Strippers, boxers, and nude Martial Arts: “Fear City”

June 14, 2009

Fear CityThe 1984…um…thriller doesn’t quite seem like the right word…movie feels a lot like an old Miami Vice, and there’s a good reason for that. It’s directed by Abel Ferrera who directed a few episodes of Vice in its first season. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that he was as influential in establishing the feel of that show as Michael Mann. Unfortunately, where Mann brought a movie-quality budget, kinetic fusions of action, music, and style, and a sunbleached noir attitude, Ferrara brought chintz, neon, and all the restrained sleaze a network TV show could show on a Friday night back then (i.e. not that much). Any time you watch an episode of Miami Vice (and, really, there’s no reason not to) and you think, ‘hey, that coked-out ingénue looks like she was filmed in a portrait studio under a neon lightbar they bought at Spenser Gifts for five bucks,’ that’s Abel Ferrera’s influence. Ferrera’s good at bringing sleaze to the screen, and good at getting actors to give batshit-crazy performances that delight antisocial 17 year-old boys, but if you can watch The King of New York or The Bad Lieutenant and see something that remotely resembles a real human being, you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.

So let’s establish this right quick: FearCity is not a good movie. But it sure is a fun one. It’s both a neato time capsule from the crime-plagued 1980s and a laughably overheated, melodrama. You can accuse Ferrera of being many things, but wasteful is not one of them. Every time there’s a lull in the action, he squeezes in a flashback to somebody’s childhood, or a backlit shot of someone looking mooney over a lost love, or the killer doing quasi-martial arts in the nude. The latter, I’m pretty sure he only threw in there because he just loves to show dudes naked. Even if they’re Harvey Keitel. Go figure.

Anyway, Fear City centers on Matt Rossi  (Tom Berenger) and Nicky Parsano (Jack Scalia), a couple low-level Mafiosi who run…er…you know I’m still not 100% on this. Strippers, I guess. They seem to run the talent agency that supplies girls to some mobbed-up strip joints, but not the joints themselves. This seems like an odd business plan to me, but what do I know? Anyway, things are pretty good for them. Their girls are making enough money to keep the overbosses happy and to keep Nicky in double-breasted suits and Matt in bomber jackets. Sure, there are a few hiccups. Mainly, the fact that Tom still carries a torch for lead dancer Loretta (Melanie Griffith—the first of two sex-workers she’d play in 1984, busy girl) who has left him for fellow dancer Leila (Rae Dawn Chong). Matt spends a lot of time looking baleful. Loretta and Leila spend a lot of time canoodling (though not nearly naked enough to make this subplot as interesting it could have been) and stripping on stage (there we go!)

This relative idyll is shattered when the aforementioned nude martial arts aficionado begins killing dancers (he’s clothed while he does this). Actually, he doesn’t kill them at first, just cuts them up a bit while striking neo-Karate Kid poses. Later he decapitates one in Times Square with a Samuri sword. Apparently, in 1984, New Yorkers were too jaded to notice such things. Anyway, as more girls are killed, the wheels begin to fall off Matt and Nicky’s business. The girls are refusing to come to work. The clubs are losing money hand over fist. The overbosses are getting mad. And after Leila is killed, Loretta goes back on the junk (oh, did I mention that Matt helped her get clean? Yeah, he did.) Worst of all, they start getting harassed by Detective Wheeler (Billy Dee Williams), a completely useless homicide detective who lives to torment strip club owners and…er…to do not much else.

Well, the killings escalate. The killer does more nude martial arts in his loft apartment while writing his manifesto, and occasionally takes somebody out with those staples of ‘80s martial arts—nun chucks and the butterfly knife. He finally goes too far when he nearly kills Nicky with, er, a couple flying kicks (Nicky’s doctor tells Matt, “The only thing we can do now is pray and wait,” um, exactly what medical school did you go to again, doc?). Matt confronts the dark secret from his past that’s been haunting him throughout the movie (quickly: used to be a boxer, killed some dude in the ring) and plunges into the night to confront the killer.

Did I mention the movie is pretty lurid? It is. But it’s never dull. There’s usually a naked cutie on screen, and if there’s not there will be in the next couple minutes. Likewise, Ferrera doesn’t seem to have met a cliché he didn’t like and want to shoe-horn into this movie.  He also gets an assist from his cast. Jack Scalia shows some of the charm and charisma that would rocket him to made-for-TV fame in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The venerable New York character actor Joe Santos who was Jim Rockford’s cop buddy on The Rockford Files along with being in pretty much everything from 1970 to 1985 shows up as a club manager. Even Melanie Griffith…uh, well, she’s sure game about showing of her (pre-Bonfire of the Vanity) breasts. Props for that. Only Billy Dee seems off, and that’s probably because his character serves no purpose except to stomp around and snarl. But snarl he does, and with spirit. When a handcuffed Matt taunts him by saying “Your mother is getting gang-banged right now, and loving it.” BDW shows such an expression of curdled fury that you wonder if his Detective Wheeler doesn’t really think his mother actually is being gang-banged someplace, and loving it.

So, that’s FearCity. Lurid. Disreputable. Stupid. And fun as hell. And the best thing about it is that you can watch all these stars content in the knowledge that within just a few years of this piece of dreck, their careers would blast off. And then implode. I should have just quit a sentence ago, huh? Dammit…

ADDITIONAL NOTE: What’s the deal with Tom Berenger? He’s like the anti-Dennis Quaid. While in The Horsemen Quaid seems to have morphed into his alcoholic uncle, Berenger looks absolutely the same in 1984 as he does today. How is that possible?


  1. Wait… I don’t recall ever seeing butterfly knives in a Western-made “martial arts” flick from the 80s. Do you mean the short southern Chinese Bat Jum Dao? Or do you mean the balisong pocket knife from the Philippines?

    I ask because, while I’m not so very interested in seeing Rae Dawn Chong get naked yet again, I would probably be entertained by whatever Abel Ferrara thinks is supposed to happen with a pair of Bat Jum Dao.

    Ferrara should stick to exploitainment. He’s good at it. When he strays, it’s godawful. I saw The Addiction in the theater. It was a black and white vampire flick trying to be an allegory for drug addiction and a philosophical exploration of evil. Since seeing it, I have actively avoided any film with Ferrara’s name attached to it. To this day, I regret the time I lost watching it. It’s largely because of that movie that I continue to harbor bad feelings about the Angelika.

  2. I have been going crazy trying to find the song that Melanie Griffith strips to in this movie. In the credits it says that the artist is Patrick Adams- feels like . . . Well I can’t remember the name at the moment but its a catchy tune and I can’t find it anywhere. I was wondering if you could help me find the tune maybe in the soundtrack. Please let me know. Thank you for your time

  3. kali…….http://www.fast-rewind.com/music_fearcity.htm

  4. Excellent review, films like this bring back the teenage years of the 80’s, I remember watching this on cinemax at 2 oclock in the morning circa 85, man melanie griffith was hot but rae dawn chong was hotter, how the hell did that spring from the loins of tommy chong?

    • I know. It’s really perplexing.

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