Talk is Cheap: The Lean Violence of Abel Ferrara’s KING OF NEW YORK (1990)

Abel Ferrara’s searing crime drama, King of New York, eschews many conventions of the gangster genre as we know it to visualize the dangers of both confronting his archetypal gangster, Frank White (Christopher Walken), as well as the hazardous nature of embodying this characterization.

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I say “characterization” because of Ferrara’s proclivity for active roles within the narrative composition. Frank White is a symbol of a glorified structure in film – the romanticized embodiment of the crime boss. He lives at The Plaza hotel, he is consistently surrounded by the allure of drugs and sexualized women, he’s engaging in an affair with his lawyer, and he circumstantially has the upper-hand at every moment; even when he is sabotaged, he’s the cool-headed player that makes it out clean and saves his number one hit-man, Jimmy Jump (Laurence Fishburne), himself a single-layered characterization of a black, hip-hop-style gangster.

Active is the operative word in this film. Absent are the expositional monologues about power, respect and the glorification of the gangster ideologies. Precious little time is spent laying out the minutia of the criminal’s master plan. Ferrara keeps the narrative focused on active participants, and what little exposition there is becomes a causality for direct action.

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Running parallel to the gangster narrative is the well-worn cliche of the frustrated law enforcement element that historically runs almost ubiquitously tandem to the criminal characters. Again, exposition is minimal. As with the criminal elements, Ferrara embeds an incendiary quality to law enforcement, often abstaining from procedural structures and the “unpleasantness” of due process historically endowed to police narratives.

 

To wit, there is cross-pollination between these dialectically opposed forces. The overarching goal of Frank’s criminal activity is to, in a sense, eviscerate those that taint the streets of New York with more disreputable endeavors such as under-aged prostitution, in service of his benevolent goal: to save a hospital in a low-income neighborhood that is in danger of shuttering its doors. The means with which he carries out his plan is characteristically violent for the archetype, and, therefore, abhorrent, but purposeful.

Countering this behavior is the NYPD homicide unit fed up with the ineffectiveness of the judicial system. In particular, two of the younger detectives, Dennis Gilley (David Caruso) and Thomas Flanigan (Wesley Snipes), have been pushed beyond their limit. With body counts rising, they descend into vigilante justice, the center-piece of which is a gang-style ambush on a meeting between Frank and another criminal associate. This scene proves to be the pivotal moment in the arc of the opposing forces and is a riveting stretch of filmmaking on Ferarra’s part.

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The majority of scenes that traditionally serve as building blocks to climactic physical confrontation such as those are, in this film, merely smaller physical confrontations. Frank holds several meetings with crime bosses around New York City, nearly all of which end in Taratino-style violence. The first violent interaction involving Frank, directly, occurs not long after he is set free after serving a 5 year prison sentence, a scene which ends in a vicious execution of a reigning crime boss who chooses not to do business with Frank.

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On the flip side, during an attendance of a Broadway show, NYPD’s finest show up to forcibly detain Frank, threaten his life, and leave him in a secluded part of town. Little regard is shown by the detectives for proper procedure, invoking a bordering-on-criminal level of malice in their attitude and modus operadi.

These attitudes and procedures run concurrent with one another, and while the glorification of criminal conduct is present, the film makes you question which side of the coin is on the wrong side of ethical action.

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These are but a couple examples in a film filled with physical progression. To reiterate, the film is propelled by moments of action on both sides of the story. The film clocks in at a fairy brisk 103 minutes, largely by wasting little time explaining the purpose of the action. The film spends more time lingering on the sensationalized lavish and lascivious criminal lifestyle of Frank and Jimmy Jump’s crew than it does explaining their behaviors. Likewise, the unrest within the NYPD homicide unit is not manifested into a descriptive scene of how they plan to ambush Frank. The scenes are going to occur whether they are explained or not, and Ferrara wisely chooses actions over words.

Thus, he proves there is no need for the banalities of exposition. Each scene has purpose and builds a segment of the narrative through purely cinematic means; that is, by recording the material action in front of the camera and allowing us to fill in the gaps. That is the truest definition of the goal of cinema I can think of.

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