A psychopathic kung fu killer is stalking strippers on Times Square, and only the strippers’ brawling, brooding manager can stop him. Seriously, how could that possibly be anything but awesome?
After his stunning No Wave horror flick The Driller Killer and the fashy femme fatale Ms. 45, Abel Ferrara entered the mainstream with the star-studded Fear City in 1984. The film marks an obvious change in status for Ferrara, whose previous films were low budget grindhouse flicks. But here, the home of the grindhouses becomes the setting of the story itself, and the Deuce never looked cooler on camera. Fear City is THE Times Square film of the 1980s, showcasing it better than any other film from that decade.
From the beginning, it’s obvious that 42nd Street is the main character in Fear City. The film opens with a helicopter shot of the New York night, (not unlike The Exterminator). The buildings are strangely unlit, with only the Chrysler Building and the Pan Am sign standing out in the darkness – until we see the lights of Times Square shining below like flames from the pit of hell.
And from there we go down. The camera cuts to ground level, and we’re treated to alternating scenes of streets and strippers, neon and tits, as the hard edged melodrama of 80s soundtrack music kicks in. Who’s that familiar voice singing this song? That’s right, it’s David Johansen, and just in case you forgot which band he was in, the song title says it all: “New York Doll.”
The music for Ferrara’s first two films was done by Joe Delia. For Fear City, Delia was replaced by Dick Halligan (who had previously done the music for the Chuck Norris classics A Force of One and The Octagon). But fear not, for Delia not only co-wrote the song “New York Doll,” but the entire Sweet Revenge album with David Johansen, after which they would continue their collaboration with Johansen’s 80s alter-ego Buster Poindexter.
The cast of Fear City, like the soundtrack, is pure 80s gold. In addition to Tom Berenger, coming in right after Eddie and the Cruisers and just before Platoon, we also have Billy Dee Williams, almost reprising his role from Nighthawks as an NYPD cop, as well as 80s movie staple and winner of Most-Fun-To-Say-Name Rae Dawn Chong. (Say it again if you don’t believe me.) Berenger’s partner in the stripper managing business is played by Jack Scalia, looking more than a little bit like Manhattan playboy John F. Kennedy Jr. in this film. And then there is Melanie Griffith, looking hotter than hot as the beautiful-but-damaged junkie stripper that anti-hero Berenger just can’t let go of.
Berenger plays Matt Rossi, an ex-boxer who now co-owns a “talent agency” that provides girls for the Times Square strip clubs. His boxing career came to a tragic end when he killed an opponent in the ring. He’s a tough guy, and a man of few words. But he also has a conscience, and a soft heart, maybe too soft. You can think of that as a stereotype, or as an archetype, as you will.
Fear City is film noir, but it’s 80s film noir, like Michael Mann’s epic debut Thief. If the artists and auteurs of the 40s and 50s used the stark shadows of black and white to showcase the existential bleakness of post-war America, those of the 70s and 80s instead show us the desperation and isolation of the postmodern city. The characters’ scramble for salvation, or just for material gain, which often slips through their fingers, is the same. But the backdrop, rather than the somber gray of Kubrick’s early film Killer’s Kiss, or even the colorized version of the same in Alan Parker’s Angel Heart, is instead the vibrant shining colors and constant motion of the “devil’s playground,” where the artificial lights illuminate everything in the night – except the souls of the people themselves. Neon noir.
Between the mid 70s and the mid 80s, New York went from being poor and trashy to being rich and trashy. As John Lurie put it, in the 70s nobody had any money, and anybody who did wasn’t cool, but then all of a sudden in the 80s anyone who had money was cool and anyone who didn’t was not. The writer Martin Amis aptly summed this up with the title of his 1984 novel about Manhattan: Money.
You can see the changes in Times Square in the differences between Taxi Driver in 1976, The Exterminator in 1980, and Fear City in ’84. The Times Square of Travis Bickle and John Eastland is filthy inside and out, from the garbage on the street – human and otherwise – to the dilapidated and disgusting interiors of the buildings. This is a place that was justly used as a setting for horror movies like 1982’s Basket Case. But by the time 1984 rolled around, it was a new vibe.
The Deuce of 1984 looks cleaner and more colorful than that of 1976 or 1980 – or maybe it’s just a result of higher quality film stock. Fear City is notable for the absence of many of the seedier characters who populate Times Square in earlier films, such as drug dealers, junkies, pimps, prostitutes, and the mentally deranged. In Taxi Driver and The Exterminator, the focus is on pimps and street gangs as the bad guys. But in Fear City, the pimps – sorry, “talent agency owners” – are the good guys. They wear business suits and drive Cadillacs, and they live in nice houses. They care about their girls, and they have a moral code. Here, the hookers are just nice girls working as exotic dancers, almost nobody’s on dope, and the only deranged lunatic on the Deuce is the kung fu killer.
