Anchor Bay // 1984 // 95 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // December 4th, 2000
Breasts a Poppin'!
More breasts than you could fit inside a room full of bras at are not enough to make up for what is basically an exploitation flick. Despite a cast with some fine actors and the stylish direction by Abel Ferrara (King of New York) wooden dialogue, poor writing, and a lackluster story that you've seen a thousand times before make this a marginal film at best. Anchor Bay gives even this an anamorphic transfer, though again light on the extras front.
Matt Rossi (Tom Berenger-Last of the Dogmen) is an ex-prizefighter turned procurer of exotic dancers for many of New York's finer strip joints. With his partner Nicky (Jack Scalia) things have been going well as they enjoy the backing of organized crime in putting dancers in clubs. But a psychopath has started targeting the dancers, and now they're too scared to come to work. The police led by Billy Dee Williams want Rossi to stay out, but ultimately he will have to come out of retirement to trade blows with the killer.
Abel Ferrara has a real eye for film noir, and his films are stylishly effective at capturing the dark streets and seedy undersides of the city. Fear City is no exception, as the shining rainy streets and the garishly lit signs of New York's night life set the mood. Ferrara's use of the camera, as in much of his other work, is perhaps the best part of the film.
What this film may be best remembered for in the end could be that Melanie Griffith (Working Girl) takes it off. More than once she appears, and she made quite a believable exotic dancer with moves worthy of getting out a dollar for her G-string. Rae Dawn Chong is also noteworthy as she sheds her top and dances. They are not alone. Most of the film takes place in strip joints, and even during the dialogue scenes you're likely to see something shaking at you in the background.
Another aspect common in Ferrara films is graphic violence. Fear City features a slasher killer who sometimes only maims his victims, and some of that violence is shown in all its gory glory. Violence, death and sex are transposed sometimes with one cutting quickly back and forth to the other. This is the height of the exploitation genre that parents groups complain about. Sex and death are two of the major forces that drive the most primitive parts of our brains, and filmmakers and ad executives have long known it. If you like this type of film typically shown on late night cable then you will find a happy home here.
Anchor Bay is known for taking lesser-known films and giving them anamorphic transfers -- something a few other studios could learn from. Fear City has been given a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer, with terrific results. The source print is basically free of defect and colors are vibrantly rendered with smooth and even saturation. Blacks are deep and inky, and fleshtones look natural. The picture is reasonably sharp, though not reference quality, with some murkiness in the shadow detail being the chief complaint. Still a very nice and watchable picture. Audio is Dolby Digital two-channel mono, with reasonable fidelity and a high degree of clarity. Dialogue is clear and the score, which ranges from '80s pop rock to typical film noir, sounds fine. The extra content is restricted to only the theatrical trailer.
Once again I have to complain about the most fundamental parts of an Abel Ferrara film. The quality of the script and substance of the story simply doesn't hold up to the quality of the visual experience. The typical exploitation plot of a slasher targeting women who take their clothes off a lot has been done so many times it grows tiresome. The dialogue sounds as if it came straight out of an episode of "Mannix" or some other television detective series. Billy Dee Williams especially seems trapped within dialogue not fit for a made-for-TV movie, let alone a feature film. Trapped he may have been, but I didn't get the impression he even tried to make it work, with a mechanical performance that left me cold from the start.
I'm a big fan of Tom Berenger, especially when he gets to play rugged outdoorsman roles such as in Last of the Dogmen and Shoot to Kill. But he was miscast in this role. While he brought the depth needed to the character's past as a prizefighter (the boxing flashbacks were very well done) he simply didn't look the part of an Italian made man. To hear Billy Dee Williams call him "guinea" and "greaseball" brought unintentional guffaws every time. He also suffered from dialogue that could have been written in a day for a weekly series, but the main problem here is he simply didn't have the look or voice to go with the part. His attempt at a New Yawk accent was not his finest hour. Jack Scalia was more realistic in his role and seemed convincing enough. I will say that the women and some of the supporting characters fared better than the male leads, especially Melanie Griffith, Rae Dawn Chong, and Rossano Brazzi as a strip club owner. They actually fit into the film and were given decent dialogue to work with.
Again we get no subtitles and inadequate extras on this Anchor Bay catalog title. I'm getting tired of complaining about it, but I think it is a real shame that they can't include captions for the hard of hearing community; the most basic of features that should be standard on every disc.
If you like late night cable flicks a' la "Skin-Amax" than you could find this interesting, especially since at least one of the women in the film has gone on to gain more a more conventional reputation as an actress. Unfortunately you cannot expect anything but a poorly done but good-looking film to add to the sex and violence.
Fear City is convicted of only aspiring to the lowest common denominator, though in some courts that might be just fine. Anchor Bay again is fined for the lack of subtitles but is released in order that they may distribute the ultimate gore-exploitation flick next year. Even I can't resist Bad Taste!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 1984
MPAA Rating: Rated R