Abel Ferrara's 1990 film King of New York doesn't paint a pretty picture, but it's hard not to appreciate the painting as a whole. For a proper perspective, consider his previous work: Ferrara had a history of crafting violent exploitation pictures (including the infamous Driller Killer), and the Bronx-born director wasn't afraid to put his professional reputation on the line with each effort. After this film, Ferrara would go deeper into the dark side of the human psyche with the harrowing Bad Lieutenant, in which Harvey Kietel arguably gave the best performance of his career.
Still, King of New York remains Ferrara's breakthrough picture, more or less. The biggest reason for this: even with a limited budget, a very talented cast was assembled. For starters, Christopher Walken is the star of the show. He plays Frank White, a man fresh out of prison who has a new outlook on life. His main objective: to take out New York's most powerful drug dealers, and re-sell their product to "build a better New York". Walken brings much-needed power and intensity to the role, transforming Frank White into one of film's most notoriously revered characters (for starters, count how many times he's name-checked in any Notorious B.I.G. album).
However, Walken isn't alone in delivering a great performance. One of White's partners-in-crime (known as "Jump") is played by Laurence Fishburne (credited as 'Larry'), who brings the villainous character to life with great passion. Two of the police officers determined to bring White in are played wonderfully by David Caruso and Wesley Snipes. There are also a few notable smaller roles, including appearances by Giancarlo Esposito (Do the Right Thing) and the incomparable Steve Buscemi (Fargo). From top to bottom, King of New York featured good performances all around...and all this from a cast that was much less known at the time. In all honesty, it's probably the most underrated ensemble cast this side of True Romance.
Even with the strong performances, the movie sometimes hits a few snags. For starters, I felt it was way too short for its own good. This is a movie that lingers at a more deliberate pace than most other films of the genre, but clocks in at just over 100 minutes. Several characters needed to be fleshed out (specifically, most of the supporting cast). Additionally, the 'character study' portion of the film may leave a few viewers cold. Like Ferrara's 1992 follow-up Bad Lieutenant, this isn't your typical good guy-bad guy action/adventure: it's gritty, it's dark, and it's extremely violent.
Originally given an 'X' rating by the MPAA, it seems that King of New York was slightly edited to get an 'R' rating. This DVD presents the film with the latter rating, but I'm wondering if the original cut is still floating around somewhere. In any case, this new 2-disc Special Edition arrives courtesy of Artisan Home Entertainment, and it's a decent effort that will give fans some things to chew on. Let's see how this one stacks up:
Originally released by Artisan as a bare-bones disc, King of New York was not a pretty sight in the video department. Thankfully, it's been given a brand new anamorphic widescreen transfer that looks great! The print is very clean and almost completely free of dirt and scratches, which really improves the overall viewing experience. The original DVD release was reportedly soft and pixellated, but fans needn't worry---Artisan has done a great job here. Only the darkest of scenes appear a little murky, but you'd be hard-pressed to find many faults with this excellent transfer. Also, it's worth noting that Disc 1 contains the widescreen version, while Disc 2 houses the pan-and-scan version (if you're into that sort of thing).
Disc 2 is much thinner, in quality and quantity. The main extra here is a 45-minute piece entitled The Adventures of Schoolly D: Snowboarder. This is a portrait of "the father of Gangsta Rap, and the inspiration for the film". Like the Ferrara piece on Disc 1, it's not put together very well and seems more like a rough cut than a documentary. Still, fans of the rapper will no doubt enjoy this one anyway. Also included is a Schoolly D Music Video (which, I believe, was also on the original DVD release). Rounding off on this second disc are a pair of TV Spots for the film. While I found these extras to be a little uneven, it's not a bad spread overall.
There's a lot to like about King of New York. Despite its limitations in budget, it tells a compelling story with energy and style. The performances were uniformly excellent: Christopher Walken, Lawrence Fishburne, and David Caruso were highly engaging, and were but three examples of a great cast. It may not be as flashy as Scarface or as daring as Bad Lieutenant, but King of New York really deserves a second look. While it's not a perfect movie, this is an underappreciated little gem that has finally gotten a decent DVD treatment. Although the extras could have been a little tighter, the technical presentation is wonderful and should really please fans of the film. Bottom line: if you own the original disc, now's the time to upgrade. Combine all of these qualities with a very low MSRP, and we've got a release that's really worth checking out. Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an art instructor based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in an art gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.