Film festival continues with well-acted, hypnotizing 'King of New York'

April 19, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

What planet is Christopher Walken from? He can't be from Earth, not with that wide loony-radiant face hung out on cheekbones as high as street lamps, that fierce inner conviction, that sense of hearing music from beyond the spheres on a CD player plugged into eternity.

Earthling or not, Walken has made a persistently interesting cinema object for more than 20 years, from his first ingenue role in "The Anderson Tapes" to his brilliant, spooky turn in "The Dogs of War." Ironically, his one failed performance was a try as a villain in a forgettable Bond picture where his uniqueness failed to register amid the bombast and banality. Now he's in his masterpiece.

As Frank White, the King of New York, in Abel Ferrara's "The King of New York," which fills out the sex and violence niche at the Baltimore International Film Festival, Walken is over the top, off the walls and under the rug all at once. Never was a star's weird chemistry better matched with a director's fruity sense of overload. The result is beyond good or bad, right or wrong: It's simply hypnotizing.

The movie has had a checkered career. Widely viewed as cult-director Ferrara's mainstream breakthrough, it was screened at the prestigious New York Film Festival, chosen over "GoodFellas." Bad career move. It was booed. In a general

release it fizzled like a ton of Alka-Seltzer in a small sea of carbonated water.

A shame. Ferrara is one of those outlaw cultists, who makes crummy B movies much better than they have any right to be, such as "Ms. 45." He honed his talents as a house director for "Miami Vice" for many years. "The King of New York" is the movie that "New Jack City" should have been.

It's a violent fable from the drug dealer's warped perspective, so soaked in New York ambience that it's like a free Metroliner round trip. Propelled by explosive violence, it follows as White emerges from prison, and rehires his black gang and takes over as New York's chief dealer. However, he's been radicalized by prison; he uses the money to fund various social welfare projects in the years of Reagan setbacks.

But Ferrara is no sentimentalist. He realizes this buys White no mercy and he doesn't turn him into a study in misguided nobility; White stays tough and violent, while attracting a following in cafe society and infuriating the police.

As a diagram of the same world X-rayed by Tom Wolfe in "Bonfire of the Vanities," "The King of New York" is fabulous. And it's borne by brilliant performances, particularly Larry Fishburne as Frank's No. 1 gun and Dennis Gilley as a cop sworn to get Frank. But the movie really belongs to the two old pros, Ferrara and Walken. They make the most of it.

The King of New York'

When: April 20, 9:30 p.m.

Where: Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive.

Tickets: $6; $5 for Film Forum and BMA members.

Call: 889-1993 for information on these and other screenings.


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