Fear City (1984)

On the surface, it looking like a cheap bit of crime drama. Just under the surface, a lot more T&A than expected, but I should have seen the “Thriller” tag and put two and two together so that’s on me. Beneath all that, a far more complicated movie which tries to push at the boundaries of what cinema could . Or, at least, something that throws every idea it can think of into a mafia / slasher / romance / cop / action / psychological / thriller cheapie.

It’s all fun and games until the electricity bill comes in.

It’s the 80s and Nicky (Jack Scalia) runs an “exotic dancers” “talent agency” and “loan sharks” to people involved in Vice. Matt (Tom Berenger) is an ex-boxer turned mob muscle and he’s currently broken up over Loretta (Melanie Griffith) dumping him for Leila (Rae Dawn Chong). Meanwhile, Officer Wheeler (Billy Dee Williams) is going to take Nicky down for being a criminal and being “arrogant”.

“I always thought I was self confident. What do you think?”
“Well… and I say this from a place of love…”

Whilst this all sounds like a cheesy generic mobster movie, and whilst it mostly is one, it manages to keep all that nonsense together by showing peoples emotions. Matt is not just sad about losing Loretta, he’s worried she’ll got back to drugs/upset after getting her off drugs and trying to move on with his life because he once punched a man to death. Nicky is stressed because he can’t pay his girls worries that they’ll have to take riskier jobs. Leila wants to stay friends with Matt, but is worried he’ll get violent again. And Michael V. Gazzo is just really offensive, ever time he speaks. Like staggeringly “what did he just says???”, practically every line. It’s a lot.

“I know it’s in the script, but do I have to say these terrible things?”

On top of that, some jerk is going around sadistically cutting up female sex-workers. He’s not given a name in the script, and either because the producers thought it would be cool marketing or his agent absolutely sucked at their job, the character nor the actor who played him is mentioned. A radio news presenter calls him “The New York Knifer”, but that’s awful so I’ll just call him Captain Incel.

He’s not that fast, the camera is just on quaaludes

Anyway – Captain Incel is a buff, Generic-Oriental fighting techniques enthusiast and nutter. His life is spent living in a basement, covering himself with olive oil to do naked fight poses, going out to disfigure defenceless women, and coming back to the basement to write up his adventures for a book titled “Fear City”. He is clearly deeply misogynistic, probably sociopathic, thinks he can improve his life by hating and murdering other, and is convinced he’s the hero of the story despite being an abhorrent arsehole. I need to repeat that this film is made in 1984 and you’d never get away with this character now as everyone would consider it too “on the nose”.

“Hey, a round of ethnic cliches for me and my friends”

Anyway, his half-arsed murder dances (the actor is clearly good at action, the director clearly isn’t) and masturbatory asceticism break up the already broken narrative. Few of the scenes flow together, story points are thrown around extensively dead ground, and you get run through far more emotional scenes than you would expect. Not least because few of them have the run up saner films would give them. Thankfully, the cast is fantastic and they are able to sell all of it (except Melanie Griffiths, who clearly didn’t get the job due to her skills as a stripper). You won’t get bored, but you might get bunch-drunk or lost in the fog of it all. It also handles the ending with the same sense of occasion shown by veterinaries at The Grand National.

“This deal is getting worse all the time.”

Not only does the film have an inconsistent tone, the audio-visual quality switches between perfectly acceptable and bad student movie. The original version had several minutes edited out of it by the MPAA and, presumably, whomever makes these kinds of decisions thought the audience should get the full, original artistic vision despite the reinserted bits being stored in a Pringles tub for 20 years. I leave it for others to debate which version is better, but I will say that worrying if your cables broke until you work out by yourselves what’s happening is bloody annoying. It’s also not a porno, despite the amount of flesh shown in the opening 10 minutes. It’s set in the sex industry world, but it doesn’t get too explicit or try to be titillating to the viewer.

Quality temporary tattoo.

On the plus side, the film presents a relatively realistic and unsensitised/unmale-fantasised view of the world of Sex Work in early 80s New York. There is no moral opinion presented against the women (and, to a lesser extent, the men) involved, just as some of the aspects of glamour are shown. On the minus side, that means that there are a lot of men treating women quite terribly, drug abuse is presented as a coping mechanism, and the exploitation is seen as a way of doing business. Others have handled it better, a lot have handled it worse, and I’m letting people know as it could upset some.

“Did I leave the gas on?”

Fundamentally, it’s a Treasure because it goes places most other films would never try to do in 95 minutes. It’s got a great visual style, handles several sensitive topics with a surprising delicacy and openness, and the straight-up genre bits just about work. Fans of gangster or slasher or drama will probably want something more focused that goes deeper into each area, but people who like a mix and some strong work on character driven narrative should have a good time.

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