Our first look at Frank White (Christopher Walken) is in prison just before he's released on parole after serving a long stretch. Guards escort him outside where he's picked up in a limousine by two women, Raye (Theresa Randle) and Melanie (Carrie Nygren) Melanie lights him a cigarette and they ride quietly as Frank appears to be in heavy thought watching the prostitutes and other street dwellers. Raye asks him if he wants to stop and he replies "No." We flash from Frank's eyes to the city as he sees it at night. It doesn't look good.
At the same time, Emilio El Zapa takes a break from entertaining prostitutes and walks outside to use a payphone. Before he can make his call, he's blasted with shotguns by several men, one of whom shows the dead man a newspaper headline reading "Frank White Released From Prison"
Meanwhile, Test Tube (Steve Buscemi) and Jimmy Jump (Larry Fishburne) are in an apartment testing some cocaine they plan to buy. Jimmy bugs Test Tube to hurry it up, insisting that he can test it himself quicker. He snorts some of the cocaine leaving a bit on his nose. Jimmy attempts to negotiate with King Tito, whose cocaine they're testing. Tito ignores Jimmy's social conversation. When Test Tube gives it the OK, but Jimmy insists that they need to test more, Tito gets upset demanding his money, adding ten percent to the amount they agreed on for "transportation costs" Jimmy complains about it, but King Tito stands firm, telling him to "take it or leave it." Jimmy says he'll take it, and bows to King Tito before handing him a briefcase. Tito opens it to find it full of tampons. Jimmy says "They're for the bulletholes, puta." and he and Test Tube shoot Tito along with his bodyguards, taking the cocaine and the money.
Frank has arrived home at "The Plaza" where he showers and puts on his real clothes. Melanie and Raye are with him, both only partially dressed. He watches Melanie load a gun before putting it in her coat. Raye informs him that he has visitors, slipping a gun into his waistband as she tells him. Jimmy Jump, Test Tube and several others present themselves. Frank appears tense initially sternly asking Jimmy what he's drinking. He answers "Root Beer. Want some?" Frank answers "There's some things I don't do." before smiling and showing them a dance move, which lightens up everyone and starts congratulations on his release. Jimmy informs him that the Colombians are dead, and Frank says, "Wow. I must've been away too long because my feelings are dead. I feel no remorse." They present Frank with King Tito's gloves and Emilio Zapa's money. They joke with each other until Frank turns serious for a moment saying "Jim. How come you never came to see me?" Jimmy answers, "Who wanted to see you in a cage?" Frank nods as his gang leaves.
Frank meets his lawyer, along with Joey Dalesio (Paul Calderon) for dinner at a nice restaurant. Frank insists on visiting his lawyer's "junior partner" Jennifer (Janet Julian,) who is talking with a journalist, who has written many stories about Frank. Frank clearly disapproves and tells her "You should be more careful of the affairs you attend, counselor. One is known by the company one keeps." before seating himself at their table. When told by a woman at the table that she's heard a lot of bad things about him, he claims he's reformed and declares that he wants to be mayor. They laugh but he says "thinks I'm kidding." He also asks Joey to get him a meeting with mob boss Arty Clay (Frank Gio) While Joey leaves to do this,Frank talks with Jennifer (while flirting with her)about the legal process when she remarks that she didn't think he believed in it, he says "I thought guys like me were the legal process."
Joey shows up at Arty Clay's place and finds him involved in a poker game. Joey tells him that Frank wants a meeting. Arty tells Joey, "You tell him that I don't talk to nigger lovers." Joey persists, ignoring the comment and asking where and when. Arty says "You tell him in fucking hell, that's where." and explains that he was making a lot of money from the Colombians. Arty kicks Joey out.
Frank meanwhile is taking an erotic subway ride with Jennifer. They have a car to themselves, when several thugs approach them demanding his watch and wallet. They grab Jennifer's purse and Frank shows them the gun in his waistband prompting them to return it. He then throws them a wad of cash and tells them he has work for them if they come by the Plaza Hotel and ask for Frank White.
