(director/writer: Philip Kaufman; screenwriters: from the novel by Richard Price/Rose Kaufman; cinematographer: Michael Chapman; editors: Ronald Roose/Stuart H. Pappé; cast: Ken Wahl (Richie), Jim Youngs (Buddy), Tony Ganios (Perry), John Friedrich (Joey), Alan Rosenberg (Turkey), Karen Allen (Nina), Toni Kalem (Despie Galasso), Linda Manz (Peewee), Erland Van Lidth De Jeude (Terror), Val Avery (Mr. Sharp), Dolph Sweet (Chubby Galasso), Burtt Harris (Marine Recruiter), William Andrews (Emilio), Michael Wright (Clinton), George Merolle (Peppy Dio), Samm-Art Williams (Roger), Olympia Dukakis (Gang member’s mom); Runtime: 117; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Martin Ransohoff; Warner Home Video; 1979)
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
At the climax of the spirited teen gangland film, one that unevenly blends together nostalgia and a story of urban angst, Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'” blares out of a Folk City club and signals the beginning of a possibly new enlightened era for the country. The episodic rock’n’roll film passionately directed by Philip Kaufman (“The White Dawn”/”The Right Stuff”/”Quills”)is good at getting at the symbolic changes that took place in its Bronx, Fordham Road, setting, in 1963, and the swagger of teen gangs and their problematic upbringing and aimless street-life existence, but its character depictions, gang rumbles and racial healing scenes are pure Hollywood hokum. The crudely entertaining cultish comedy/drama, strongly driven by a great golden oldies score (including songs such as Smokey Robinson & The Miracles’ “You Really Got A Hold On Me,” The Contours’ “Do You Love Me,” the Shirelles’ “Soldier Boy,” and the Surfaris’ “Wipe Out”), is based on the novel by Richard Price and is co-written by Kaufman and his wife Rose.
The Wanderers are a tame Bronx gang in the fall of 1963, who are all Italian high school students and are garbed in gang uniform satin baseball jackets. The gang has a strong sense of camaraderie, and have a whistle call to sound the alarm to round up members when there’s danger.The gang exists to give them firepower against tougher turf rivals like the older head-shaven Fordham Baldies, the black gang called the Del Bombers and the toughest Bronx gang called the Ducky Boys. Also to socialize with Italian girls, to give them a sense of identity and a protective outlet for their macho behavior. Richie (Ken Wahl) is a knuckle-head, but seems to be the most likable and together gang member and their apparent leader. Other members include Joey (John Friedrich), a punky loud-mouth, whose father Emilio (William Andrews) is an abusive bully; Turkey (Alan Rosenberg), a weasel-like big-talker who shaved his head in hopes of joining the Baldies; and new to the neighborhood via Trenton, NJ, the mysterious 19-year-old kind-hearted tough guy named Perry (Tony Ganios), who is recruited into the gang.
The action takes place in vignettes and has a number of set pieces that include: the Baldies and their giant leader Terror (Erland Van Lidth De Jeude) going after Joey for calling them names, and the frightened Joey saved from a beating by Perry; a classroom fight unintentionally instigated during a lesson on racial tolerance by inept teacher Mr. Sharp (Val Avery) between the ‘coloreds’ and the Italians; A bowling alley pay back of bowling hustlers by the adult Mafia members led by Chubby Gelasso (Dolph Sweet), who resents that The Wanderers were previously hustled by pros in disguise; on the street, The Wanderers copping feels from big-breasted women by bumping into them; a party for The Wanderers in the home of Richie’s girlfriend Despie Galasso (Toni Kalem), where Richie’s new girl of interest is the bohemian Nina (Karen Allen) who shows up and makes the hostess jealous; a strip-poker game among Richie and his two girls of interest; the Baldies when drunk being tricked into enlisting in the Marines by an amoral recruiter (Burtt Harris); a rumble on the football field between the Ducky Boys and the unlikely allies of the black Del Bombers led by Clinton (Michael Wright), The Wanderers and the Asian martial-arts gang called the Wongs. Their motto is classic: ‘Don’t fuck with the Wongs.’ All the nostalgia for the 1950s rock’n’roll and macho attitude ends with the Kennedy Assassination and the anthem song of the period prior to 1963, Dion’s The Wanderer, sung now as a golden oldie.
The cartoonish violent film makes no social comments on the events of the day, as it just sticks to having fun with this group of mostly meatheads and lets us see tenement life back then as a dead-end existence and how easily violence is passed on to the next generation. Its message is that for those unable to change their ways and discover a better way of living, there’s only the same old thing awaiting them. What the film couldn’t do was make its characters inspiring or the set piece situations from being mostly tasteless or the gang depictions to be more convincing. If you want to get a truer and deeper picture of this neighborhood scene, you would have to read the more observant book.
Superb performances by Ken Wahl and John Friedrich, are followed by pleasing ones by a menacing Dolph Sweet, a bemusing one by Erland Van Lidth De Jeude and a gutsy one by Linda Manz–the peanut girlfriend of Terror.
REVIEWED ON 7/28/2012 GRADE: B-