Thursday, December 01, 2005

Day 62: King of New York

Notable for a fun, over-the-top performance by Laurence "Larry" Fishburne, a cool, indulgent performance by Christopher Walken, and some hyperslick cinematography, King of New York is not quite good, but it is an authentic greasy diner at 3 a.m kind-of. junk food viewing experience that is often alluring.  The tone of the film shows what a film would be like if Michael Mann, Ridley Scott, and Brian DePalma were fused together in a freaky telepod accident, a three-way Brundlefly of slick, pretty cinematics and unfulfilled arty aspirations, expressed through heartfelt close-ups of violence and tits; a Brundlefly named Abel Ferrara.  It's not quite as good as it sounds though.  If this were a more focused character drama or a go-for-broke, by the numbers genre film, it would have been awesome, but the movie straddles both worlds unsuccessfully, leading to a pretty, yet scattershot mush.

Walken plays Frank White, a New York drug kingpin returning home from a lengthy stay in prison.  He's anxious to reclaim the city's crime scene from those he feels are unworthy to carry the torch, motivated by a newfound sense of altruism.  White's big plan is to fund a hospital in a poor neighborhood with his drug money, and he wouldn't mind taking out the other drug lords who, according to him, unnecessarily exploit people while he does this.  Meanwhile, a group of cops led by David Caruso steam and fume over his release, lament his wealth from a life of crime while they barely make do with their miniscule salaries.

A wonderful moment, albeit one of easy sentiment, occurs about three-fourths of the way into the movie.  Walken, in a dingy underground tunnel, orders the death of the squealer.  He walks to the exit of the tunnel and stops, staring out at the city he loves.  The camera stays behind, observing him from within.  It's a beautiful moment, capturing the way the lifestyle Walken is leading holds him back from realizing his dreams for New York.  It's the stuff of every gangster movie in memory: the desire to leave a corrupt and failed system to do some real good, but being unable to do so.  It's quiet, poignant and thoughtful, and the movie could do with some more of this kind-of filmmaking if it had anything it wanted to say about White's misplace altruism.

But, then there's all the shooting.  The genre beats, the shoot-outs, and the squib explosions are all accomplished bits of filmmaking in their own right.  I admired the way some of the death scenes in the movie were played by the actors as extensions of their characters, not simply "I am dead now!" moments where they'd get shot out of the plot.  And I particularly enjoyed the way two out-of-focus background bums watched a climactic shootout.  A long car chase with shooting on the wet, rainy (and bridgey) streets of New York is well handled too.

So what's wrong here?  Frankly, Walken dances a little too much (blasphemy, I know.  It should be noted, though, that there's a classic buildup to a Walken monologue near the end.), the script focuses on certain story beats for much longer periods of time than they deserve, and the film's conclusion is a muddled riff on the reflexive nature of power and violence.  You know, the old live by the sword, die by the zzzzzzz, huh, what?  Oh yeah.  The editing is also all over the place; the movie never really finds a narrative a groove until sometime in the third act and this groove is quickly discarded.  So, despite the excessive and vulgar tawdriness at times, King of New York is not great, kinda fun, and better than McBain.  


Shane said...

When I used to write movie reviews, I described Wes Bentley in "American Beauty" as "a creepy Brundlefly of Tobey Maguire." I'm pleased to see that I'm not the only one who considers that word to be a standalone reference.

Rock on.

David Wester said...

Brundlefly should be in everyone's vocabulary and used at least once a year.