The 1970’s saw an explosion in gang movies and I mean those outside of ones about the Mafia because those are really their own genre. The 70’s saw a rise in movies about other types of gangs like street gangs, black, white and brown (The Warriors, Lords of Flatbush, Slaughter). Bikersploitation was a big in the grindhouse world (The Hard Ride, Chrome and Hot Leather). Southern Dixie “mafia” and bootlegger flicks were all the rage (White Lightning, Walking Tall) but there is one excellent and consistently overlooked film from that era and that is the 1979 classic coming of age movie, The Wanderers. Why is it overlooked? Probably because it came out just after The Warriors.
The Wanderers takes place in 1963 Bronx NYC and centers around The Wanderers, the biggest Italian American gang in the area and in their mind, the toughest (untrue). The movie focuses on the trials and tribulation of The Wanders leader Richie Gennaro and his best friend Joey Capra. The movie deals with racial tensions, the nascent hippie movement, teen pregnancy, child abuse, family issues, crime, what it means to be a man and how the macho culture is limiting and just about every human emotion and experience possible, all in a believable and true manner. As per usual I am just giving a quick run down of the movie and now onto what I thought was great in the movie.
First off, the writer of the movie is the director Phillip Kaufman (The Right Stuff, Raiders of the Lost Ark (story) and The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid) and his wife Rose. They did a fantastic job of adapting a complex and finely written book by Richard Price which was based on him growing up in the same area/era as the movie. The Kaufman’s used a fine and delicate hand in adapting the book and it shows on the screen. Nothing seems heavy handed or forced and there is a sense of authenticity that runs through the film.
As the director, Kaufman made a bright, shiny and somewhat comic book looking film but it works. The way he filmed the movie almost reminds me of a memory somebody was having of that time in their lives or maybe the memories generated by two guys like Richie and Joey talking sometime in the future. The technical aspects of the movie are all done well and the “brightness” gives the film a sense of possibility that existed in pre-hippie New York. This is important because later in the movie, when things break down for some of the characters, the cheeriness is juxtaposed against death or with the death of possibility, that some characters face, and has a deeper impact. Also, since the movie was shot on the actual streets of the Bronx, it has a “lived in” feeling to it that gives it another layer realism a lot of period piece movies lack.
Last bit of technical slobbering I am going to do is about the big fight scene near the end. The local mobsters, both black and white, engineer a football game between The Wanderers and the preeminent Black gang, The Del Bombers, to theoretically ease racial tension and gain respect for each another on the football field. In reality, it was to make enormous bets for the mobsters and to gain “face” or power in the neighborhood. The game is brutal. At first both sides engage in cheap shots like crazy then playing it straight as respect grows. That is, until a third gang arrives on the scene to start a rumble for pay back, the Ducky Boys.
The Ducky Boys are a semi-mystical, religious tattooed mute Irish gang. They are also psychotic and near midget killers. The Ducks have a twisted take on Catholicism to them It is alright to maim and kill as long as you go to mass and confess. Hmmmmm….I guess it’s not that twisted really. They want payback on The Wanderers because a couple of members got lost on their turf and hurt a Ducky Boy.
The giant fight scene is well shot and is one of the better large scale fights scenes on film. You have four gangs going at it, the Del Bombers, Ducky Boys, Wanderers and a Chinese gang called the Wongs (“don’t fuck with the Wongs!” – best line in the movie) and at no point is the viewer short changed in brutality, danger or unable to follow what’s happening on screen. Kaufman. or who ever shot it, has an eye for action and an ability to seamlessly integrate a large number of actors into a fight scene. Good job to all involved.
I want to talk about the acting which is good across the board but I am going to focus on the top two leads and the nice supporting turn by Karen Allen. All acting discussion about The Wanderers starts with Ken Wahl. Does this guy have a boat load of charisma or what? I mean beyond being a good looking kid he has that it factor that demands your attention whenever he is on screen which is a lot of the movie. Is Wahl’s acting range large? No, not really but as Richie Gennaro he was perfectly cast and in his first acting role Wahl hit a home run.
Richie Genarro has big dreams for The Wanderers and for himself but as a leader and a person he is lacking in many respects. Richie is the flawed hero figure straight out of a Greek tragedy and Ken Wahl gets that. Wahl portrays Gennaro as a noble man but his Achilles heel will always undo him in the end. The final scene of Richie and the boys together for one last time wearing their cuts and singing the “The Wanderer” by Dion as his life is imploding around him was one of the most devastating downbeat endings of a movie I’ve ever seen, even though the events surrounding it were allegedly happy. I respect Kaufman for having the balls to put this ending in the movie over what I would imagine were loud howling protests by the studio.
John Friedrich played Joey Capra and he had the harder task of the main actors. Joey is the son of an abusive, alcoholic father who is a giant of a man that lifts weights, is a firemen, war hero and compulsive womanizer that beats on both him and his mother. Joey is small but tough and likes art and drawing which of course his old man ridicules him for and calls him queer. Joey may be small but he is a ball of anger because of his old man’s abuse and is willing fight anybody so I respect him. Friedrich struck the exact right tone as Joey. He nailed all the issues that kids of “heroic” and “legendary” parents face especially those of abusive rummies. Capra’s artistic nature is what will ultimately save him even though it is the part of himself he both loves and loathes equally. What happens at the end of big rumble with his father is heartbreaking. His old man dealt some serious damage during the course of the battle.
Lastly there is Karen Allen who plays Nina, the on the cusp hippie girl (on the cusp since in ’63 there weren’t any hippies yet). She has a twofold purpose. First she represents a possibility that Richie never thought of, one that its past the block he grew up on. It’s a world where people talk instead of fight, where the music is by Dylan and not Dion and most importantly, it is a life not shackled to his shrill princess girlfriend whose father and uncles are the local wiseguys. Nina also represents the changing face of NYC and of the world. She is youth personified with her free love ethos, pot use and political outlook. All things that are foreign and enticing to Richie.
Allen played Nina as a gently mocking sort of girl but basically a sweet one. Her pointed jibes about how Richie and Joey and the rest of The Wanderers act with their macho attitudes are some of the funniest in a pretty funny movie. And come on, whose heart wouldn’t melt when Karen Allen pops that smile of hers?
I enthusiastically recommend this movie. If you haven’t seen it in a while you will be surprised how good it holds up. If you have not seen it you will be surprised just how good it is. Hell, if you just want to be entertained for an hour and half, give The Wanderers a look.