Glen Barnes (John Patrick Hayden) has just gotten out of prison and returned to his home turf of The Deuce. Trying (but not very hard) to reconnect with his estranged brother Tom (Lance Lewman) who leads a gang of young toughs now, Glen reopens his father’s theater, The Garage, pissing off rival club owner Leonard Farrell (Michael Speero), whose Love Connection strip club across the street has basically become a brothel. Sparks are gonna fly!
So, this is Tim Kincaid’s Riot on 42nd Street (aka New York 42nd Street), and it plays by the “Badass Returns Home to Clean Shit Up” rulebook, while it also has enough wrinkles of its own (intentional or not) to make it a very odd duck, indeed (a running theme in Kincaid’s oeuvre). For starters, Glen was imprisoned for a crime he did commit, killing a pusher in his family’s theater (and in front of an entire audience of witnesses; not smart). Many times, this type of character either was wrongly convicted or is trying to atone for the crime he committed and how his absence affected his family. Glen has no regrets about killing the pusher. In fact, it never comes up except as exposition. If anything, the audience is asked to see it as completely justified, because, naturally, pushers are scum. Glen does try to make amends with his brother Tom, but it’s so halfhearted and undeveloped (as so much of this film is), it doesn’t even satisfy as the genre cliché it clings to so tightly. Of course, the first two things that Glen does on arriving back in town are meet up with an old friend from the streets (Thelma, who works for Farrell and is played by Ceal Coleman) and beat up a mini-gang of hoodlums. Then Glen’s old flame, Michelle (Kate Collins), shows up to fling herself into his arms and completely abandon her career as a cop (to the eternal disgust of her partner Frank [Jeff Fahey]). These things happen, I suppose. And none of this means anything other than as scenes in a film.
Yet, the movie doesn’t fully commit to any of the clichés it requires as a cash-in action romp. Farrell dresses smoothly, and he has a hot girlfriend (the ever-lovely Frances Raines, grand-niece of the late, great Claude Raines, and whom you may recall from the “quirky” slasher The Mutilator) whom he treats like shit. He has a few skanky, musclebound henchmen (most prominently the actually creepy Remy [the fantastically named Carl Fury]) whom he also treats like shit. And that’s the sum total of Farrell. He has no personality other than thinly concealed rage and full-blown rage. He has no charm whatsoever, and his few meetups with Glen are tensionless snarkfests. Farrell has no sense of subtlety, no head for subterfuge, and since the cops who exist in this cinematic world don’t do a fucking thing to uphold the law, it doesn’t matter anyway. For example, if you were a cop, and you were present when a decapitated head was delivered to your boyfriend directly from his sworn enemy, wouldn’t you do something - anything - coplike? Does your commitment to upholding the law suddenly vanish when your old boyfriend reappears in your life? Maybe, but it doesn’t matter. The one action beat the film comes close to getting right is the massacre at Glen’s club (you didn’t think there wasn’t going to be one, did you?). It’s filled with slow-motion gunfire and squib-covered bodies jerking in reaction. It’s also overlong, which if you thought a sequence like this couldn’t be, you’d be wrong. Furthermore, it’s also bewilderingly intercut with a local rock band performing some anonymous songs, strippers doing their routines (one of the few things that actually feels authentic), and a standup “comic” (Zerocks [get it?], playing himself) shot in direct address doing jokes so stale, you’ll want to check them for mold and rot. Last, but by no means least, the titular “riot” is just a bunch of unpaid extras who are unable to lift their legs high enough to deliver convincing kicks (there’s one guy in particular who consistently draws your eye in this regard; you’ll know him when you see him) or who know anything even remotely about selling an onscreen punch (and part of this is clearly the filmmakers’ fault; okay, the whole thing is) prancing around each other like this was Michael Jackson’s Beat It video without the commitment to just calling it “fight dancing.”
Every character in Riot on 42nd Street is a cypher. Glen delivers nothing but blank, open-mouthed stares in lieu of acting throughout the entire movie, and these are met and returned by equally vapid gazes from Michelle, completely not heating up the screen or creating any chemistry whatsoever. Glen’s employees are only distinct for their ethnicities (a white, a black, an Asian) and their willingness to throw down as required by the script. The one character in the film that is in any way compelling is 42nd Street itself. There is a plethora of shots, clearly done guerilla style, that showcase The Deuce from this time period. These are the heartbeat of the film. Seeing the bustle of bodies hustling and mingling, the multitude of grindhouse theater marquees, and the unabashed selling of sleazy sex every few inches is the star attraction. It’s this grimy, desperate milieu that makes the film watchable, and Kincaid wisely keeps returning to it, even though it’s little more than filler in a film whose narrative is a string cut into uneven lengths. I love seeing New York from this era when it conveyed life and menace simultaneously, vibrant and rundown all at once. Nevertheless, I know I wouldn’t have wanted to actually live there, because I’m pretty much a scaredy cat. New York in cinema through the Seventies and Eighties is, for my money, the purest form of vicarious living you can get. You have all the danger, the grit, and the debauchery, and you can revel in it from the safety of your couch. With that in mind, if you choose to watch this particular film, do it for the right reasons. Otherwise, I can’t be blamed for your boredom and apathy.
MVT: 42nd Street in the late Eighties. It’s the sole thing in this film that actually feels alive.
Make or Break: The opening credits (rendered in graffiti-style lettering) unspool along with shots of the area and some colorful, non-sequitur scenarios like a hooker who keeps beating up potential customers and a three-way brawl on roller skates. The rest of the film isn’t as interesting.