With waxy lighting and a synth score from Joe Delia, Abel Ferrara’s King of New York is nothing short of eerie. Christopher Walken plays gangster Frank White, just released from prison, as a ghost. He’s gaunt and pale, with bags under his eyes and hair affixed in a permanent state of shock, riding unseen through fog enshrouded city streets in a limo. If he’s witnessed, it’s almost always flanked by two female bodyguards and an entourage of (mostly black) social misfits, taken with his charm and underdog sympathy. Walken doesn’t merely star in the film, he haunts it (describing himself as “Back from the dead”). Like any ghost story, Frank’s is about retribution: not even a night out of the joint, he sets his gang upon rival crime bosses who “got fat while everyone starved in the streets,” hostile takeover at its most literal.
While sympathetic to Frank (his seizure of the New York drug trade is part of a bid to help fund a struggling hospital), Ferrara couches his motives in impetuousness. Time and again, Frank uses force despite advice to lay low, a ruthlessness matched only by his lieutenants (e.g. Laurence Fishburne as Jimmy) and the police who want him back behind bars. They harass and square off with each other endlessly, frustration finally escalating to the younger cops (David Caruso, Wesley Snipes) staging a gangland shooting in a neon blue nightclub/brothel. Ferrara shows vanity as a common trait of the public and private sectors, men with fragile egos aiming for greatness by destroying each other. Nothing else in their legacies will last, which makes King of New York the real American Horror Story.