King of New York (1990): Abel Ferrara Controversial Urban Tale, Starring Christooher Walken

A chronicler of the dark and nasty (some say “sick”) nature of modern urban life, Abel Ferrara perceives himself as a rowdy outsider, a rules-breaker.

His combative personality is reflected in films which fall into the crack between exploitation and art, hype and hip. His audience has been small but appreciative, a peculiar mix of the action and art-house crowds.

Ferrara began to be taken more seriously with King of New York, which was shown at the 1990 New York Film Fest, where it elicited walkouts (including Ferrara’s own wife) along with commensurate praise.

Ferrara’s movies are morality tales, explorations of good and evil that offer only light suggestions of redemption. This theme received its most schematic and religious treatment in Bad Lieutenant, arguably his chef d’oeuvre.

Thematically, if not stylistically, King of New York (1990), Bad Lieutenant (1992), and The Funeral (1996) form some sort of an urban trilogy. Probably, no director in the contemporary American cinema has exhibited in his work such a gap between the dictates of his head and those of his gut.

In film after film, Ferrara’s high art and philosophical ambitions clash with his more natural disposition for lowlife sleaze. This may be a result of his collaboration with an intellectual screenwriter, Nicholas St. John, but also of undeniable pretensions as evidenced in the “existential” vampire film, The Addiction.

Like Scorsese, who has cultivated a special relationship with De Niro, Ferrara has his own favorite ensemble. Christopher Walken is Ferrara’s quintessential actor, an eerily entertaining mannerist whose specialty is the delivery of long monologues filled with weird intellectual and moral overtones.

Combining a scary temper with balletic grace, good and bad impulses co-exist within Walken’s battling soul. In King of New York, Walken played a crime lord out to regain his turf, and in The Addiction, a tough-minded vampire-mentor of a female recruit. As the family’s leader in The Funeral, Walken played a murderer who declares contempt for flaws of the criminal mind just as he is about to kill someone.

A virtuoso of grunge, Ferrara neglects narrative coherence, dramatic logic, and empathy. Technically, King of New York is his most stylish film, but emotionally, it’s as vapid as Ms. 45 or Fear City. A lurid drama steeped in the bright lights and noisy rhythms of urban decadence, it’s the story of a drug kingpin (Walken), who operates with venality and pragmatism. But he’s also blessed with a streak of idealism, planning to strong-arm the city’s drug lords into redistributing their money to the poor and building a hospital for them. These “moral” concerns are contained in ultra-violent movies, which is Hollywood’s time-honored strategy: Make anti-violence pictures by showing more of it.

Ferrara’s instincts are clearly on the side of mayhem, juicing everything up, exploiting urban fears; his expository, nonviolent sequences often lack dramatic sense. He rehashes a perennial theme of crime films: The thin line between cops and criminals, though his screen cops exceed the norms. In Ferrara’s world, ambiguity almost erases the distinction between cops and the debased world they are meant to serve.