Johnny (Vincent Spano) wakes up in bed with his girlfriend Angie (Kate Vernon) and they start getting amorous, but are interrupted by the cries of their baby. Never mind, he has work to do as he is a small time hood for a wealthy drug dealer, collecting the money due and performing tasks when necessary, so he puts his clothes on, with all the belts and buckles that entails, and heads off. However, on meeting his friend Lippy (Michael Winslow) he realises the block his family live on, that is his mother (Zohra Lampert) and teenage sister Sophia (Jami Gertz), along with any man they might have acquired, is about to be torched by his boss for the insurance money...
Director Amos Poe gathered a small but significant reputation at the helm of a number of low budget, verging on the non-professional, movies but he finally got a break into higher budgeted efforts with Alphabet City. This was a very different arena he was operating in and with so much more at stake it seemed as if he was out of his depth, which could explain why the production company pretty much took it out of his hands and demanded a different ending, one which was "less political" in Poe's description. The trouble with that was it was so out of place, this intense elevator-based action sequence, in comparison with the rambling, would-be authentic street smarts of the rest of it.
This wasn't much of a hit anyway, but it does have a small following, though not really thanks to its director, more the cast. Spano was a leading man who nearly broke through to mainstream success, yet by the end of the decade appearances in underachievers like this saw to it that he never would; still, there are those who appreciate him and he was well enough suited to the New Yorker drama, even if he got few chances to shine here. Then there was Winslow, who would soon make his name thanks to a standup routine that exploded onto a generation's consciousness as he was the bloke who made the funny noises in the Police Academy series; in this case he was less sure of himself, as if uncertain whether to play for laughs or not.
If Winslow was playing for laughs, he wasn't getting them in Alphabet City, as he was more off-kilter than amusing, and not in a good way, appearing in need of stronger guidance to sort out his performance. Then there was Jami Gertz, threatening to steal the movie as the younger sister who is making moves towards prostitution, much to Johnny's dismay; she might have made more of an impression had she been offered more screen time, but as it was she tended to get lost in the muffled plot. Kate Vernon as the love interest lived in a huge loft with Johnny and the baby, so of course she had to be an artist, crafting abstracts with recognisable figure work in them: it was a very eighties profession in films like this, depicting the kind of artistic state of mind you imagine appealed to the moviemakers.
Anyway, while she was stuck in a generic girlfriend role (though the baby was an unusual touch) to be saved when push came to shove, Johnny roamed the streets of the titular neighbourhood in a flash car and visited nightclub and heroin den alike until he realised his position was untenable working for a mob boss whose mouth on the phone is all we see of him. It's a Road to Damascus moment for our hero as he cottons on to the bad lot he is mixing with, or it would be if there was any sense of revelation; mostly there was more mumbling of supposedly gritty dialogue where you could be forgiven for not noticing there was any crisis at all, what with every scene conveyed in much the same way, with the same emphasis and reactions. One thing Poe got right was the look of the work, a glossy slickness to every visual suggesting he would have been better off with a more improved screenplay, though he only had himself to blame there, and Nile Rodgers' score sounded disappointingly ordinary in light of his Midas touch with many a pop song. It was just a bit dull.