Friday, June 01, 2012

King of New York

Frank White (Christopher Walken) gets out of prison, is driven off in a stretch limo with two ladies of easy virtue present and correct on the back seat. He tours the old neighbourhood. Meanwhile, an old score is settled as a rival is aerated by several dozen shotgun rounds. Frank’s nocturne continues, the Vivaldi violin concerto striking an appropriately contrapuntal note on the soundtrack to the grim urban landscapes the mobster’s caddy glides through. Elsewhere in the city, Jimmy Jump (Laurence – billed as Larry – Fishburne) and Test Tube (Steve Buscemi) rip off some Latino dealers and fill them full of holes. This done, they rendezvous with Frank to celebrate his release, pay their tribute from the sting and get in on the ground floor for the Frank-White-reclaims-NY business proposition. 

So far, so fall-and-rise-of-Italian-American-mob-guy. But prison has changed Frank. Well, slightly. He now hangs out as much with the city’s prime legal movers – principally advocate Abraham Cott (Jay Julien) and sexy counsellor Jennifer (Janet Julian) – as he does with the pimps, pushers, whores and homies who constitute his usual retinue. And with a hospital in his old stamping ground due to close because of municipal budget reductions, he takes an uncharacteristic interest in philanthropy. But his do-gooding (financed by his not-so-do-gooding) is threatened by the tenacity of hard-bitten cop Roy Bishop (Victor Argo). Frustrated by the ministrations of Frank’s legal eagles, Roy’s number two – the righteously indignant and dangerously unpredictably Dennis Gilley (David Caruso) – posits a drastic plan of action and due process be damned.

For its first half, ‘King of New York’ plays less as a cohesive narrative than a collection of loosely connected sequences that suggest scripter Nicholas St John had presented director Abel Ferrara with a précis and some writing samples rather than a finished screenplay. Frank’s takeover of territories ruled by pretenders to his throne such as the straight-out-of-central-casting Artie Clay (Frank Gio) and the equally clichéd Larry Wong (Joey Chin) is reduced to a series of vignettes that lack any real sense of the scale of the operations involved. How prison changed him isn’t really explored, and the drive behind his determination to save the hospital is more a plot device than a result of characterisation and motivational development.

Likewise, the internal dynamic of Roy’s team comes across as shoehorned by the requirements of the script, instead of developing naturally. A terrific Irish wedding scene gives us our only real glance of who these guys are off-duty, after which they’re relegated to sparkplugs for an often disjointed narrative. The wedding scene is one of a cluster of great individual moments – it rates alongside a white-knuckle car chase/shoot-out by night, a risky hit at a cop funeral and Frank’s violent intrusion on Artie’s poker game – that add up to a film that’s never less than watchable despite its flaws. (The less said about the horribly staged Chinatown gundown, however, the better.)

The second half is somewhat more focused, with Frank’s still-embryonic empire beginning to crumble, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that ‘King of New York’, with its sparse running time (99 minutes) and production values indicative of a restrictive budget, is a gangster epic that wants to be sprawling and expansive, boasting a huge cast of colourful supporting characters, but has looked at the available funds, shrugged and tried to hit as many of the high notes as it can.

And yet … and yet …

Ferrara scores an incredibly effective point in the juxtaposition of Frank’s public façade – all swanky restaurants and high-class acquaintances and artsy milieus – with the reality of the criminal underworld: decrepit crack-houses, well-appointed but anonymous hotel rooms, edgy associates and glaze-eyed hookers. Drastically different aesthetics, but Ferrara shoots both as commentaries on lifestyle porn. If, in the final analysis, ‘King of New York’ can be said to have a theme, it’s about the reduction of success to surface sheen and death to designer ennui.

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