A boisterous street gang flick masquerading as a rarely watched instructional video on how to coerce Italian, "colored," and Chinese thugs to work together to fight their Irish counterparts, The Wanderers is different from its cinematic cousin The Warriors, which was also released in 1979, in that it doesn't take place in a racially harmonious universe where comically attired gangs try to take over New York City after a robe-wearing idealist repeatedly asks a hastily gathered congregation if they can "dig it." No, this Philip Kaufman film, based on the novel by Richard Price, is set solely in the realm of reality. Following the small-time, yet sociologically relevant hijinks of The Wanderers, a gang of youths made-up of mostly teens from Italian extraction (fugetaboutit), the film tags along with four of the groups most headstrong members as they go about the daily routine. Which includes: race baiting fellow classmates (Racially Derisive Language 101 apparently makes up a large part of the their school's curriculum), molesting women on the sidewalk, fleeing from skinheads, recruiting burly new members, turning the tables on said skinheads by employing the inherent talents of said burly new members, cheating at strip poker (Mamma Mia! Toni Kalem* is one spicy meatball!), not fucking with The Wongs (the film's Chinese gang), and playing American football (a sport where you are, get this, given four downs to move the ball ten yards).
Now, I think the main reason I never saw this film on television growing up was probably because of its casual use of racial slurs and glamorization of outdoor melees. Either way, it's a shame it hasn't built up the same kind of cult following like The Warriors has enjoyed over the years. I mean, the unblinking nature of the racial tension in the history class scene (they don't saturate their language with a masking layer of sugar), the excessive brutality of the football field brawl (the musclebound father of one of the Wanderers uses a Ducky Boy gang member as a club), the romantic tug-of-war over a beatnik cutie (Karen Allen), and comradery between the guys in the gold jackets is all pretty compelling stuff.
Sure, the utilization of the JFK assassination and Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'" to point out the coming cultural reposition was a tad heavy-handed, and the shot of all various races putting aside their nonexistent differences to combat a mob of height challenged Irishman seemed a little far-fetched. But everything else was teeming with unwholesome and nostalgic goodness.
I'll admit, the prospect of connecting with the trials and tribulations of hooligans living in The Bronx during the autumn of 1963 appeared to be a long-shot, especially since I'm not a big fan of the era (actually, I'm more indifferent to it than anything else). However, the sight of three Wanderers: Ken Wahl, John Friedrich, and Alan Rosenberg (not an Italian name in the lot) being chased by an angry mob of skinheads was like staring directly into a mirror.
You see, I distinctly remember fleeing from hairless punks on several occasions as a pointy-shoe attired delinquent. Whether or not these purposely bald asswipes wanted to inflict any real bodily harm on me and my equally pointy-shoe attired brothers was never quite established. (We never stood around to find out.) Anyway, the chase sequence involving the Wanderers and the Fordham Baldies brought back a lot of bittersweet memories. Which is something I didn't expect in a film about a bunch of gumbas acting overly tough in an urban setting.
Since I've already mentioned Karen Allen's cuteness, alluded to Toni Kalem's hotness (her looks of jealousy while smacking her chewing gum were awesome), and made an offhand remark about the lack of Italian surnames amongst the male leads, I'd like to finish by lavishing some mild acting praise on the bizarre duo that was Erland van Lidth de Jeude (The Running Man) and Linda Manz (Gummo) made as Terror (the leader of the Baldies) and Peewee (the Baldies lone female member). The combination of Erland's unexpected eloquence and Manz' overall scrappiness was intoxicating. It's true, their scenes together had a real oddness about them (their make out scene in particular). But out of all the great shots in The Wanderers, nothing quite beats the image of Terror and Peewee staring down a lumbering Wanderer named Perry (Tony Ganios) in that dark alleyway.
Oh, and I couldn't have been the only one who thought it was ironic that The Fordham Baldies were the only gang in the film who didn't seem to discriminate when it came to race.
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