Thursday, March 16, 2017

BITE-SIZED REVIEWS: Fear City (1984)

A maniac is stalking the Big Apple. He fixates on strippers and exotic dancers, attacking them in back-alleys and deserted subway stations. When he moves from maiming to killing his victims, their employers Matt Rossi (Tom Berenger) and Nicky Parzeno (Jack Scalia) go on the hunt to find the killer before he strikes again.

A former prize fighter traumatised after killing an opponent in the ring, Matt sees the maniac as an opportunity to redeem himself.


Fear City is a movie that I've been meaning to see for over 12 years. The combination of New York auteur Abel Ferrera (the original Bad Lieutenant) and the crazy premise sounded cool, but I could never find the movie.

Dark and sleazy, if you want to know what New York City used to look like, this is a good time capsule. As a thriller, it is a little half-baked yet Berenger's character is so interesting that the movie remains weirdly compelling.

The actors are all good -- Berenger is dialled way down as Matt. He's a man who hides any weakness behind a face of stone. Billy Dee Williams seethes as Al Wheeler, the cop whose obsession with shutting down Rossi's outfit is unmoored by the new threat. He's good, but the movie does nothing to develop his antagonistic relationship with Matt Rossi. Melanie Griffith is fine, but underused as the stripper with a heart of gold. It's a nothing character, purely there to act as a catalyst for Matt to unleash his inner beast.

While the movie is filled with Ferrera's preoccupations (New York city as a hellhole; Catholic guilt; damaged men struggling to find their place), there is something missing or undercooked about this movie. The characters -- even Berenger's -- feel like archetypes. The movie feels like a character piece that has been hacked down in the editing bay to make it more commercial.

While it is atmospheric, filled with interesting supporting characters, and vaguely unnerving at points, it never really engages on a visceral level. The one scene that really connects is the climax.

It is definitely the most interesting part of the movie - Matt beats the killer to death as flashbacks to his last fight punctuate the action. It is a disturbing reminder of the kind of man he is, and it is the one part of the movie that feels genuinely ambiguous and disturbing.

The scene raises an interesting question about our anti-hero: by killing the murderer, is he accepting who he is?

The movie seems to cast this repetition of behaviour as a positive -- channeling his rage to expunging the world of a greater evil; his previous action negated by this positive action.

After the killer is pronounced dead at the scene Wheeler (Williams) calls Matt a hero; Matt dismisses the label. He seems to recognise that, no matter who it was or the circumstances that led to his fatal action, he still gave in to his worst instincts.

Fear City's most interesting element is Rossi. His genuine remorse and repulsion at what he is capable of, and his attempts to avoid giving into it, is the most successful part of the movie. Unlike so many action movies of the same time, Matt is a vigilante repulsed by his brutish nature -- and it never feels hypocritical or forced.

Ultimately it is not a great movie, but Fear City is a pretty decent thriller lifted by its evocative milieu, strong acting and its bizarre (but creepy) premise.

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