A few years ago, a ranking member of the Bloods street gang in Newark, N.J. was picked up on a federal wiretap discussing members of his organization. Everyone was known by their street names, revealed Edwin Spears, whose “gangster name” was “Movelli.”
“Red Eye brought me home,” he said of the gang leader who had recruited him. “I’m under Red Eye in New Jersey and I’m under Frank White in New York.”
Rapper Biggie Smalls (a.k.a. Notorious B.I.G.) referred to himself as the “black Frank White” 10 years earlier. According to some reports, the rapper had checked into a Los Angeles hotel as Frank White a few days before he was killed in a now-infamous drive-by shooting.
The name Frank White, it seems, has street cred.
That’s part of the bizarre legacy of King of New York, director Abel Ferrara’s violent, underworld morality tale that wants to be an inner-city Robin Hood story but lacks the nobility.
Christopher Walken plays—as only Walken can—Frank White, a drug dealer whose release from prison sets the film and the violence in motion. It would be a stretch to say that White has returned from prison a changed man, but he has returned as a man with a mission. He wants to raise $15 million to ensure that a hospital in the South Bronx—earmarked for closure in a fiscal crunch—is refurbished so that it can provide the same kind of medical benefits for the poor that New York City’s rich receive.
White and his entourage—including his lawyer and mistress Jennifer (Janet Julian)—hole up in a suite at the Plaza Hotel while his plan is set in motion. It’s a simple but logical approach: kill all your rivals and take their drugs and money.
“My feelings are dead,” White says after learning that the first of his rivals have been eliminated by his band of not-so-merry-but-oh-so-hopped-up hitmen. “I feel no remorse.” Walken delivers that line with dry, understated sarcasm, sending out a clear signal that there is much more carnage to come.
Much of that carnage comes courtesy of White’s principal shooter, Jimmy Jump (Laurence Fishburne, here billed as Larry Fishburne). Test Tube (Steve Buscemi) is the organization’s chemist.
First, a Hispanic drug dealer is blown away in a phone booth just outside a brothel he has visited. Then King Tito, a Colombian cocaine supplier, is gunned down in a hotel room along with three associates by Jimmy Jump, Test Tube, and a few other White henchmen pretending to complete a drug buy. When Tito opens an attaché case that Jimmy has handed to him, he finds that it’s full of tampons instead of cash. He looks up incredulously and asks what they’re for.
“They’re for the bullet holes, motherfucker,” Jimmy replies as he and the others pull out guns and open fire.
It’s one of the first of several stylish but overblown shootouts that perhaps helps explain the film’s strong following in certain segments of the underworld. A mob clubhouse in Little Italy and a restaurant in Chinatown provide the backdrops for more violence as White consolidates his hold on the city’s drug trade.
His reign of terror plays out against his wheeling and dealing with politicos, whom he charms into helping get the hospital project on track. A woman who is introduced to White at a restaurant as he moves between his two worlds says it best: “I’ve heard a lot about you, and it’s all bad.”
But several political figures, including a councilman in whose district the hospital is located, don’t seem to care where White’s money is coming from as long as they can stand up and take credit.
A group of cops see things differently and set out to take White down. Things quickly turn personal. Lead detectives Dennis Gilley (David Caruso) and Thomas Flanigan (Wesley Snipes) eventually decide that to succeed, they have to take the law into their own hands.
Giving a black cop a decidedly Irish name like Flanigan is apparently screenwriter Nicholas St. John’s attempt at urban humor—along with having a guy named White to lead a band of black gangsters.
While King of New York has its moments, they are drowned out by the incessant gunfire that is often a substitute for an actual plot.
HIT: The frustration of the cops trying to bring law and order to the drug underworld is real. That part of the story comes right out of daily headlines.
MISS: There’s a car chase across rain-soaked city streets that tries to mimic the classic scene in The French Connection. This chase, however, includes lots of gunfire at close range. Yet no one gets hit.
PIVOTAL SCENE: Gilley, Flanigan and other cops are in a bar watching a television report about a hospital fundraiser where White is hobnobbing with city power brokers. “Frank is a movie star,” Gilley says in disgust. “The King of New York. . . . This whole system favors the scumbag. We make thirty-six-five ($36,500) to risk our lives every night and Frank gets rich killing people.”
At that point, Gilley and Flanigan decide to stop playing by the rules.
BEST LINE: In a face-to-face with the commander of Gilley’s squad, White justifies his existence. “I never killed anybody that didn’t deserve it. This country spends $100 billion a year on getting high. That’s not because of me . . . I’m not your problem. I’m just a businessman.”
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “Abel Ferrara’s King of New York is all soft-core lighting and music video stylings—it’s an urban crime story with a Euro-disco flavor. . . . His specialty is a kind of hallucinatory tawdriness, and here he’s made a hepped-up film about drugs that plays as if the filmmakers themselves kept a healthy supply of the stuff at hand.”—Hal Hinson, Washington Post
VIOLENCE LEVEL: Off the charts.
BODY COUNT: Thirty-two, possibly higher. The shootouts are filmed from so many different angles and in so many different shadings that it’s impossible to be sure.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”