Like any good Catholic, bad-boy auteur Abel Ferrara has always had sin, morality, and retribution on his mind, but he views them through a grossly distorted lens, with characters who adopt their own unofficial codes of divine justice. When a mute seamstress is raped twice in Ferrara's superb 1981 exploitation thriller Ms. 45, she "speaks" with a gun, wiping out her attackers and a random sampling of the male population in the bargain. In the aptly titled Bad Lieutenant, Ferrara's 1992 tour de force starring Harvey Keitel, a deeply corrupt officer tries to redeem himself to the church by killing the men responsible for sexually assaulting a nun, only to find that the victim has forgiven her attackers.
Coming after a long purgatory in half-hearted B-pictures and TV land, where he directed episodes of Miami Vice and the Crime Story pilot, Ferrara's operatic 1990 gangster film King Of New York confirmed his affinity for the morally wayward and contradictory. A businessman, a philanthropist, and an executioner rolled into one, Christopher Walken elects himself mayor of the streets, which to him means confusing greed with altruism: Once he controls the city's drug trade, by any bloody means necessary, the other sleazy kingpins will be eliminated and a portion of the proceeds will finance community projects like an underfunded hospital in the South Bronx. After serving a long prison sentence, the scarily opaque Walken and his cronies (Laurence Fishburne, Steve Buscemi, and Giancarlo Esposito, among others) seize their turf through a sweeping coup, eliminating their competitors by force. With the police hogtied by procedure, rogue cop David Caruso and a few of his fellow officers (including Wesley Snipes) try to stop Walken's gang on their own, over the objections of by-the-book lieutenant Victor Argo.
The DVD release of King Of New York—which coincides with Argo's recent death from lung cancer—reveals Argo as the film's true moral center, a man unmoved by Walken's slippery justifications for mass slaughter. ("I've never killed anyone who didn't deserve it," he claims.) A Martin Scorsese discovery who appeared in five other Ferrara films, Argo is arguably the audience's lone surrogate in a shady urban landscape; his earthy features and self-effacing style make him a memorable foil to the flashier Walken. Without his quiet authority, King Of New York might be written off as an unrepentant gangsta playbook, all sleaze and decadence without the ballast of common decency.
The two-disc DVD set includes a couple of solid featurettes on Ferrara's production crew and rapper Schoolly D, but the real prize is the commentary by the director himself. With the sound of a cork popping in the background, Ferrara states upfront that the only reason he agreed to do the commentary at all is for the $5,000 in cash, and he sets about earning every dime. Frequently distracted by Bojan Bazelli's gorgeous cinematography ("It's Rembrandted out"), especially when it accentuates the female form ("Everything's perfecto, including this piece of ass"), Ferrara goes on to remark that he would never make a movie like King Of New York again, because the filmmaking is "fascistic" in its precision. All modesty aside, the film never made a bid for critical respectability like gangster contemporaries like GoodFellas and Miller's Crossing, but it deserves its place among them.