Abel Ferrara’s ‘King of New York’ gained a true, cult reputation of a legitimate gangster classic

Sven Mikulec

When it comes to filmmakers who are, among other things, distinguished for their strong and passionate connection to New York City, names such as Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet and Spike Lee naturally come to mind. However, there’s one crucial director, symbol of the American independent cinema of the nineties, that mustn’t be forgotten. Abel Ferrara’s two arguably most accomplished films, King of New York and Bad Lieutenant, are blood-soaked love letters to the city which made Ferrara a person and artist that he is today. King of New York, fuelled by one the finest performances Christopher Walken ever delivered, is a dark tale of the Big Apple’s crime world, a portrait of a violent and unforgiving place inhabited by sinful people whose moral compass and their very soul are colored in every possible shade of grey. Thanks to the inspired writing of Nicholas St. John, Ferrara’s frequent collaborator, we’re introduced to characters who can’t be simply classified as good or evil, and this ambiguity and unpredictability of the protagonists, mixed with exceptional acting both from Walken and the impressive line of supporting actors (Laurence Fishburne, Wesley Snipes, David Caruso, Steve Buscemi), is what drives the film forward.

‘King of New York’ is so lovely. We only murder every motherfucker in that movie. Because when I made that film, that’s how I felt. I love it when they say, “Can’t you make ‘King of New York II’? And I say, “Well, the only person that’s left is the 75-year-old lawyer. Every other person in that movie is dead. Every single human being in that film is dead.” The only one that tops that is the last movie I made, where we kill everyone on the planet. In ‘4:44,’ we kill every single human being—and not only that, but I didn’t even realize it until I was making the movie, we destroy every work of art. It’s not one of those things where, like, all the people are dead, then the Earth resuscitates and they find the Mona Lisa. No. Everything gets burned. Every work of art—all of Quentin Tarantino’s movies are dead, all of the fucking Louvre is gone, every fucking scratching on a cave wall, every little kid’s little fucking drawing of their mother and their house. Gone. Zero. That’s where we’re at. Better than King of New York, right? I’m growing as an artist. —Abel Ferrara

The action is quick and merciless, possessing a sort of an almost comic book-like quality, the visuals are hauntingly charming and nostalgic and in the service of creating an ultimately gritty, unromanticized vision of the United States’ probably most inspiring city of all, the musical score, thumping with hip-hop, is ever so fitting. King of New York leaves the feeling of ultimate authenticity, as Ferrara chose to shoot on genuine locations. Shot on a budget of merely 5 million dollars, Ferrara’s film didn’t exactly win over the critics back at the time of its release, but over the years it gained a true, cult reputation of a legitimate gangster classic. It’s undeniable bravery to full-frontedly tackle themes and subjects most would rather look away from perhaps served as a foundation for critically acclaimed TV shows as The Shield or The Wire, which garnered success dealing with subjects Ferrara dissected more than a decade earlier. A hard-edged crime thriller that rewards with an experience no true lover of the genre should afford to miss out on.

A monumentally important screenplay. Screenwriter must-read: Nicholas St. John’s screenplay for King of New York [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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Ferrara takes pride in his capacity to shock. “They used to have these charts of how many people were killed in a movie, how many curse words,” he says. “Well, King of New York made Scarface look like Mary Poppins.” The film has become a hip-hop favourite, partly because of the flamboyant terrorism waged by Walken, Laurence Fishburne and their gang. —Abel Ferrara: ‘I made Scarface look like Mary Poppins’ 

A conversation with legendary film director Abel Ferrara on his films and his carreer, recorded by celluloid Filmmagazin at the Locarno Filmfestival 2011 on August 5th, 2011.

Abel Ferrara talks about directing.

Advice for young filmmakers from director Abel Ferrara.

Bronx native Abel Ferrara directed his first low-budget feature in 1979 and, in the three decades since, has cemented his status as a legend of American independent filmmaking with his signature uncompromising portraits of men and women in conflict with their inner demons: Ms. 45, King of New York, Bad Lieutenant. As he comes to the New York Film Festival with his intimate end-of-the-world tale 4:44: Last Day On Earth, Ferrara will discuss the breadth of his remarkable career and his return to New York filmmaking after an extended stay in Europe.

The Abel Guy—Abel Ferrara

For the French cinephile series Cinéma, de notre temps, Rafi Pitts made an intimate portrait of Abel Ferrara. The result is an eccentric road-movie, with the restless Ferrara as a charming, seedy guide, leading us through nocturnal New York. Pitts’ introverted approach offers all the room Ferrara needs and he has no trouble filling this space with his larger-than-life personality. We see him quarrel with taxi drivers, start talking frankly to strange women in the street and tell his version of the truth, to anyone who wants to hear. But his isolation becomes apparent, in an America, to which Ferrara does not want to conform.

Photographed by Steve Sands © Reteitalia, Scena International, The Rank Organisation. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

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