Frank then shows up at Arty's place with Melanie and Raye and tells Frank, again playing poker, "I got your message." Arty says "You stupid son of a bitch." Franks says "You running games here? I want to play." One of the player's welcomes him to the table along with his friends but Frank say "Nah. I want to play with Arty. More of Franks crew enters as well and Frank start looking at the cards on the table, while Arty gets more angry and threatening. Frank throws a card at Arty and tells him to pick it up. He refuses so Frank does it for him showing him the Ace of Spades. He then tells Arty he wants in on everything that happens, down to a nickel bag sold in the park. Arty laughs and Frank says "You guys got fat while everybody starved in the street. It's my turn." Frank turns to leave, when Arty threatens him, prompting Frank to turn back around and shoot him dead. He then tells everyone else at the table to come to the Plaza Hotel and join him if they're tired of getting ripped off by guys like Arty.
Frank next runs into a councilman at a play he attends with Jennifer. Frank is upset that a South Bronx hospital failed to get funding. The councilman explains that he did the best he could but the money wasn't there. He suggests to Frank that if he's so concerned he should fund it himself. Frank says "Maybe I will." prompting the congressman to tell him the hospital needs 16 million by the end of the quarter. Frank says, "Tell your friends they'll have their money." Frank tells the councilman "Privileged districts shouldn't be the only ones with hospitals." Frank is confronted at the bar by three cops, Roy Bishop (Victor Argo,) Thomas Flanigan, (Wesley Snipes,) and Dennis Gilley (David Caruso) They escort him outside and into their car, over his lawyer's protests. They claim to be taking him in for questioning, but instead bring him to a dark alley where they show him Zapa's body in the trunk of the car. He claims he doesn't know anything about it although Bishop tells him it's his last chance to talk. Flanigan gets upset about his refusal and tries to intimidate Frank, who knocks him around before the other two step in. Gilley puts a gun to his face, but Bishop stops him from shooting. They get in the car and leave, Bishop warning that they're on to him and planning to shut him down.
Bishop, Flanigan and Gilley attend a wedding, where Gilley makes jokes with everyone and Bishop appears uncomfortable, reaching for his heart pills and leaving early in physical distress. Frank sends Joey to meet with Larry a mob boss in Chinatown. Larry isn't eager to deal with Frank, mentioning that he's no Arty Clay. Jimmy Jump goes into a fast food place for lunch, and ends up getting jumped by the cops who arrest him for King Tito's murder, telling him that one of the bodyguards lived and they have a witness.
Frank invites Larry to the South Bronx hospital. He offers to partner with Larry providing his manpower to push Larry's drugs, greatly increasing his profit. Larry tells him "If I was into socialized medicine, I would've stayed in the Peking province." Larry tells him he's only interested in cash for his drugs. He leaves telling Frank he's crazy. Frank hears about Jimmy's arrest and the surviving witness. He arranges to have Jimmy's million dollar bail paid, against Jennifer's advice. Jimmy harasses the three cops outside the police station who show up as he's leaving. Gilley spits in Jimmy's face. Jimmy laughs it off and the cops attempt to intimidate Jennifer who tells them to take it to the judge.
Not wasting any time, Frank's crew goes after Larry next, killing his men and making him show them where his drugs are, before killing him too. Frank then sets up a televised fundrasier for the hospital featuring the singer Freddie Jackson. This outrages Bishop, Flanigan and Gilley. Gilley comments that Frank's a movie stair. He offers a sarcastic toast to Frank being "The King of New York." comparing their salaries to Frank's. Gilley tells Bishop that there's only one way to get rid of Frank. When Bishop doesn't agree right away he tells him they can make it look like another gang. Bishop appears hesitant, asking Gilley if he's going to kill everyone he can't arrest. He counters that everyone Frank kills is their fault.
Frank and Jennifer take a moment outside looking at the New York skyline. He tells her that he's lost too much time and can't waste any more. "If I can have a year or two, I'll make something good. I'll do something. Something good." Bishop confronts Frank's lawyer at breakfast, giving him bloody photos of the Colombian murder victims. Later that night Frank and his crew parties at a secret nightclub. Joey comes in with with a prospective drug buyer, who is actually a plant who lead Gilley and Flanigan and their crew to the nightclub. The cops come in disguised and start firing away, killing most of Frank's crew.
Frank gets in his car and grabs Jimmy who unmasks one of the attackers discovering they're cops. Gilley and Flanigan trade shots with Frank and Jimmy while they drive, smacking cars into each other as well. Gilley end up flipping his car over, losing Frank. The two cops sit in the car which won't start assuming that Frank is gone. Jimmy returns in a car and rams into them, flipping it over again. The cops leave the car to chase him on foot and Jimmy surprises Flanigan, shooting him half a dozen times. Gilley sees it happen too late and shoots Jimmy several times leaving him lying on the ground while he unsuccessfully attempts to revive Flanigan. Even in severe pain Jimmy won't stop laughing until Gilley can't take it anymore and shoots him in the head.
