The Wanderers (1979) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA Rated: R for violence, sexuality, brief nudity, and language
Running time: 117 min.
Cast: Ken Wahl, John Friedrich, Dolph Sweet, Karen Allen, Toni Kalem, Michael Wright, Alan Rosenberg, Jim Youngs, Linda Manz, William Andrews, Erland van Lidth, Val Avery, Olympia Dukakis
Director: Philip Kaufman
Screenplay: Rose Kaufman, Philip Kaufman (based on the book by Richard Price)
Review published June 28, 2007
One of several notable films revolving around street gangs to emerge in 1979 (The Warriors, Walk Proud, and Boulevard Nights are three others), The Wanderers is more of a coming-of-age period piece, not dissimilar to American Graffiti, although played a bit more ribald and violent. As with Graffiti, The Wanderers is set in the early 1960s, just before the country changed with the assassination of Kennedy and the oncoming of the Vietnam War, which would make a nation of youths grow up in a hurry.
Based on the novel by Richard Price, who drew a great deal from his personal experiences, The Wanderers tells of a gang of young Italian-Americans in the Bronx, one of many ethnic street gangs in the area, vying for turf and respect. The film is mostly anecdotal, telling of such things as their rivalries with other gangs, their home lives, their romantic dalliances, and how they coped with the ever-changing world around them. In those days, there was no honor in bringing a knife or gun to a rumble, although as Dylan (played by a look-a-like) would sing later into the film, "The Times They Are A-Changing", and the squabbles would become more brutal and senseless, reflecting the turbulent times going on in the rest of the world.
Good casting and memorable performances abound, with arresting turns by Ken Wahl (Fort Apache: The Bronx, The Taking of Beverly Hills) and Karen Allen (Animal House, Raiders of the Lost Ark), more convincing for the things they don't say than in anything they do. That could also be said about the movie as a whole, as it says much without belaboring things by constantly pointing out its intent, with the most stark example coming from the knife-and-pipe wielding Ducky Gang, who operate without saying a single word. Actually, the power, and sometimes uselessness, of words is also a main theme, particularly in evidence during a classroom scene that has a teacher asking his class for racial epithets that ultimately brings forth some of the greatest tension among the ethnic groups who had little beef with each other prior.
Although played with a great deal of humor, there is an ever-growing sadness underneath the film that slowly envelops the lives of these young men, as they find their insular world encroached upon by more insidious external forces. There are moments in the film where the story changes into the surreal, not too far of a cry from another street gang movie, A Clockwork Orange, especially during the Ducky Gang pursuits, but these moments definitely increase the tension and confusion as reflected in the young men's daily existence. They don't understand the violence around them, and are ill-prepared to deal with it in a manner which can make sense of it. Director Kaufman (Twisted, The Right Stuff), just having completed the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers the year before, brings into the mix a bit of the same sense of eerie, blank-eyed intensity.
With a striking and eclectic musical score from the time period, and a capturing of the toughness of the inner city New York streets, The Wanderers emerges as one of those films that some will love, others will find strange, but nearly all will find interesting for a variety of reasons. Though not a hit with every demographic, those who enjoy nostalgic treatments of America's youth in the early 1960s will find much to admire.
©2007 Vince Leo