The Wanderers (1979)
By Kurly Tlapoyawa
The Wanderers (1979)
Directed by Philip Kaufman
Cast: Ken Wahl, Karen Allen
The Warriors is one of my favorite films of all time. Indeed, Walter Hill’s 1979 gang classic holds such a special place in my cold, darkened heart that my blind affection has led to many a passionate debate (and even a fistfight or two) over its artistic merit as a cult film. You see, we diehard cinephiles tend to wear our cinematic tastes firmly on our sleeves. And when someone dares to trash-talk a film we hold dear ... well, you’d better hold on to your panties, Margaret, because trouble’s a-brewing. No other gang film has ever matched the pure badassery and retro-hipness of The Warriors. But even a jaded refugee of ’70s cinema such as myself has to admit one thing: The Wanderers comes pretty damn close.
Based on the book by Richard Price (who appears in the film as a sleazy bowling alley hustler), The Wanderers takes us to the Bronx in the fall of 1963, where ethnic gangs such as The Wongs, The Baldies and The Del Bombers rule the streets. Director Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff, Quills) took a few liberties with the book, but the end result was good enough to get Price’s nod of approval. The film follows the exploits of the Italian gang known as The Wanderers, led by Richie Gennaro (played by a pre-“Wiseguy” Ken Wahl, sporting a mean hairdo and one helluva unibrow), as they vie for respect and try to score chicks. When a misguided teacher (in one of the stupidest class assignments ever) attempts to teach his racially stratified class about brotherhood, he nearly ignites a race war in the high school between the Italians and the black kids. The Wanderers, after unsuccessfully trying to garner support from the other white gangs, decide to settle the dispute in the only rational way possible: a football game!
While our boys prepare for the upcoming big game, they spend their time trying to feel up women on the street and not get their asses kicked by the gargantuan members of The Baldies. (“They shave their heads so their hair doesn’t get in the way when they fight!" proclaims the Wanderer known as Turkey.) We get glimpses into the dysfunctional home lives of a few of The Wanderers and follow Richie as he tries to get something going with the academic-minded Nina, played by the always-foxy Karen Allen (Animal House, Raiders of the Lost Ark). Is there anyone out there that didn’t have a crush on her? I don't think so.
My favorite parts of The Wanderers are when it leaves the normal world of ’60s New York and delves into an eerie, almost horror film-like atmosphere. Such scenes occur whenever the gang known as The Ducky Boys make an appearance. The Ducky Boys are an Irish gang numbering around 500 who never speak, are no taller than five feet and look like zombies. I swear, it’s as if Kaufman hands over the keys to John Carpenter whenever The Ducky Boys appear on the screen. When The Ducky Boys show up during the big football game, you know shit is about to hit the fan—and, boy, does it ever. But it does provide a good reason for the racially diverse gangs in attendance to band together against a common foe: angry Irish midgets with baseball bats and knives. Not so much a straight gang flick as a coming-of-age story—The Wanderers growing up, the assassination of Kennedy and our involvement in Vietnam provide the backdrop against which the film is set—The Wanderers is an obscurity worth checking out.
In spite of having one of the goofiest DVD covers ever (Seriously, what the hell was wrong with the original VHS cover featuring The Baldies?), The Wanderers is a pretty decent disc. The print looks fantastic and we get the original trailer. The real gem, however, is Kaufman’s commentary track. Sure, he sounds exactly like Joe Lieberman, but he provides some major insight into the making of the film and rounds it out with some really entertaining stories. One thing that sticks out immediately about this film is how great the soundtrack is. In fact, the first 15 minutes alone feature some of the best musical cues this side of a Scorsese film. Wanderers forever! (Warner Brothers, $19.98)
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