Bishop and Gilley attend Flanigan's funeral, but Gilley attempts to leave early and finds his car won't start. Frank pulls up next to the car in a limousine and calls "Hey.You." shooting Gilley in the face with a shotgun when he looks up. All of cops at the funeral are surprised and scramble to see what happened. Bishop sees the limo driving away. Frank heads back to his crew and we see that Joey is being beaten for his part in leading the cops to them. He claims they gave him references which checked out and he had no reason to suspect them. Frank doesn't buy it and say. "Just tell me why. Don't lie to me and just tell me why." He breaks down and tells Frank that they offered him more money than he'd ever seen in his life and to set him up in the protection program. Frank asks where the money is and they inform him that they have it as he was carrying it around. Frank says, "Bury it with him." Joey apologizes and begs until they drag him off and shoot him.
Bishop arrives home to his dark apartment and finds Frank sitting in a chair in the dark. Frank explains his problems with the dead gang leaders.
Frank: When the D.A's office investigated the sudden death of Arty Clay, they found that he left a $13 million estate. How do you explain that? There there's Larry Wong, who owned half of Chinatown when he passed away. Larry used to rent his tenements to Asian refuges, his own people, for $800 a month to share a single toilet on the same floor. How 'bout King Tito? He had thirteen-year-old girls hooking for him on the street. Those guys are dead because I don't want to make money that way. Emil Zappa, the Mata brothers, they're dead because they were running this city into the ground.
Bishop: You expected to get away with killing all these people?
Frank: I spent half my life in prison. I never got away with anything, and I never killed anybody that didn't deserve it.
Bishop: Who made you judge and jury?
Frank: Well, it's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it. For the likes of Arty Clay and the rest of those bums...you slap a tag on me for fifty thousand dollars? You make me public enemy number one? Is that some kind of joke? I got a message for you and your friends.You tell them I've got a $250,000 contract on any cop involved with this case.
He has Bishop handcuff himself to a chair and leaves. Bishop scrambles to find a gun and shoots the cuff chain and chases Frank into the subway finding him in one of the cars. Frank takes a nearby woman hostage holding a gun to her head. Bishop doesn't back off and Franks surprises him, shooting and killing him, although Bishop gets off a last shot. Frank leaves the subway and walks up to the street into the crowd holding a hand inside his coat on his bullet wound. He gets in a cab and tells the driver "Just drive." We see him in the back seat pulling out his gun and examining his bloody shirt as sirens approach from all over. The driver sees his gun and leaves the car, while cops approach on foot through now stopped traffic, approaching the car cautiously with guns drawn. Frank lays his head down and his hand, still holding the gun drops limp beside him.
"The King New York" is an interesting look at a man who wants to be much better than he is. Frank White is as much (or more) of a killer as any of his competition. He reasons that he's never killed anybody who didn't deserve it. and his victims in the movie do prove his point to a degree. He can't abide the powerful criminals who weaken their community and his contempt for their selfishness is clear. Watching the people in the streets going without has an immediate effect on him and his resolve to help his community puts his character in the Robin Hood tradition. His crew seems to share his compassion for their surroundings, as evidenced by Jimmy Jump making a donation to a mother in a restaurant just before his arrest and the fact that they don't kill anyone indiscriminately, only those who Frank picks out as draining the community. It's interesting to watch Frank and Larry taking a tour of the hospital as Frank tries to sell the "cause" angle of his proposed partnership. Larry equates Frank's idea to "socialized medicine." which is an interesting commentary on the difference in Frank's motivation, framing their dispute as a capitalist/socialist debate. Of course it isn't truly as simple as that, but viewing the Robin Hood story as one of a passionate socialist is certainly an interesting approach.
It's worth keeping in mind though, that Frank himself is a capitalist, and has no trouble posting one million dollars to bail Jimmy out of jail. He doesn't leave himself impoverished to give to others. He isn't looking to equalize everyone's resources, but he reasons that for all the money the drug dealers make, giving something back to the community isn't much too ask, and perhaps even a sensible business move. He does see himself as part of the city, rather than an untouchable crime boss high above the common man. He despises racism as much as greed, embracing the racially mixed culture of his surroundings. Frank's crew is mostly young black men and he doesn't make color distinctions, except in the case of Arty, where he makes a point of showing Arty the "Ace of Spades" to answer Arty's remark that he's a "nigger lover" Of course killing him soon after also states his position clearly.
