A freed Frank White returns to the mean streets of New York, where he attempts to reassert his power over the Gotham underworld while cozying up to the city’s seemingly-legit interests. This disquieting tale is not about crime, itself, or greed, or brotherhood amongst thieves. It’s an amoral story of politics and power.
(Some short thoughts on Abel Ferrara’s film. Spoilers ahead.)
From its portrayals of the legitimate and illegitimate to a story that is itself conventional but also not, Abel Ferrara’s King of New York (1990) walks a myriad of fine lines. It’s a story where everyone is a protagonist and an antagonist. There are no good guys, but subsequently, there aren’t any real villains either. It is a cinematic ninety minutes or so that seems empty, in the sense that nothing seems to really happen story-wise (or, at best, seems outwardly conventional). But is there power behind this hollow façade?
Frank White is a truly enigmatic character. As his limo ride streaks through the dirtied down-under of New York’s underbelly, few words are spoken. We are not yet sure at this point whether he is happy (although, out of prison, who wouldn’t be?) or simply lost in thought. He seems to wield enough power to at least attempt to steer legitimate political interests, but his closest companions and confidantes seem to be nothing more than street thugs. Other than his lover-attorney, who hobnobs with New York’s “finest”, he seems to cull potential hires straight off the street (and subway). When confronted by muggers, he shows his gun in defense. Then he throws them a wad of cash, declaring that anytime they want work, to look him up at his Plaza Hotel suite and apparent “office”. The muggers, freshly converted by this display of wealth, show up later as a few of White’s hired guns.
To be fair, we aren’t entirely sure from where Frank White gets his power or even his money. Narcotics are certainly center-stage, and there is certainly enough money in that. His money, and apparent stranglehold on a good chunk of NYC’s underworld, seems to be his primary source of power, not only economic, but political. When he can’t buy someone off, with money upfront or through cooperation, he guns them down (in the film’s finale, he justifies his actions by claiming his rivals were killed for their participation in some deplorable crimes, such as child prostitution, rather than outright competition). It’s the policy of “silver or lead”. Naturally, this approach is blocked when he enters the world of legit interests. There are a few scenes where it is apparent that his cash influx has failed to successfully steer certain political interests. Frank White, in solemnity, seems to realize that it is not so easy for him to simply revert to his second option – lead – to sort out his legit problems.
Not that those who actually wield legitimate force and power, certainly the legitimate use of violence, fair any better. If there’s one part of the system that White deftly manages, it’s the criminal, an apt name for it. Of course, far from being too soft on crime – as many would argue – White manages to circumvent several legal roadblocks for virtue of one thing: money. He’s a convict, but convicted of what we are not entirely sure. We saw neither the trial nor its aftermath. What were the charges? Did he somehow maneuver for an early release? Questions linger. In the film, we are not shown any sort of political influence which immunizes White from the legal system, ala Tammany, so we must assume there’s some money involved. It certainly helps to have some powerful lawyers on your payroll, including one whom you happen to be sleeping with.
But just as Frank White finds it hard to manage in the world of legit affairs, the cops (including the young David Caruso and Wesley Snipes) find it equally so in the shady nether regions of the Big Apple. They, too, are hampered by the legitimate system of which they are part. When they have the means, they find there is no end. When there’s an end in sight, the means – in some cases, highly questionable – completely fail. They capture Frank in some legal maneuver. He’s out on the streets shortly after. After witnessing White’s ability to “evade” the law, and cow-tow to legitimate interests, several of the cops become visibly irate. In desperation, they concoct some hair-brained (and hair-triggered) plan to disguise themselves as a rival gang and eliminate White. This plan nearly succeeds. However, all of the gung-ho cops involved in this shootout either die or are horribly maimed, while the prize, Frank White, escapes.
But not for long.
Much of this – politics and power – is hardly uttered outright. The story that unfolds onscreen allows the viewer to interpret the messages “between the lines”. The real New York City is, itself, the convergence and conglomeration of both permanent and temporary political and power interests, including between the legitimate and illegitimate “worlds”. Amidst the dirty streets and the reflections of high-rises atop them, all the characters actually inhabit but one world. It is a world where money talks, but only so much. Power gets you only so far. It is a world of competition between self-interested individuals. Even Frank White’s attempt to do good for his community rings hollow. Is he truly altruistic? Or is he concerned about his self-image?
It’s a film portrayal of either amorality, or morality in the sense that “good” and “bad” inhabits every one of us. In this movie, there are no real “good” guys and there are no real “bad” guys. Every facet of society, from the seedy underworld to the one seemingly over it, is intertwined. A lawyer defends his crime boss client, citing legal precedent: it’s his job. The crime boss, meanwhile, is attempting to go straight, at least partway. Donations to a hospital by White are met with skepticism (and anger) by cops, and ridicule by other underworld figures. The cops are conniving, breaking countless laws to trap one man. Even Jimmy Jump, the obnoxious, loudmouthed, yet likable, gang member, shows a softer side.
Loyalty, however, lies principally in one place: to oneself. At the film’s climax, enterprising cops, led by Gilley (Caruso) and Flanigan (Snipes), pose as drug dealers. Upon gaining access to Frank White during one of his gang’s underworld parties, they let loose. A furious gunfight erupts. The drug deal was setup by Joey Dalesio, a man who speaks the message of self-interest loud and clear. Dalesio, a sort of underworld broker-turned-turncoat, whose betrayal precipitated the shootout, vocalizes that his intention to betray Frank was predicated on money. In other words, he wanted only to look out for himself.
Let’s run with that. That everybody might be on the lookout for his or herself means that, in the end, for better or worse, your power is checked by another’s interests. Politics is about groups of interests exerting their power over issues. That’s it (in a nutshell, anyway). Perhaps the most optimistic analysis to be gleaned from this tale is that no power goes unchecked (again, for better or worse). Even crime kingpins like Frank White face their own hurdles (and, in the end, a wall of cops and a bullet), and the police are likewise discouraged (although perhaps this is optimistic to the point of ignorance) from going hog-wild.
In (Ferrara’s and Nicholas St. John’s) New York, everybody believes they are king, but nobody really is. A king, an absolutely-powerful sovereign, needs to contest no other interests, unless those interests are in his interests. In the Big Apple, all the would-be one-eyed fancy themselves kings to those they suppose are blind. But there are always other interests to contend. Do you have power (and/or money) enough to contest them? The “kings” (Frank White, the crack-squad of cops, etc.) certainly found out they did not.