“Alphabet City” is the first teenage gangster movie. We’ve had movies before where the kids were gangsters, but this is the first movie where they’ve taken all the clichés from those black-and-white Warner Brothers gangster classics of the 1930s, and crossed them with punk, angst, and James Dean. The result is one of the silliest movies of the year.
The movie’s about Johnny, a 19-year-old kid who is, we learn from the movie’s publicity releases, the “King of Alphabet City.” That’s the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where the avenues are named after letters, and every street corner has a drive-in drug dealer.
Johnny is some cool guy. He is a collector for the mob. He torches buildings – even the one his family lives in. He intimidates the owners of nightclubs where he is too young to be served. He keeps his lieutenants in line. He’s so busy, it’s not until halfway through the movie that we learn, almost as an afterthought, that he has a wife and baby. His wife is an artist with a loft in SoHo. Sure. Life has been filled with accomplishment for young Johnny, although his greatest accomplishment – growing up in Alphabet City and becoming a drug dealer without personally developing a habit – is probably the hardest one to believe.
We’ve seen movies set on these streets before. In Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets,” Harvey Keitel played the Italian-American kid who was the collector for the mob. But Scorsese knew Little Italy; he grew up there. He knew that Keitel’s character should be guilt-ridden, incompetent, and scared witless. The last thing we can believe is Johnny as the king of streets that not even real gangsters feel safe walking down.
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