If a retired boxer, one who currently runs a talent agency that hires out strippers to the city's strip clubs, meets a psychotic kung-fu master in a dark alley, who would win? Okay, first of all, you have to ask yourself: What's at stake? I mean, the victor has to come away something, or else the contest is meaningless. Well, if the former wins, he gets to continue dating a heroin-addicted Melanie Griffith. As for the latter, he gets the opportunity to finish his literally masterwork. Just curious, what might that masterwork be called? It's called "Fear City," which just happens to the title of my latest cinematic foray into the depths of stripper-adjacent misery. And secondly, how did these two men, who, besides being trained fighters, end up at odds with one another? That's simple, their lifestyles don't mesh. The former boxer makes his living exploiting women for monetary gain, the material artist, on the other hand, while he doesn't exactly "make his living" doing this, enjoys doing bodily harm to the women the former boxer is trying to exploit. You're probably thinking to yourself: An ex-boxer who exploits women (he's basically a pimp with an office) and a deranged weirdo who wields nunchucks after dark (he's basically Joe Spinelli in Maniac, you know, without the mannequin fetish), these are the guys I'm supposed to root for? It's true, they're both scumbags. Nevertheless, I found the film's lack of judgment towards them and the rest of its characters to be its greatest strength. Whoa, hold on there, buddy. Let's not get carried away, shall we? You're right, the film's greatest strength is actually the authentic New York City flavour, specifically, the scenes that take place on 42nd Street, it puts out there on a semi-regular basis. But the fact the lead characters were deeply flawed individuals was very appealing.
The film, directed by Abel Ferrara (The Driller Killer), might not judge the characters, but that doesn't mean Al Wheeler (Billy Dee Williams), a cynical homicide detective, is going to let them off so easily. You think I'm kidding around? If it's your job to provide the strip clubs that dot the Manhattan landscape with able-bodied strippers, Al Wheeler doesn't like you. If it's your job to provide the strip clubs that dot the Manhattan landscape with able-bodied strippers, and you happen to be of Italian extraction, Al Wheeler straight-up hates your ass.
Now, I was going to add an Italian slur before the word "ass," but I don't want to appear to complacent about Al Wheeler's intense dislike for Italian-Americans. Having said that, I thought Al Wheeler's anti-Italian stance added yet another layer to this morally complex tale about pimps, strippers, and lowlifes. You see, Al Wheeler, who presents himself as a champion of justice, is basically a reprobate with a badge.
You'll notice that I called the guys who run the "talent agency" that provide the strippers, or, as they're sometimes referred to, "exotic dancers," for the city's strip clubs as "pimps." The reason for that is I have no idea what to call them. In my mind, if you make money off the exploitation of women, you're a pimp. Not that there's anything wrong with being a pimp. It's just that I don't feel comfortable calling them, oh, let's say, talent agents.
Looking at the sheer extravagance of the film's opening scene, you might be inclined to think that the producers of Fear City paid millions of dollars to capture of the seedy charm of 42nd Street in the early 1980s. But I'm sure it didn't cost nothing at all. What I think I'm trying to say is, the director simply has to turn on his or her camera and the energy of the street does the rest.
After the opening montage, which included as a dizzying array of garish billboard lights and a steady concourse of thong-ensnared undercarriages gyrating in time to the beat, has finished, the film begins to focus on a blonde stripper named Loretta (Melanie Griffith). Oh, and before you let out a groan. Remember, this is Body Double Melanie Griffith, not Shining Through Melanie Griffith. (The reason I didn't reference Working Girl Melanie Griffith is because I like Working Girl.) Anyway, Loretta, who is wearing full-length blue sequined number with a massive, and I mean, massive, slit down the side, has the audience eating out of her hand.
Just as we're about to get a close-up shot Loretta pulling down the zipper of her dress, Matt Rossi (Tom Berenger) and Nicky Parzeno (Jack Scalia) arrive at the strip club with much fanfare. If they're not cops, and don't own the joint, what is their connection to this place? I'll answer that question in a minute, Loretta is about to pull on her zipper. Yeah, baby. Great shot, Abel Ferarra; very sleazy. Okay, where was I? The connection. It would seem that Matt and Nicky run the Starlite Talent Agency, the city's premiere stripper emporium. If you need a stripper, these are your guys. Obviously, the owner of this fine establishment, Mike (Michael V. Gazzo), thinks they're his guys, as all his strippers come from their agency. If only he could pay them on time.
