in vs Lawrence Fishburne’s psychotic henchman and previous employee. He knows the rules, and he knows the risks, but he wants something else. Definitely connected with him more than the foul, even demonic Keitel of BL, who seems to generate the town’s moral torpor rather than react to it.

Can see his stated influences in this: Pasolini in the charged visual symbolism (the madonna and the coca cola signs cast shadows); Fassbinder’s unapologetic political righteousness; Kubrick in the clean, centred headshots and the menace of elegance (first connection is obviously with Eyes Wide Shut because of the NY decadence). Also thought of Elio Petri’s Investigations of a Citizen Above Suspicion during the simple and self-explanatory shots of dripping material wealth, particularly at the beginning.

Not perfect: stretches of the action feel like high-powered bluster which drowns out the message, and there’s some dodgy acting particularly from David Caruso. But the politics are great, which leads to an unsettlingly righteous rant by CW in the home of his opposite number, and some nice touches like the continual pressure on a disingenuous local politician (there’s even an accusatory cake like the one in The Bad Sleep Well). I’ll definitely return to KonY to see CW stalking out of the subway like reheated death, swimming through the vast crowds and silent glass walls until he collapses bleeding into a cab, cops closing in like teeth.



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