Review: The Wanderers
Set in early 60s Bronx area, and focussing mostly on the title street gang of Italian-American teen hoodlums led by Ken Wahl’s likeable Richie. They’re mostly a genial group of kids, and the film deals with a slice of their life, and especially their encounters with the other gangs in the area (mostly racially-based). Their chief adversaries are the menacing Baldies, led by the hulking Terror, whose gal pal is the diminutive, smart-mouthed Pee-Wee (Linda Manz). A young and barely recognisable Alan Rosenberg plays Turkey, a former Wanderer now aligning himself with The Baldies, to much ridicule. Karen Young and Toni Kalem play girls of very differing personality, whom members of The Wanderers attempt to pick up. Val Avery is a useless civics teacher, William Andrews is an alcoholic bully parent, and Dolph Sweet a bullying elder member of The Bronx neighbourhood the action takes place in.
Take the same year’s “The Warriors” and mix in a little of “The Outsiders” and you’ll get something like this 1979 street gang movie from director Philip Kaufman (Who gave us the definitive “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”). Based on a Richard Price novel and scripted by Kaufman and his wife Rose, it’s a mixed bag and a near-miss, I’m afraid. The film does have its moments, but also some lulls and a lot of whiny chatter, plus a rather slow pace. I also felt it was a mistake for The Baldies to completely disappear for the last 20 minutes. I get why they initially nick off, but surely they should’ve been there for the climax again? It’s a head-scratcher. Add to that a couple of very silly performances by young Linda Manz and especially an aggravating John Friedrich, and I’m just not as high on this cult item as some appear to be.
Ken Wahl (who quit the biz after a while to work in aiding veterans) has a great look and some charisma, and while she seems an ill-fit with this worldview, Karen Allen is really appealing. In smaller roles, Dolph Sweet is an effective Kenneth McMillan-type barrel-chested bully, and Val Avery is terrific as a well-meaning but ill-equipped idiot teacher trying to educate unruly and gang/racially-divided students. He tries to teach them about brotherhood in just about the least effective and appropriate manner one can conceive of. Meanwhile, Erland van Lidth sure is an utterly unforgettable behemoth (even if like Robert Tessier and Brock Lesnar, his voice doesn’t match the look). You’ll remember him, though his relationship with the much smaller (and much younger-looking) Manz is rather tough to take. I’m not sure about Mr. van Lidth, but most of the gang characters are meant to be high-schoolers and Manz presumably even younger than them, so…yeah, nah. She was 18 at the time but looks 12, and possibly even younger when paired to the very, very large van Lidth (who was terrific in “The Running Man”). It’s a bit icky, to be honest.
The soundtrack of 50s and 60s music is outstanding (‘Walk Like a Man’, ‘Wipeout’ etc.), though I feel that’s kind of a pre-requisite really. The film’s a lot less stylised and gritty as “The Warriors”, going for more of a “Blackboard Jungle” or “American Graffiti” treatment of the central conceit. Unfortunately it also lacks the energy of “The Warriors”, and I think it’s something that would’ve greatly benefitted the film. The football game in the second half is as much of a buzzkill as the football game in the movie version of “*M*A*S*H”. The big rumble afterwards is fun though, including some martial-arts.
I wasn’t overly involved with the plot, some of the performances grated on me too. Quite repetitive after a while, a little bit of this gang movie was a little too much yet not enough for me. There’s some good here, the soundtrack is stellar. It just doesn’t quite all add up to enough for a recommendation, especially when it’s been done better before (“The Blackboard Jungle”), at the same time (“The Warriors”), and since (“The Outsiders”). This one rests above the likes of “The Lords of Flatbush” and “Rumble Fish” (which is far, far worse) in between the top and bottom tier of gang movies. It’s…kinda OK.