Abel Ferrara's "King of New York" is all soft-core lighting and music video stylings -- it's an urban crime story with a Euro-disco flavor. In Ferrara's films -- he directed "Ms. 45," "China Girl" and "Fear City" -- style is everything. His specialty is a kind of hallucinatory tawdriness, and here, he's made a hepped-up film about drugs that plays as if the filmmakers themselves kept a healthy supply of the stuff at hand.
Ferrara has directed a number of episodes of "Miami Vice," and that's what "King of New York" most resembles -- "Miami Vice" but without Crockett and Tubbs. The film does manage to throw a new wrinkle into its genre. Its protagonist is Frank White (Christopher Walken), a ruthless drug lord who, after a lengthy stay in prison, moves back into circulation with a vengeance. Nothing new there. But White is a man with a vision. He feels bad about the way he lived his life. "If I can just have a year," he tells his girlfriend, "I can do something good."
What he'd like most is to be able to spin off some of his profits from the drug trade to finance a hospital for underprivileged kids in the South Bronx. (Maybe he'll empty a few bedpans too.) Why should all the hospitals be in the rich neighborhoods, he asks. White has a messianic streak in him, and Walken is the perfect actor to bring it out. The other New York crime bosses -- the Italians, the Colombians, the Chinese -- are scum. Plus they can't dance like he can and don't have the perfectly hollowed cheekbones of a Schiele portrait. An equal-opportunity thug, White surrounds himself with blacks from the slums; in one scene he even offers jobs to the brothers who interrupt a tryst with his lovely attorney on the subway. "Come see me at the Plaza Hotel," he tells them, tossing over a fist-size wad of cash. "I've got work for you."
The wackiest thing about "King of New York" is that Ferrara seems to take White's role as a social reformer seriously but, quite naturally, not seriously enough to have him succeed. Unable to get the leaders of rival gangs to participate in his plan, he kills them, usually with a maximum of blood and savage flamboyance. It's in these scenes that the director is at his empty best. Ferrara lavishes all of his skill on these overwrought set pieces, and he can muster a cheap sort of excitement with them.
Unfortunately, there's nothing left over for the rest of the film. The scenes between the cops who are trying to stop White are creaky and hysterical. And while these flatfoots guzzle beer and complain about their paychecks, White's maniacal army stages wild orgies, dancing, carousing and snorting powder off whatever surface avails itself, including each other.
This partying is so outrageously decadent and so hyperbolically shot that you can't help but fall on the floor laughing. These guys are so stoked that you wouldn't be surprised if one of them tried to snort a lamp. Appropriately, the actors pull out all the stops. Walken plays White in his Man-Who-Fell-to-Earth mode. There's not a moment in the entire film when he shows anything close to a recognizable human emotion. But Walken's charisma is potent. He gives White a freaky stillness that's chilling.
It's Larry Fishburne, though, as White's designated killer, Jimmy Jump, who takes the prize for stratosphere dancing. Fishburne gives a performance right out of the Clarence Williams III school of manic histrionics. He holds nothing back here; he just straps on his rocket pack and soars. If the rest of the film had been on his level it still would have crashed, but my, the flames would have been dazzling.
King of New York, at area theaters, is rated R and contains nudity, violence, profanity and drug use.