Sunday, January 1, 2012

Cult Classics Revisited: KING OF NEW YORK (1990)

(Italy/US - 1990)  Directed by Abel Ferrara.  Written by Nicholas St. John.  Cast: Christopher Walken, Larry Fishburne, David Caruso, Victor Argo, Wesley Snipes, Giancarlo Esposito, Janet Julian, Joey Chin, Paul Calderon, Steve Buscemi, Theresa Randle, Roger Smith.  106 mins.  R

The 1990s began with a period of fierce productivity and widespread acclaim for indie NYC bad boy Abel Ferrara, but by 1999, his career was virtually in ruins and his films had routinely extensive shelf time before getting dumped on video. With KING OF NEW YORK's release in 1990 and with BAD LIEUTENANT in 1992, Ferrara established himself as a unique voice in independent film just when the Tarantino/indie auteur explosion was happening.  But Ferrara is rarely grouped among the same movement, possibly because he's older and had a journeyman career that began in early 1970s porn.  KING OF NEW YORK has acquired a cult following over the last 20 years and resonated somewhat in rap culture, though not to the degree of Brian De Palma's SCARFACE.  That's likely because, despite its commercial storyline, it's an odd, eccentric film, and that's due as much to Ferrara's style as it is to Christopher Walken delivering one of his most "Christopher Walken" performances.

Just released from prison, drug lord Frank White (Walken) sets up his operation at the Plaza Hotel with plans to go legit and fund a children's hospital, but not before wiping out the competition.  There's a bizarre, sometimes dreamlike feel to the opening half hour, but the film settles into a groove with the introduction of three NYC detectives obsessed with shutting Frank down:  weary, rumpled, chain-smoking Roy Bishop (Victor Argo) and his two hotheaded partners, Gilley (David Caruso) and Flanigan (Wesley Snipes).  Unable to play it by the book as Bishop demands, Gilley and Flanigan use their own time to go after Frank and his thug crew, led by the fast-talking enforcer Jimmy Jump (Laurence Fishburne, when he still went by "Larry") with disastrous results in a long, stunning chase sequence in a driving rain.

As good as Walken is here, whether he's gunning down rivals, jawing with the three cops, or busting a move to Schoolly D's "Saturday Night,"  the performance that's always stuck with me is Victor Argo as Bishop.  Argo, who died in 2004, was a veteran character actor of stage, screen, and TV who was a regular fixture in several Ferrara films as well as many of his friend Harvey Keitel.  Argo rarely got a chance to play major roles in films, and despite his fourth billing, he's actually the second lead in KING OF NEW YORK.  Argo does a lot of acting without saying much and you just see the fatigue in his face and hear it in his gruff voice, even when someone else is doing most of the talking.

Argo perfectly embodies a rage that's turned to burnout, and he's almost matched by a pair of intense performances from Caruso and Snipes, when they were hungry young actors and long before they succumbed to self-parody (Caruso) and general apathy (Snipes).  Years before Caruso's breakthrough on NYPD BLUE and even before KING OF NEW YORK, Ferrara used him as the Mercutio stand-in "Mercury" in CHINA GIRL, his largely forgotten 1987 modern-day, NYC street gang ROMEO & JULIET update.  Snipes was coming off a breakout role as Willie Mays Hays in MAJOR LEAGUE and was a year away from his star-making turn as Nino Brown in NEW JACK CITY.   Aside from an occasional  BLADE outing, Snipes has spent the better part of the last decade or more doing bad straight-to-DVD timewasters, though he did deliver a strong supporting performance in 2009's underrated BROOKLYN'S FINEST before his highly publicized incarceration for income tax evasion.  With all of Caruso's now-comedic Horatio Caine tics on CSI: MIAMI, and Snipes' personal and professional implosion, it's fascinating to go back 20 years and see them in KING OF NEW YORK.  As silly as CSI: MIAMI is, Caruso at least seems to be enjoying himself, but it's interesting to see that distinct intensity before it became a punchline.  And once he gets his life together, Snipes is an actor who's still capable of great work when he cares.

Ferrara stayed busy throughout the '90s, going on to make  BAD LIEUTENANT (1992), DANGEROUS GAME (1993), the major-studio remake BODY SNATCHERS (also 1993), the offbeat vampire film THE ADDICTION (1995), and reunited with Walken for 1996's THE FUNERAL and 1999's NEW ROSE HOTEL.  By the time the unwatchable NEW ROSE HOTEL came around, Ferrara had all but lost his momentum:  THE BLACKOUT was released in 2001 after four years on the shelf, and 2002's 'R XMAS was a pale retread of past glories. The religious drama MARY (with Juliette Binoche, Matthew Modine, and Forest Whitaker), made in 2005, had a brief one-week run in L.A. in 2008 and still hasn't received a DVD or Blu-ray release, and the comedy GO GO TALES (with Modine, Willem Dafoe, and Bob Hoskins) made in 2007, played at film festivals and a couple of special event screenings, but has yet to receive an official US theatrical or home video release. Ferrara's most recent work to released in the US was 2009's CHELSEA ON THE ROCKS, a rambling documentary about NYC's Chelsea Hotel.  A long-planned KING OF NEW YORK prequel with Michael Pitt as a young Frank White never made it past pre-production, and the latest Ferrara news is that he's planning a film based on the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal.  Going back to his early efforts like 1979's THE DRILLER KILLER, 1981's MS. 45, and 1984's scuzzy masterpiece FEAR CITY, Ferrara has been a hellraising cinema maverick of the highest order, but somewhere in the late' 90s, after THE FUNERAL, he simply lost his way and has yet to recover.  KING OF NEW YORK, a truly one-of-a-kind gangster film and one of the last chances to see old-school Times Square on film in all its glory before it was cleaned up, is the perfect place to witness the beginning of prime Ferrara.  Here's hoping there's more to come.

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