Color, 1984, 85 mins. 9 secs.
Directed by Amos Poe
Starring Vincent Spano, Michael Winslow, Kate Vernon, Jami Gertz, Zohra Lampert, Kenny Marino
Fun City Editions (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), MGM (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Movies don't come drenched in '80s style much more than Alphabet City, a nocturnal crime film that looks like a music video dunked in a vat full of Dario Argento and Martin Scorsese movies. This was one of the earliest starring vehicles for Vincent Spano, a talented young actor who had just made a splash in John Sayles' Baby It's You along with a vivid supporting role in Rumble Fish. Here he gets to offer his take on that old Hollywood standby, the conflicted criminal with a heart of gold, working his way through a hyper-stylized version of Manhattan.
In his neighborhood in the Lower East Side, young Johnny (Spano) has become a big deal on the crime scene as he deals drugs and carries out property destruction for his mob bosses while taking care of his girlfriend, Angie (Vernon), back home at their loft with their new baby. He also likes to keep an eye on his sister (Gertz) and mother (Lampert) when he isn't cruising around, doing the nightclub scene, and occasionally torching a building if his job requires it. His criminal escapades frequently overlap with his goofball coke dealer buddy, Lippy (Police Academy's Winslow), and over the course of a fateful evening, decides he needs to make a major life change when an arson job hits too close to home and leads to a string of violent confrontations.
Blasting the screen with unnatural color gel lighting and supporting by a pounding synth-heavy soundtrack under the guidance of Chic co-founder and music impresario Nile Rogers, this is exactly the kind of film that had critics huffing about style over substance around this time. Of course, anyone who loves films of the era knows the style is the substance; you don't need to have any justification for a long, tense shoot out in an elevator shaft bathed entirely in glowing green light. Spano proves once again that he was one of the most interesting actors around at the time, and though he's still very busy, it's a shame some oddball choices after this stopped him from really reaching leading man territory. Though the film is definitely a snapshot of New York filmmaking in its prime, don't expect a whole lot of realism here; this is pure dream fuel in the same vein as Miami Vice or Drive, all the way to its insane climax featuring a deus ex machine you'll never believe.
Released theatrically by Atlantic Releasing Corporation (who scored a big hit soon after with Teen Wolf), Alphabet City was a regular fixture in VHS stores for years and eventually ended up with MGM, who released a DVD in 2002 featuring only a trailer as an extra. For its inaugural release, new label Fun City Editions (an affiliate of Vinegar Syndrome as evidenced by the menu design and packaging aesthetic) finally gives this film a shot at the wider audience it deserves. The HD transfer (a new 2K scan from the interpositive) sticks to the intended look of the film -- dark, grungy, and wildly colorful -- while providing nice detail, authentic film grain, and far better resolution for the more intense hues like red and pink than NTSC could handle. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track (with optional English yellow SDH subtitles) sounds authentic to the source and makes you wish the budget had been a little higher so they could've sprung for a Dolby Stereo mix. Also in VS form, a lossy Dolby Digital track is included for some reason. Director Amos Poe, who made a splash 1976's The Blank Generation and went on to direct several music videos, was a prominent fixture in NYC's brief No Wave movement at the time (which also included filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch, Richard Kern, and Susan Seidelman), and he's present here for a welcome (albeit extremely low-key) audio commentary with writer Luc Sante about the making of the film including the wrangling of props, the all-night shooting for over three weeks, the early days of car phones, and lots more. They tend to go quiet for long stretches here and there (remember, this is an MGM title), but there's some solid info scattered around throughout. Spano (who also provides a brief optional 33s video intro to the feature) appears for a video interview, "Prince of Alphabet City" (21m59s), in which he chats about getting the role, shooting with a small crew in a very "bad neighborhood" without incident, getting enough "space" from his director to create the character, having a crazy scare in that Trans Am involving the cops and a real gun, and insisting on doing one big fight scene without stunt men. In "East Side Stories" (4m48s), filmmaker Chris O'Neill provides a video essay about the film's pre-gentrification setting and the cinematic influences reworked here for modern sensibilities. Finally the disc closes out with the fun theatrical trailer (which promises a soundtrack release from Island Records that sadly never materialized) and an image gallery (3m26s) of promotional photos.
Reviewed on August 31, 2020