But was the Times Square of 1984 really a cleaner, better place than that of a decade prior? Not according to the stats. William Stern writes in City Journal:
“Already by 1960, the New York Times was calling the heart of Times Square—42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth—the ‘worst block in the city.’ By the eighties, things got worse still, with an amazing 2,300 crimes on the block in 1984 alone, 20 percent of them serious felonies such as murder or rape. Dispirited police, at the time more concerned with avoiding scandals than fighting crime—especially low-level crime like the prostitution that was swamping Times Square—would investigate the serious felonies but mostly stood by and watched as disorder grew …
“No legitimate business—indeed, scarcely a normal person—would willingly visit so blighted and threatening an area. As head of the UDC during the mid-eighties, I would walk through Times Square at night, a state trooper by my side, and feel revulsion. We’d hurry past prostitute-filled single-room-occupancy hotels and massage parlors, greasy spoons and pornographic bookstores; past X-rated movie houses and peep shows and a pathetic assortment of junkies and pushers and johns and hookers and pimps—the whole panorama of big-city low life. Everywhere I’d look, I’d see—except for female prostitutes—only men. A UDC study later verified my impression empirically: 90 percent of those who walked Times Square’s streets were adult males. Times Square was haunted with them, like a circle of lost souls in Dante.”
The confusion of good and evil in Fear City is most apparent not in Berenger and Scalia’s pimps-as-heroes characters, but in the ascetic martial artist villain. It’s worthwhile to compare him to Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver to understand the different moral issues and perspectives raised by each film.
Travis Bickle is a slob, a drug addict, and a sexually repressed all-around mess of a human being. (In his defense, he likely has psychological damage from his experiences as a Marine in Vietnam.) Mid-way through Taxi Driver, Travis attempts to change himself through self-discipline, adopting an exercise regimen and giving up the liquor, pills, and junk food we see him frequently consuming in the beginning. But his attempt fails. His small apartment remains a cluttered mess, a symbol of his mind, which likewise never really gets uncluttered. (A portrait of a similar journey into and out of discipline, also set in 1970s New York, is found in Michael Brownstein’s novel Self-Reliance.) Travis wants to give his life meaning and purpose, but he can’t escape his demons and his desire to inflict violence.
Nonetheless, his violent actions ultimately end up doing at least some good, which is why he is hailed as a hero in the press, although we the audience know that his motives were far from pure.
In contrast, the unnamed kung fu killer in Fear City (played by an uncredited Neil Clifford) has succeeded where Travis Bickle failed. He is clean-cut, in peak physical condition, living only for his purpose – to “purify man” by killing “criminals and whores.” He engages in his attacks on women with rehearsed precision, almost like some kind of perverse religious ritual. His large loft apartment is as sparse as a Zen garden, containing only a desk, a training area, and posters from Asian medicine detailing the human body’s pressure points. Like Travis, he records his thoughts in a journal. His words are organized, precise, and utterly devoid of feeling. (His character is so similar to that of Colonel Stuart in Die Hard 2 – right down to the weird naked kata sequences – that I have to wonder if Fear City was not an inspiration for that film.)
The kung fu killer is in many ways the opposite of Travis Bickle. His good qualities – his discipline, his revulsion at the decadence of the Times Square sex industry – become twisted and evil. There is nothing good about what he does, and no good comes of it. Unlike Travis, who goes after pimps and brothel owners, the kung fu killer mostly attacks women. None of his victims ‘have it coming’ except perhaps the drug dealer that he kills near the end of the film.
The kung fu killer is eventually bested by the superior pugilism of Berenger’s anti-hero, who must overcome his fear of killing again in order to save the lives of his girls. He’s certainly a strange and contradictory character. On the one hand, he’s a Catholic, and a believer in love. On the other hand, he’s connected to the mafia and works as – basically – a pimp. Perhaps Ferrara, who is very much a product of New York’s Little Italy, much like his more famous contemporary Martin Scorsese, sees these contradictions as inherent in his community. Certainly Matt Rossi’s contradictions and moral shortcomings are not as glaring as Michael Corleone’s in The Godfather, nor are they displayed nearly as prominently, as in that film’s climactic sequence, in which Michael “renounces satan” while his henchmen commit murders throughout the city at his behest.
Ferrara himself later renounced Catholicism in favor of Buddhism, and so it’s interesting that here, Catholicism comes out ahead of the far eastern religious view, albeit a heavily distorted version of the far eastern view. Catholicism, like New York, is full of flaws and failings, ugliness and perversions. But the kung fu killer, with his maniac obsession with purity and his attempt to force that obsession onto the city, ends up becoming the greater evil. And in doing so, he forces the flawed hero to dig more goodness out of himself, to save his love, his city, and maybe ultimately himself.
Oh, and if you still need another reason to see this film, how about Michael Gazzo aka Frank Pentangeli as a down and out strip club owner on the Deuce?