Face it folks, Billy Dee Williams oozes with coolness! He was Lando Calrissian, after all! Lando freakin’ Calrissian! Beat that! Of course he’s had a great deal of success with roles that didn’t take place “long ago in a galaxy far far away.” But hey, I was a kid raised on all things Star Wars, so it was a bit of an adjustment for me seeing Billy Dee as a tough cop in today’s film, 1984’s Fear City. There’s only one city for Billy Dee…Cloud City! Am I right?!?!
Our story follows a former boxer named Matt Rossi (Tom Berenger) and his business partner Nicky Piacenza (Jack Scalia). They run a talent agency that specializes in booking strippers in Times Square clubs. In fact, their biggest find ever, Loretta (Melanie Griffith), is one of the city’s biggest draws. She even dated Matt for a time, but the ex-boxer’s demons pushed her away. Poor guy is haunted by memories of a match where he accidentally killed his opponent.
Business is good for our boys, but then one of their strippers, Honey (Ola Ray…remember her from the Thriller video?), is brutally attacked in an alley while leaving the club. This sort of thing happens all the time in New York, but when another stripper, Leila (Rae Dawn Chong), is also attacked Matt begins to think that someone is targeting his girls. That’s the thought of detective Al Wheeler (Lando…er Billy Dee Williams) as well.
With the attacks becoming more brutal, the girls become a bit skittish about working the clubs. Matt and Nicky soon have trouble getting anyone to perform in the clubs they book talent for. Fear begins to grip everyone. Even as her romance with Matt starts to rekindle, Leila begins to sink back into drug abuse. Nicky becomes somewhat paranoid, even attacking a strip club patron he suspects could be the killer. After Nicky ends up in the hospital after a run-in with the actual murderer, Matt decides to take matters into his own hands…exorcising his boxing demons in the process.
Fear City is directed by Abel Ferrara who has certainly never shied away from gritty material. For crying out loud, he directed Bad Lieutenant people! It primarily takes place in the Times Square of the not-so-distant past. Before Rudy Giuliani cleaned up the joint. It’s grimey, dank, and smells of something dead. Ferrara does a very effective job of letting that unpleasantness ooze through the screen. His creativity with lighting and camera angles manages to be quite beautiful in its ugliness.
The film is a solid thriller that certainly sucks the viewer in. It is interesting that the story doesn’t get caught up in who the killer is and what his motivations are. We, the audience, see him early on. We know what he looks like, he’s not obscured by shadows or wearing a mask. He looks a bit like a frat boy in sweatpants and a hoodie. His use of nun-chucks and a samurai sword is maybe a little silly…but hey, it’s the 80’s. What is more intriguing, though, is that the film, true to its title, focuses more on the fear created by the serial killer and what it reduces the other characters to do.
The cast is top-notch. Berenger is especially effective and very believable as the tortured former champ. Billy Dee Williams is, well, Billy Dee Williams. He’s as smooth and cool as ever, but, if you ask me, a bit underused in the film. His presence doesn’t really do anything to move the story forward, but I was still thrilled to see him here. Finally we have Melanie Griffith, who has been uneven in her career, to say the least. Here, though, she is very good. Early in the film she pulls off some of her sexiest film moments ever, but as things progress her downward spiral back into drug addiction quite convincing.
With the exception of the killer’s penchant for ninja style, Fear City doesn’t feel that much like an 80’s film. It doesn’t have that 80’s shine, which works very well for this material. There are a few moments here and there that were perhaps a bit lacking, but for the most part Fear City was an unexpected surprise.