'King of New York' was released in 1990 to a firestorm of critical opinion. Some hailed its strong performances and violent imagery, while others called it an "abomination," complaining that it "lacked any hint of a moral compass." The original cut received an X rating from the MPAA and had to be trimmed by twelve minutes in order to nab an R. It has since gained a steady influx of curious fans over the years, and has even achieved cult status among fans of gangsta rap.
After serving time in prison, former drug lord Frank White (Christopher Walken) returns to find his old territory in shambles. Before his incarceration, White worked hard to keep innocents safe despite his extracurricular activities. However, the gangsters who came to power in his absence transformed the city into a vile and dangerous place. White's first order of business is to take out the cancerous kingpins who have infected the city. As his loyal lieutenants Jimmy Jump (Lawrence Fishburne) and Test Tube (Steve Buscemi) work to eliminate the competition, White attempts to improve the community by reinvesting his profits into a new hospital for the poor. Along the way, he finds himself at odds with the city's power players, the remaining mafiosos, and a group of vigilante cops (including Wesley Snipes and David Caruso) who are determined to put him away for good.
A shallow gangster flick, 'King of New York' will mainly appeal to fans of over-the-top '90s action movies. While the film invests a commendable amount of time into character development, it emphasizes splashy hits, sprayed gunfire, and quotable one-liners at every turn. White has been artificially crafted at every level to be as magnetic to viewers as possible -- he's flanked by female bodyguards, gains the respect of rival underlings, and ends up taking care of business with his own gun more than once. The film doesn't waste much time reflecting on White's vile nature and questionable methods; instead, he's written and played as a loveable anti-hero that deserves applause regardless of his actions. After all, the movie supposes, he has the noblest of intentions.
Director Abel Ferrara ('Bad Lieutenant,' 'The Addiction') can't seem to settle on a tone for the film. Is 'King of New York' a gory morality tale a la 'Scarface,' a study of criminal virtues in the vein of 'The Godfather,' or a dark twist on Shakespearean tragedies? The film seems to bobble clumsily between all three instead of developing a consistent identity. For me, the disjointed result makes it difficult to sink my teeth into the story and nearly impossible to suspend disbelief. As it stands, it would seem Ferrara wants to shock rather than resonate.
The one saving grace in 'King of New York' is Christopher Walken. He's a joy to watch and commands the screen every time he appears. While other actors ham it up and practically wink at the camera, Walken instills gravitas into his role and genuinely sells every line he delivers. He manages to create a human being in a film dominated by animalistic caricatures, injecting subtlety into his emotions and thoughtfulness into his dialogue.
'King of New York' may have an impassioned cult following, but I won't be joining the crowd on this one. Christopher Walken delivers a strong performance, but that doesn't redeem the heavy-handed missteps of the film's director. I can handle the controversy, the ultraviolence, and the film’s amoral tone, but I just can't connect with the film on any personal level. While I'll admit watching it wasn't a complete waste of time, I can't imagine sitting through it again.
(Note that this cut of 'King of New York' is the R-rated version of the film -- the fabled uncut edition is still MIA.)
'King of New York' arrives on Blu-ray with a decent 1080p/VC-1 transfer that's noticeably cleaner than the Special Edition DVD released in 2004. Fine detail looks natural and isn't hindered by troublesome artifacting. To its credit, edges are crisp, and background elements are nicely rendered. Wide shots of the city are occasionally weak (as is often the case with '80s and '90s catalog releases), but closer shots pack the screen with tiny, sharp details. Skintones are generally stable, and saturation is healthy from shot to shot, regardless of the lighting. There were a few instances where faces seemed flushed, but such brief hiccups would seem to emanate from the source material itself rather than this transfer.
Sadly, Ferrara's New York doesn't exactly pop in high definition. The color palette looks muted and blood is inky when it should be vibrant. Black levels aren't always resolved and shadow delineation is unreliable. The print could also use some work -- scratches, blemishes, and softer scenes mar the better attributes of the transfer. Simply put, while some may appreciate this transfer’s nostalgic roughness, from a picture quality perspective, 'King of New York’ simply can't compete with better catalog releases on Blu-ray.
The Blu-ray edition of 'King of New York' includes a DTS HD High-Resolution 6.1 surround track and a Dolby Digital EX 5.1 surround track (640 kbps). Alas, both mixes sound weak, narrow, and dated.
Dialogue is clear and well-prioritized, but I found myself pushing the volume higher than usual. Likewise, ambiance is fleeting, and the surrounds are rarely engaging. The mix uses the rear speakers on occasion but not enough to bring Ferrara's New York to life. Environmental acoustics are stagey, looped lines are obvious, and the soundfield is concentrated across the front channels. Worst of all, explosive sound effects (such as gunshots) lack proper LFE punch and fail to register with the power I've come to expect from high-definition audio tracks. All in all, the audio experience is adequate, but not unlike the video, it pales in comparison to top-tier catalog releases.
The audio and video may be underwhelming, but at least Lionsgate has ported over all of the supplemental features from the 2004 2-Disc Special Edition DVD (albeit in 480i/p only).
First up is a jaw-droppingly egotistical commentary track with director Abel Ferrara, where he insults everyone who takes issue with the film, goes on a rant about other renowned filmmakers (including Stanley Kubrick), and attempts to make Frank White sound like a saint. After chuckling through a half hour of Ferrara praising his own talent, I had to pause the commentary and take a breath. However, despite my personal distaste for the director, I can't help but recommend this track -- it's so bizarre, and so laughably out of control that I almost guarantee you'll have a great time.
A second commentary thankfully features some genuine discussion about the film but grows somewhat tiresome after a while. This track features producer Mary Kane, editor Anthony Redman, composer Joe Delia, and associate producer Randy Sabusawa. Unlike Ferrara himself, they talk at length about the script, specific shots, and working with the cast. Their comments lean towards the technical, but all things considered, there’s much more to be learned from this track than there is from Ferrara’s.
"A Short Film about the Long Career of Abel Ferrara" (45 minutes) includes interviews with a number of cast and crew members from Ferrara's films. This is a well-balanced piece that provides a lot of information about his career (as well as some insight into the source of his commentary shenanigans). Even if you didn't enjoy 'King of New York,' this is an excellent documentary about a unique and challenging filmmaker.
"The Adventures of Schoolly D: Snowboarder" (45 minutes) is a documentary that examines the career of the influential rapper whose music is featured in the film, and is directly responsible for its cult status among gangsta rap fans.
Rounding out this release is a "Schoolly D Music Video" (3 minutes), a pair of TV spots, and the film's theatrical trailer.
'King of New York' continues to split audiences and critics today as much as it did upon its original release in 1990. This Blu-ray edition features a decent video transfer that mildly improves upon the DVD and a weak set of audio tracks that fail to match the film's intensity. Still, Ferrara followers will be happy to see all of the supplements from the 2-disc Special Edition DVD make a repeat appearance. At the end of the day, I recommend that you rent this one before making a purchase decision. Between the polarizing film itself and this disc's technical inadequacies, 'King of New York' is a risk.