Frank isn't joking when he claims that he wants to be mayor. But the position isn't what he's after, but the power to affect the city. It's likely that Frank would be content to be in control whether officially in power or not, as suggested by his dealings with his councilman, and specifically his frustration over the lack of results towards the hospital. Bureaucracy is also a problem in "The King of New York." The struggles are first pointed out with the Councilman, but later frustration with legal protocol is what incites the cops to step outside the law and attempt to shut Frank down. When Gilley and Flanigan organize their fellow cops as a disguised hit squad, they enter squarely into Frank's moral grey area, although their motives are vindictive, unintentionally giving Frank the moral high ground. Gilley's main problem seems to be that he wishes he was Frank. Watching the hospital telethon, not one of the cops notes that helping the local hospital is a worthy cause, they only see their enemy getting positive attention and Gilley can't stand to see him celebrated, while he and his fellow cops work without recognition of any kind. Their problem and proposed solution could also be argued as socialist, as they resent Frank's earning and achieving more than they do. It's obvious however that these positions won't unite them, and it illustrates that Frank is truly not the socialist, merely community minded.
Bishop plays the voice of reason, although a biased and ineffective one. He's willing to bend the rules a bit, ie. coercing a confession from Frank over a body in the trunk, but he quickly attempts to deescalate the situation when Flanigan and Gillis get out of hand. While he doesn't condone his partner's attempting an assassination, his discouragement of their idea is weak, desiring Frank off the streets, but still recognizing that their job has limits. None of them see the irony that they plan to kill a drug lord illegally, to punish him for killing drug lords illegally. When Frank points out the reason for killing the other drug lords, it fails to register with Bishop, who can only tell him that he won't get away with killing all those people. He could've easily said the same thing to his partners, who probably killed as many people in their raid on Frank's place as Frank had killed in the movie. He does ask Gilley "Are you going to kill everyone you can't arrest?" although Gilley lacks the depth to understand the question. Perhaps Bishop thinks that not joining their raid is dissent enough, but this proves false when Frank announces the bounty he's placed on Bishop's head. Bishop's failure is that he doesn't see the larger implications of personal actions. When he tells Frank, during their subway stand off, "This is just you and me." he demonstrates how wrong he is. just as Frank does by taking an innocent woman hostage. It isn't just about the two of them, their conflict is all about their community and as far as Frank goes, his altruism isn't above hostage taking, and both of them pay the price for their flaws each cancelling the other out.
Ferrara does an amazing job creating a realistic unpolished city for his story, using the actual city to portray itself. Within the city he presents a varied environment, from the lush Plaza hotel, to the subway cars and nightclubs. This gives the characters a great realism themselves, and we sense that no one is untouchable here and no plan is fool proof. Although the cast is terrific, this is Walken's show and it's great to see him get the spotlight. He's an actor who takes over every scene he's in. Even when he's subdued there's no question who the scene is about. Frank is a combination of loud flamboyant action and deep personal thought. The close ups on his eyes give us the sense that he's struggling with something important and constantly trying to think things through. He's rehearsed his every gesture in his head and does very little spontaneously. He invites Larry to the hospital to offer an opportunity, but has no doubt already planned the massacre of his gang when he refuses. Yet even Frank is limited and he knows this, feeling the loss of all the time in prison.
We can't call Frank a good man, as even his attempts to do good require violence and destructive behavior to happen. Neither can we say he's completely bad, as he does have some wonderful goals, even if his methods are questionable. The real test of his worth is to examine what effects his actions have on those around him. Most of his crew ends up dead, and the hospital doesn't get their money. A few reprehensible drug dealers are put out of work, but as Frank would point out, someone will replace them before long. Ultimately his methods don't work well towards his goals, beyond putting some money in a few people's pockets for the brief amount of time they're likely to live. Of course, Frank isn't alone in this predicament, nobody in this film lives up to their own ideals. Bishop, Flanigan and Gillis, give up their own code and like Frank become victims of their own bad methods. Nobody is safe in this world, everyone gets consumed by not managing to be what they imagine they are. Good doesn't win, and neither does evil. Capitalism and Socialism find a similar stalemate. Nobody wins here, it all gets cancelled out, because no one is as pure as they think they are and every effort gets lost in compromise or overkill.