Fear City

FEAR CITY is Abel Ferrara’s 1984 transition from the explotation ghetto, where he made a name for himself with such grindhouse favorites as DRILLER KILLER and MS. 45, to more mainstream fare. Originally planned as a release from Twentieth-Century Fox, the studio balked at the amount of violence and skin Ferrara put on display and subsequently sold it to indie distributor Aquarious Releasing (best known for releasing gems like DR. BUTCHER MD). It’s easy to believe, since despite the presence of several name actors and a slick ’80s veneer this lurid potboiler bears little resemblance to a wide-release studio thriller.

Tom Berenger stars as a former boxer (with a tragic past, as all former boxers in films are required to have) who runs a borderline-respectable talent agency with Jack Scalia. When not supplying strippers to mafia-owned nightclubs, Berenger’s trying to reconcile with his old flame Loretta (played by a frequently-nude Melanie Griffith in an early role). Things start to get complicated when someone starts killing off his workforce, bringing them under the scrutiny of homicide cop Billy Dee Williams–who badly, badly, overplays his role–and mob interference. Can Berenger come to grips with his personal demons to both save the girl and defeat the psycho killer?

Are you kidding? This is an ’80s crime thriller, of course he can.

FEAR CITY starts out as a fairly enjoyable melodrama, thanks largely to Berenger’s typical intensity and the surprising abundance of nudity (which, considering much of it is from Griffith and Rae Dawn Chong, should delight celebrity skin enthusiasts). But Ferrara allows his movie to be too generic, apparently happy to keep the proceedings as nondescript and indistinct as possible.

Two-dimensional leads and boilerplate dialogue are one thing, but where FEAR CITY really drops the ball is with its killer. Lacking motivation or a name (hell, the depthless actor who plays him even goes unbilled), the psycho never comes off as menacing or frightening. Nor does it help that much of the killer’s handiwork ended up on the cutting room floor, leaving his scenes weak and impotent. And without any kind of dramatic embellishment or thematic relevance he quickly becomes pathetic and boring, the greatest sin a movie about a psycho killer can commit (and also happens to be the easiest to avoid).

Ferrara also lets the threadbare story go off the rails in the third act, failing to rein in multiple unnecessary subplots until they severely hamper the plot’s momentum. By the time FEAR CITY reaches its predictable, suitably improbable climax, the viewer’s interest has waned beyond the saving point.

Ferrara would handle similar material with a much surer hand with later stints on MIAMI VICE and CRIME STORY. Nostalgia might rope in some of the curious, and Ferrara completeists may want to take a look, but there’s little to recommend FEAR CITY beyond the easy draw of name-brand nudity.

Trailer is NSFW.

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