A limo drives through the sleazy, dirty streets of New York as gangster Frank White (Christopher Walken) looks grievously out of the window at the poverty and crime which imbues the city. This is the electrifying opening of Abel Ferrara’s excellent crime film, The King of New York. It is a visceral portrait of a criminal world populated with drugs, guns and death.
Newly released from prison, Frank regains his power by killing off rival gangs and thriving on the drug market. From this description the film might seem formulaic, but it stands out as original, thanks to its main character. Frank is not a clichéd psychopathic gang boss – instead he is a criminal who is genuinely pained and sickened by the intense poverty he witnesses. While he may be a drug king-pin, he uses the money he gains to fund and open a hospital in an extremely poor borough of New York City.
He is criminal with a conscience, a modern day Robin Hood. However, this does not make him sentimental; he is ruthless and vicious but wants to leave his mark on the world as his criminal activities do nothing to help society. His determined attempts to open a hospital become an act of redemption for him. In this manner Frank is not a walking cliché, but a conflicted three-dimensional character.
The film is also a critique of the intense divide between rich and poor. In one scene, Frank attends a ball attended by the wealthiest citizens of New York, which is then contrasted with a scene back in the tough reality of the streets. Frank is in between the two: he is a product of the grimy streets but also part of the rich socialites he has worked his way up to – he now lives in a high-rise apartment with expensive furniture, golden shower-heads and two beautiful women at his side.
He has everything – he has achieved the American Dream, but this lifestyle clearly brings him no happiness. Frank confronts the poverty around him and realises that he operates in a world in which millions around him suffer. He is not cruel enough to dismiss the poverty around him but instead attempts to improve it by the only means he knows: crime.
The King of New York excels at being a compelling crime film, full of exciting set-pieces, including a beautifully directed shoot-out in the rain and a stylish car chase sequence. Yet it is also an exploration of a conflicted criminal in a city racked by vice and violence.