Fear City piles cliche upon cliche offering up 80’s neon sleaze that is equal parts confused, silly, hilarious and wrong.
It’s the tale of a bygone age, and part of what you could call a growing movement in seedy nostalgia, with folks increasingly drawn to portrayals of the neon and flesh of 80’s Times Square before Giuliani’s clean up.
The recipe is boobs and blood, set amongst the hustlers and strippers of downtown New York and director Abel Ferrara (Bad Lieutenant) revels in the sleaze. He seems to be going for a kind of neon noir, but approaches it with an hysterical 80′ everything but the kitchen sink sensibility. It’s simultaneously a slasher film, a detective story, a mafia film, a seedy portrayal of the mean streets of New York, a love story and a voyeuristic voyage of discovery through New York’s strip clubs.
Tom Berenger (Platoon) is a broken down boxer haunted by his last fight who now runs a booking agency for strippers, pimping out his girls to clubs across Manhattan. When his girls start getting attacked and brutally murdered he turns avenger to track down the killer. There’ an amazingly tacky scene intercutting both Berenger and the killer training in their bedrooms in front of a mirror for their impending and quite inevitable battle. And that’s not the first attempt to drag Fear City into Taxi Driver territory. In fact you could imagine the pitching session, ‘it’s Taxi Driver meets Godfather meets Rocky set in strip clubs by way of Panic in Needle Park.’ How can it not win?
Fear City is Ferrara’s third film (not counting his first porn film), and for the first time he had studio money behind him, allowing him to cast some hot young actors like Melanie Griffith, Berenger and Billy Dee Williams. Yet Ferrara has crammed in so much that it’s virtually nonsensical – which is both its charm and the reason why we’re still talking about it 30 years later.
“She’ so ugly she hurts my eyes. She couldn’t give a hard-on to a rapist.”
It’s a film about voyeurism and the exploitation of women, opening with lascivious guys ogling strippers and it doesn’ let up. Not only is Griffith a damsel in distress but she’s a heroin addict in a lesbian relationship, just waiting to be rescued by her man. Filled with macho posturing like blokes grabbing each other earnestly and asking important things like “have you got the balls to pull the trigger?’ and ending most conversations with “it’s just business,’ Fear City is a testosterone filled train wreck.
There’s barely a line that comes from William’ mouth that you haven’t heard come from a million TV cops before. That’s aside from the extremely disturbing over the top racism towards Italians. Then there’ the neat and scrawny serial killer who looks a little like Jerry Seinfeld, terrorising the stripper community, using his kung fu moves to kill his victims before writing about it in his journal – parts of which we inexplicably hear as Travis Bickle style voiceover.
Whilst there are numerous themes and concepts that Ferarra would continue to develop over his career to varying degrees of success, Fear City is put together in a way that can only be described as deceptive narrative, where it seems to make sense on the surface but closer inspection reveals something bordering on madness. It’s hard to know if it’s the result of a bet Ferrara had that boxing could beat Kung Fu, some kind of macho take on spiritual redemption in a quagmire of sleaze, or an attempt to create a film with no redeeming characters. Regardless even at its most cringe inducing it’s endlessly fascinating and demands to be seen, just like everything Ferrara touches.