Fear City (1985)
Fear City (1985)

Genre: Crime Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 35 min.

Release Date: February 16th, 1985 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Abel Ferrara Actors: Tom Berenger, Jack Scalia, Melanie Griffith, Billy Dee Williams, Rae Dawn Chong, Rossano Brazzi, Joe Santos, Michael V. Gazzo, Maria Conchita Alonso, Janet Julian




ormer boxer Matt Rossi (Tom Berenger) and business partner Nicky Parzeno (Jack Scalia) arrive at a nightclub, just as Loretta (Melanie Griffith) performs an astonishingly slow striptease. But they’re not there for the show; instead, they meet with owner Mike (Michael V. Gazzo) to collect some money. It appears that they’re mobsters or crooked cops in a shakedown, though the intricacies are interrupted by a sudden instance of violence. Outside in an alley, a stripper is assaulted by a man (an attacker who is shown clearly, removing any element of mystery), stabbed repeatedly with scissors until she’s nearly unconscious in a pool of her own blood.

The following day, it’s clarified that Matt and Nicky run a New York business called the Starlite Talent Agency, which farms out female dancers to various strip clubs. When they’re alerted that one of their girls, Honey Washington (Ola Ray), was the victim of the attack, they rush to the hospital. Although she survived the encounter, she’s been badly mutilated, notably by having several of her fingers sliced off. And she wasn’t even robbed.

The locales are smokey, seedy, and sleazy, populated by syndicate goons and gamblers and prostitutes and weirdos. And there’s frequent nudity (rising star Griffith is no exception) to make the whole thing more believable; this isn’t the kind of picture to delve into the underbelly of the big city while shying away from adult material. In fact, there are so many extraneous sequences of stripping that it’s debatable whether or not the film would be of feature length without them. The violence and language (both cursing and racism) are comparably severe; the former is disturbingly graphic and the latter lends additional authenticity to the generally dislikable characters. The look of “Fear City” is definitely in line with other gangster flicks of the era.

“Nobody’s clean!” Homicide Detective Al Wheeler (Billy Dee Williams) is yet another grimy player, tasked with solving the escalating crimes – and situated on the right side of the law – but no less brutish. The general grittiness may be fitting for this tale, but without strong protagonists, it’s difficult to care about the characters. Even Loretta, who seems more manneristically chaste than the others, thinks nothing of cheating on her girlfriend (Rae Dawn Chong) – while she’s in the hospital recovering. The victims are sympathetic due to the grisliness of their injuries, but everyone here is cookie-cutter generic – including the villain, dubbed the “New York Knifer,” whose motives aren’t creative or complex, merely psychotic (bearing some similarities to “10 to Midnight” from the year before).

Of particular disappointment is Berenger’s character, who gave up on his boxing career after accidentally killing an opponent. Flashbacks fill in the details, but it’s an uninspired cliche for the strong, silent type. The murder/mystery doesn’t fare much better, considering that the culprit is shown from the start. Despite the visual genuineness of its unglamorous New York setting (a forte for director Abel Ferrara), “Fear City” isn’t sure of what it wants to be. This is never more apparent than during its finale, which is basically an absurd kickboxing showdown straight out of a kung fu movie.

– Mike Massie

  • 2/10