New York City novelist/screenwriter Richard Price didn’t truly connect with Hollywood until his script for Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money (1986) announced his expertise at writing tough underworld stories. Yet Price’s association with the movies actually began in the ’70s, when two of his books were adapted into features. First came Bloodbrothers, a small-scale drama released in 1978, and then came The Wanderers, a quasi-epic about Brooklyn street gangs. Co-written and directed by the unpredictable Philip Kaufman, The Wanderers is ostensibly a nostalgic look at teen life in the early ’60s, before the assassination of JFK, the emergence of the counterculture, and the beginning of America’s Vietnam entanglement. The title refers to a gang of Italian-American teenagers who spend their free time chasing girls, fighting with rival gangs, and generally prolonging adolescence. Their exploits are set to a thumping soundtrack filled with tunes by Dion, the Four Seasons, and other doo-wop-influenced groups.
When Kaufman keeps things simple, focusing on the misadventures of gang leader Richie (Ken Wahl) and his cronies, The Wanderers works well. However, Kaufman takes the movie in strange directions by treating the presence of a gang called the Ducky Boys in an apocalyptic fashion—whenever the Ducky Boys show up to cause trouble, the movie’s tone shifts from playful to terrifying. And since many scenes in The Wanderers approach outright comedy, the presence of the dissonant Ducky Boys vignettes undermines the integrity of the whole piece. And that’s not the only problem with The Wanderers. Much of the picture comprises a romantic triangle involving Richie, his maybe-pregnant girlfriend Despie (Toni Kalem), and Nina (Karen Allen), the new girl who catches Richie’s eye. This coming-of-age material is trite, and a subplot involving Despie’s dad, Chubby (Dolph Sweet), seems overly grim because Chubby’s a wiseguy who does things like dropping a bowling ball onto an enemy’s hand. From start to finish, The Wanderers can’t decide if it’s a wild-youth romp or a gritty portrait of urban violence.
Nonetheless, the movie has amazing textures. Ace cinematographer Michael Chapman gives the visuals gravitas, and memorable actors add idiosyncratic flavors to the mix. For instance, The Wanderers features diminutive Linda Manz (best known for Terrence Malick’s 1978 mood piece Days of Heaven) and hulking Erland Van Lidth, who plays a massive street tough nicknamed “Terror,” as an unlikely couple. Demonstrating his customary interest in surprising juxtapositions, Kaufman portrays Manz as the tougher of the two, while still leaving room to reveal her character’s fragility. Similarly, Kaufman gets terrific work out of Wahl—a Stallone type with legitimate acting chops—and John Friedrich, who plays the other main Wanderer, Joey. Scenes of these two and their pals cruising the streets of New York are exciting and fun. Alas, for every vivid bit—Terror’s gang memorably threatens the Wanderers during a harrowing trip to a bridge—there’s an improbable moment like the scene in which a teacher (Val Avery) nearly instigates a race war in his classroom. The Wanderers lacks discipline, restraint, and shape, but it explodes with energy and intensity. In modern parlance, the movie’s a hot mess.
The Wanderers: FUNKY