Collecting their weekly commission might be the primary reason they showed up at Mike's club this evening. But judging by the preoccupied look on his face, it's clear Matt's mind is elsewhere. He's thinking about Loretta. You see, the two used to date, and from where I was sitting, they were going at it like bunny rabbits. When their attempt pick up the earnings goes nowhere, Matt decides to pay Loretta a visit in her dressing room. Only problem is, a fellow stripper named Leila (Rae Dawn Chong) has gotten there first; he catches them making out. Leaving in a huff, Matt grouses about what he saw to Nicky, who basically tells him to forget about her.
It's a good thing Matt has a friend like Nicky he can lean on for support. But more importantly, the actor who plays Nicky, Jack Scalia, also does an excellent job of placating Tom Berenger's non-Italian-ness. I'm serious, if Jack Scalia wasn't in this movie, I wouldn't have bought Tom Berenger as an Italian-American ex-boxer haunted by his past for a second.
As Loretta is finishing up her performance, and believe me, it's a performance (the crowd reacts to her like she's a disco star), another stripper, Honey (Ola Ray), is dragged into a nearby alleyway by an unknown assailant; who stabs her repeatedly and cuts some of her fingers off.
Surprisingly, Matt and Nicky are the first to visit her in the hospital. Maybe I was a little harsh on them when I called them pimps. Sure, you could say they're just worried about their property. But they seemed genuinely concerned about her well-being. And I don't know any pimps who can pull off the genuinely concerned routine. In fact, Honey's trauma causes Matt to reflect on an incident that occurred when he was a boxer. In order to help us understand where he's coming from, a flashback sequence is implemented that details the time when Matt killed a fellow boxer in the ring.
"Get her ass off the bar." And with that line, Billy Dee Williams makes his presence felt in the Fear City universe. Walking into the Metropolitan A Go-Go, a seedy strip club with a wonderfully sleazy atmosphere (much sleazier than Mike's establishment), Billy Dee's Det. Al Wheeler is there to bust Matt's balls and to hurl anti-Italian ethnophaulisms. Getting back to the club for a second. It's true, the waitresses can't seem to get your drink order right (what part of the phrase "no ice" do you not understand?), but the joint is crawling with the right kind of scuzziness. The club's owner, Frank (Joe Santos), a scumbag who loves his new JVC speakers, tries to confront Al Wheeler, who's getting all up it Matt's grill. Big mistake. A visibly annoyed Frank tries to interrupt Al's "conversation" with Matt, to which Al responds, "Am I talking to you, wop?" Frank answers his question with a question of his own, "Then who the hell are you talking to? Al, without missing a beat, says, "I'm not talking to you." It's a great exchange. As it not only does it expose Al's over the top dislike for Italians, but also shows that the people who work in the strip club world don't much care for the cops either.
The linguistically aware will notice that Al Wheeler has used to words, "wop," "dago," "cesspool," and "greaseball" (a slur he uses twice) during his time at Frank's club. The word "guinea" is uttered, but he unleashes that hateful chestnut later on in the film: "There's nothing I hate more than guineas in Cadillacs."
With animosity between the victims and the police at at all-time high, it's no wonder the "New York Knifer" (as the local press dub him) seems to have been given free reign to do whatever he pleases. Played by John Foster (though, there's been much discussion about the actual identity of the actor of who plays the killer), the New York Knifer attacks strippers who look like Rae Dawn Chong (subway platform), Maria Conchita Alonso (apartment), Janet Julian (sidewalk) and Get Crazy's Lori Eastside (the park). If you want to know why the New York Knifer is stabbing his way through the stripper community, look no further than the pages of his manifesto, which, of course, is titled "Fear City."
If I had to pinpoint a single moment in Fear City that encapsulates the film's overall appeal, I'd have to say the scene where a heroin-addicted Melanie Griffith enters Metropolitan A Go-Go looking to score some quick cash does the job. Standing in sunglasses in front of a wall of lights that spell out the word "girls" over and over again, Melanie is, in that moment, the poster girl for urban desperation. A state that Abel Fererra manages to capture multiple times over the course the film, but no more so when Melanie is jonesing for a fix. The other thing that made Fear City stand out was the fact that the strippers stopped going to work when the killer started chopping off their heads. I can't tell you how many films of this type that feature clueless characters who continue going about their daily routine despite the fact that there's a killer on the loose. In other words, I appreciated it when they showed the clubs were practically empty.
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