In New York City a crazy kung fu killer stalks, maims and murders strippers working in various nightclubs. Matt Rossi (Tom Berenger), a former boxer trying to escape his tragic past, runs the agency that supplies exotic dancers to the mafia-controlled strip clubs across Manhattan. Tortured by flashbacks to the young boxer he accidentally killed in the ring, Matt struggles to win back his stripper ex-girlfriend Loretta (Melanie Griffith), now involved in a lesbian liaison with fellow dancer Leila (Rae Dawn Chong). To further compound his problems, Matt and his business partner Nicky Parzeno (Jack Scalia) are relentlessly dogged by police detective Al Wheeler (Billy Dee Williams) who wrongly suspects they have something to do with the killings. With the stripper-hating martial arts madman ruining their business, local mafia don Carmine (Rossano Brazzi) tasks Matt to finally face his demons and take care of the psycho himself.
Fear City was the first mainstream effort from Abel Ferrara, as marked by its glossy Eighties veneer and a driving synth score by Dick Halligan featuring vocals from former New York Dolls’ front man (and occasional actor) David Johansen. Alongside Martin Scorsese, Ferrara shares a thematic preoccupation with New York as an urban hell that slowly drives his protagonists mad. Whereas his early exploitation movies, Driller Killer (1979) and the excellent Ms. 45 (1980) concerned psychos who became vigilantes, Fear City splits his stock character in two. On the one hand, Tom Berenger as a tortured Catholic vigilante wrestling with the moral quandary of killing, on the opposite end - the kung fu killer who is almost a parody of Eighties fitness fanatics, coming over like a cross between Chuck Norris and Travis Bickle (like Bickle he keeps a diary from which he obsessively narrates).
His martial arts antics (training in the nude, twirling samurai sword and nunchakus before shrieking starlets) edge the film into silliness, but are redeemed by the actor’s intensity (credited as John Foster in some sources, there is some debate as to his real name) and the shockingly visceral, yet non-explicit nature of the killings themselves. Nevertheless, we learn next to nothing about the murderer beyond his demented credo: “With the death of each criminal, man comes one step closer to purity.” Ferrara downplays his usual uncompromising stance on vigilantism in order to cater to a mainstream palette, but still raises some pertinent points. “You can never prevent terrorism”, observes sagely godfather Carmine. “You can only fight it’s root and destroy it.” Ferrara details the impact the killer has on various lives, though perhaps overreaches with too many ambitious subplots including a mob war, the bisexual love triangle, Loretta’s drug problem and Nicky’s relationship with student-turned stripper Ruby (Janet Julian).
Of course Ferrara brings authenticity to the seedy, neon-drenched glamour of 42nd street, complemented by hardboiled dialogue supplied by regular screenwriter Nicholas St. John. He approaches this sleazy milieu with a certain matter-of-fact, non-judgemental depicting Matt and Nicky as no-nonsense businessmen but also stand-up guys who genuinely care about their girls, and detailing the complex wrangling between rival mob factions. Melanie Griffith fans will enjoy her scorching strip-tease routines alongside those of Rae Dawn Chung and indeed most of the female cast, but though the girls are victims one positive aspect is that none are depicted as simpering bimbos. It builds to a bare-knuckle mano-a-mano between the psycho and Matt that is conventional compared to Ferrara’s more personal movies, but is well-staged and still satisfies.
1990's King of New York was a return to form, while the searing Bad Lieutenant quickly became the most notorious, and perhaps best, film of Ferrara's career. The nineties proved to be the director's busiest decade, as he dabbled in intense psycho-drama (Dangerous Game, The Blackout), gangster movies (The Funeral), sci-fi (Body Snatchers, New Rose Hotel) and horror (The Addiction). He continued to turn in little-seen but interesting work, such as the urban drug drama 'R Xmas and the religious allegory Mary until his higher profile returned with the likes of Welcome to New York and Pasolini.