It's 1963. Meet the wanderers…They were the hottest guys in town.
It seems every age group and demographic has their own coming-of-age film. You know the ones. Those are the films where a like-minded group of friends grows up and matures during the unfolding of a rather convoluted grouping of subplots that typically involve falling into and out of love, getting jilted and rejected and accepted, and meeting the maw of the opening, oncoming cold, cruel world with optimism, pessimism, awe, or fear. (Take your pick.) That brings us to The Wanderers, a film cut from same cloth as a myriad of "gangs in New York" films while managing to offer a new, unique perspective on growing up. Based on the novel of the same name by Richard Price, Warner Brothers has released The Wanderers from their film vaults and put it in a self-destructing snapper case for viewing by the home theater masses.
Facts of the Case
The movie centers around four friends starting with Richie (Ken Wahl), the leader of the Italian street gang called "The Wanderers." (And you were wondering how they'd work the title into the movie, weren't you?) The Wanderers are at the top of the food chain in the local high school along with a gang of African American youths (the Del Bombers) and the rest of the cliques in their own colorfully named gangs, such as The Wongs (so named because their last names were all "Wong" and they knew Kung Fu and stuff). There were also the Fordham Baldies, the Ducky Boys, the Crips, the Bloods, the Triads, the Klaxons, the Romulans, and so on all the way down to the band geek gang (the Fragile Porcelain Mice). Richie, like all hot-blooded young American teenagers, has a case of raging hormones and the affections for Despie Galasso (Toni Kalem), the daughter of a bowling fanatic and small-time mob guy.
Then there's Joey (John Friedrich), the runt of the gang with serious artistic talent that's strongly discouraged by his philandering, muscle-bound father. Joey ends up falling for Nina (Karen Allen, Raiders of the Lost Ark), who he meets while out on the street with his buddies. He also has a penchant for sticking his neck out and getting into serious trouble, especially with the Fordham Baldies and their gargantuan-sized, falsetto-speaking leader, Terror (Erland van Lidth, a notable That Guy). It's an early encounter that leads to a chance meeting with the third guy in this buddy trifecta, Perry (Tony Ganios, who more notably would go on to play "Meat" in the Porky's trilogy).
Perry is the new kid in town and is really what The Wanderers needed, a large, tough-talking, ass kicker who can help protect them. Perry's only real problem is his alcoholic mother who ends up having an illicit affair with Joey's father. Oh, the tangled web they weave.
Lastly, we have Turkey (Alan Rosenberg), a member of the Wanderers who shaves his head and defects to the Fordham Baldies (they're the toughest of the tough) despite his intentions to still be friends with the Wanderers, an idea about as good and long-lived as Crystal Pepsi, the Volkswagen Thing, or Guy Ritchie's Swept Away. Turkey struggles to fit into both gangs and succeeds at really belonging to neither, but his character becomes part of an unfortunate catalyst for the film's climax.
The plot, such as it is, revolves around a thinly veiled attempt by a teacher at the high school to discuss racism, which succeeds only in provoking more racism and an impending rumble between the Del Bombers and the Wanderers. Somehow, somewhere along the way, this "rumble with no weapons" evolves into a back lot football game. I don't know how this happened, exactly, but work with me here. Before the rumble, err, football game, however, the Wanderers (and eventually Turkey) run afoul of the Ducky Boys, a gang of malcontents and ne'er-do-wells bent on murder and mayhem, in a number of surrealistic scenes. This leads the Ducky Boys for some reason or other to impose their murderous presence on the football game, or something. (None of the Ducky Boys ever speak during this film, so I'm not sure exactly what their inner motivation was except that they just hated people.) On the way, there will be love stories, rejections, betrayals, and extreme sadness the day an entire country mourned the loss of a president.
There are a number of things that struck me about The Wanderers that made this a watchable film. Most coming-of-age films are probably in many ways autobiographical (Richard Price would have been in his early 20s in 1963 and grew up in The Bronx…hmmm), which lends a great deal of authenticity to the story, the times, and the attitudes of the characters. This movie feels authentically like the early 1960s should, despite the fact that I have no idea what I'm talking about since I hadn't been born yet. The slang and the lingo of the times come to life through Price's words.
This brings us to the skilled direction of Philip Kaufman. Kaufman, despite being a Chicago guy, manages to properly depict The Bronx during this period. Great care was taken to authentically replicate the styles of the times, from the clothes, the hair, the cars, and especially the music (though I'd have to complain that hearing the song "The Wanderer" what must have been fifty times during this film was somewhat grating). It's Kaufman who makes this film click by giving the film a gritty, streetwise style during the proper moments, doses of eerie surreality when the Ducky Boys are on screen, and tender moments between some characters when really needed. Richie and his friends seem human and real thanks to Kaufman's work, and the rumble/football game at the end is as gritty and brutal as one would imagine. This is real talent, folks.
This is not in any way to downplay the acting jobs, which are all top-notch. It's kind of strange to think that only Karen Allen went on to a decent acting career with all the talent on display in The Wanderers. (And playing a guy named "Meat" in three more coming-of-age movies doesn't count.) Allen is much more reserved and demure than the feisty sparkplug she portrays in Raiders, but she brings a screen presence with her that seems to light up the rest of the cast.
The Wanderers is presented in a widescreen anamorphic format thanks to Warner Brothers. While I can't say that this is the greatest transfer I've ever seen, the only real defects I noticed were most likely the fault of the age of the film stock with a couple of dust mites making cameo appearances (Dust Mite #2 was portrayed by Tony Danza, I believe). Okay, there was a little bit of edge enhancement, but it wasn't a big deal. The colors are fairly solid throughout the film. This equates to being, at best, an average transfer. The sound was a two-channel stereo that was not in any way impressive when compared to the glistening 5.1 stereo surround soundtracks us young whippersnappers are accustomed to. As far as extras go, there's a pretty nifty commentary track by Kaufman that's a good way to spend two hours if you really dig The Wanderers. The obligatory theatrical trailer is also provided.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The main problem with coming-of-age films is they are really aimed at a certain demographic. As I previously mentioned, I was still many years away from being born and decades away from my formative years when Kennedy was assassinated. This makes it relatively difficult to relate to the characters despite the universally generic themes of this genre. I don't know what it's like to wear a duck tail, I don't know what it's like to belong to a hip gang, I don't know what it's like to be in a rumble, and I don't know where I was when Kennedy was killed.
Despite a few nifty elements (like the aforementioned scenes with the Ducky Boys), and despite the level of craft put into The Wanderers, this film rarely defies convention and often stoops into not only the clichés of this genre, but the clichés of gang movies and sports movies (there is, after all, a football game at the end). While The Wanderers still manages to entertain, I could never completely shake the "Been There, Done That" sentiment.
While overshadowed by the same year release of Walter Hill's cult classic, The Warriors, The Wanderers is skillfully made, acted and written. Unfortunately I'm just not in the demographic that would necessarily find a lasting appeal in this film. I will definitely recommend giving this one a shot if you enjoyed movies like The Warriors or The Outsiders.
The Wanderers is found not guilty on the merit that I'm absolutely terrified of The Ducky Boys and I wouldn't want to see any of them coming around here to discuss a guilty verdict.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Audio Commentary by Philip Kaufman
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