"I must have been away too long, because my feelings are dead. I feel no remorse. It's a terrible thing." —Christopher Walken, with an ironic smirk, in King Of New York
The money shot in Abel Ferrara's 1990 gangster film King Of New York finds Christopher Walken's Frank White, a drug kingpin freshly released from prison, assessing the state of his empire. As he looks out at the skyline from his suite at the Plaza Hotel, the city is superimposed on the window, reflecting the predatory ambitions of a man who believes he should be the de facto mayor. The image unmistakably recalls a similar shot in The Godfather, Part II, when young Vito Corleone, quarantined on Ellis Island after the long journey from Sicily, casts his eyes on the Statue Of Liberty and sees the promise of America from a more innocent vantage. We know from the first Godfather that Vito, like Frank, will aggressively seize on the opportunities laid out before him, and both men have a vision of power where machine guns and backroom politics are equally important weapons in the arsenal.
Calling King Of New York a street-level Godfather freights the film with a level of importance it can't possibly shoulder, but it's nonetheless impossible to separate the two films completely, because there are so many intersections and points of departure. The big difference between Frank White and the Corleone brass is that Frank isn't afraid to get his hands dirty; if an emissary can't iron out a deal with a bitter rival, he's right there on the front lines, guns a-blazin', leading by example. (If Ferrara remade The Godfather with Frank White, we'd no doubt witness Walken personally sawing the head off that prize thoroughbred.) Unlike the Corleones, who position themselves for long-term dominance, with power handed down from one generation to the next, White doesn't have a family and knows his time on earth is limited. Resigned to the fact that he could die at any moment, another man might retreat into his shell or seek out a less perilous occupation, but Frank does the opposite. He's so absurdly brazen that he pulls a drive-by on a cop in the middle of a police funeral.
Walken has always been difficult to read, and though flagrant weirdness (and a talent for dance) is his stock in trade, his face also carries a disturbing, almost alien opacity that makes him seem disconnected from us mere mortals. At times, his character pauses to enjoy the considerable fruits of his labor—he frequently travels with two female companions attached to his arms, and he'll break out a mischievous grin on occasion—but he could never be described as a pleasure-seeker. His lust is for power, but to what personal end isn't so clear. He surrounds himself with the decadence his lifestyle affords—nouveau-riche furnishings, lingerie-clad women in every corner, mountains of cocaine he sells but never touches—but unlike his top enforcer, played with a devilish cackle by Laurence Fishburne, he doesn't have much fun with it. At the same time, he isn't Michael Corleone: His sins never tug at his conscience, because the end somehow justifies them, and makes them seem pettier than they really are. He's an enigma.
For a ruthless drug kingpin, Frank has an uncanny ability to gobble up territory by bloody force while simultaneously granting himself moral absolution. During his time away, the city has fallen into rampant criminality; cruising through the streets in his limo, he assesses the drug and prostitute trade like an efficiency expert assesses a bloated, undisciplined company. With a small army and some key political connections in place, Frank sets about running the other gangsters out of town, including the Colombian cocaine merchants (who get a briefcase full of tampons in lieu of a cash payment), cigar-chomping Italian mobsters, and a vicious syndicate operating out of Chinatown. Frank pays lip service to the idea of doing business with the other crews, but he's really out to steamroll over them and become… well, the title says it all, doesn't it? Consolidating power takes force, but his charisma plays a part, too. In this remarkable scene, Frank's turns the tables on a trio of muggers, but not in an expected way:
Naturally, Frank's exploits frustrate the cops who have to jump through procedural hoops to get a bead on him, including Victor Argo, Wesley Snipes, and a pre-self-parody David Caruso. As their veteran leader, Argo's Roy Bishop has the patience to play by the rules and build a case against Frank, but his younger charges start getting other ideas. With the body count rising precipitously, Roy's cohorts decide to take the fight directly to Frank's crew, risking their jobs and lives in the process. Like a proto-Heat, King Of New York builds to a showdown between two grizzled professionals on opposite sides of the law, each operating on codes more rigorously defined than those of their underlings.
Like his longtime screenwriter Nicholas St. John—who penned Ms. 45, Fear City, China Girl, Body Snatchers, Dangerous Game, and The Funeral for Ferrara before the two had a falling out—Ferrara often parlays his Catholicism into dark morality tales about characters who think about sin and redemption, but operate under a twisted set of values and codes. After a mute seamstress is raped twice in Ferrara's superb 1981 exploitation thriller Ms. 45 (hat-tip to Danny Peary's Cult Movies 2 for introducing me to that one), she "speaks" with a gun, wiping out her attackers and a fair sampling of the male population in the bargain. And in Bad Lieutenant, his most notorious film, Harvey Keitel tries to redeem his very bad self by killing the men responsible for sexually assaulting a nun, only to find himself spiritually amiss when the nun forgives her attackers. Ms. 45 is a vigilante film and Bad Lieutenant is a film about redemption, but the eponymous characters in both are seeking justice by painting well outside the lines of lawful society.
Frank falls squarely within that tradition, and St. John and Ferrara are very deliberate in bringing his code into the light. We come to understand in great detail how Frank intends to consolidate his empire, but the whys are left unclear for a while, and Walken certainly isn't the type of actor to give anything away. Yes, it's revealed early on that Frank intends to funnel his drug money, Robin Hood-like, into a poorly funded hospital in the South Bronx, accomplishing with dirty money what politicians have neither the compassion nor the clout to accomplish with legitimate tax dollars. Never mind, of course, the number of bodies that Frank and his men put in that hospital by dealing drugs and controlling the streets. But it isn't until late in the film, when Frank and Roy finally have their extraordinary mano-a-mano, that St. John and Ferrara clarify Frank's vision of a city that better attends to its citizens' needs and vices. While not exactly an inspirational speech, it does suggest the staggering depths of Frank's delusional sense of honor among thieves.
In the end, Frank's logic is that people will always need drugs and sex, so why should they keep getting those things from gangsters who exploit them, when they could get them from a guy who gives back to the community, too? Part of what makes King Of New York work—aside from the deep supporting cast (including minor roles for Steve Buscemi, Giancarlo Esposito, and Paul Calderon), combustible setpieces, and gorgeous cinematography by Bojan Bazelli (on the DVD commentary, Ferrara calls the photography "Rembrandted out")—is that St. John and Ferrara have some investment in Frank's point of view. Ferrara, for one, hasn't exactly been a saint in his personal life—in my interview with him back in 2002, he talked about doing "'research,' quote-unquote" for his drug-dealing 2001 movie 'R Xmas—and his films tend to embrace heroes that are morally challenged, to say the least. In King Of The City, Frank's evil and hypocrisy coexist uneasily with his genuine philanthropy and a self-serving brand of justice. St. John and Ferrara embrace the whole package.
But for me, it's really Roy who's the moral center of the film. And under Walken's long shadow, Argo quietly delivers a standout performance. A veteran character actor, the late Argo was a favorite of Ferrara's, appearing in six of his films. But here, Argo got maybe the richest role of his career, playing a cop in the dignified mold of Tommy Lee Jones' sheriff in No Country For Old Men, someone who lacks the power to confront an overwhelming force of evil. Argo's earthy features and self-effacing style make him a memorable foil to the flashier Walken. Without him, King Of New York might be written off as exploitative gangsta fare, all sleaze and decadence for its own sake. With him, it has the ballast of common decency.
Next week: Mysterious Skin
Jan. 29: Bitter Moon
Feb. 5: Velvet Goldmine
Feb. 12: The Limey (commentary track)