An homage to the end of an era8/10
Based on a novel by Richard Price, Philip Kaufman's 1979 film The Wanderers is a surreal comedy about teenage gangs in the Bronx during the sixties that is both a coming of age film and an homage to the end of an era. The film was considered too strange for American audiences but gained popularity in Europe and eventually landed a theatrical re-release in the U.S. in 1996. Set in 1963 just prior to the Kennedy assassination, The Wanderers deals with a group of high school friends who must ward off challenges from rival gangs while coming to grips with the problems of growing up during rapidly changing times. The film has great music, an authentic sixty'ish look, colorful characters, and nostalgia for the days when alcohol was the favorite drug and the football field was the only battleground. In the film, ethnic gangs populate the Bronx but there are no guns and no knives. We meet the Wanderers (Italian), the Del Bombers (Black), the Wongs (Asian Kung Fu), and the Fordham Baldies (oversized bald guys). All except the sadistic Ducky Boys who seem to suddenly materialize at the opportune moment, are more like social clubs and do little besides partying and hanging out.
Led by slick, good-looking Richie (Ken Wahl), a pizza parlor employee discovered by Kaufman, and his friend Joey (John Friedrich), The Wanderers have their hands full fighting the Baldies and their 6' 7'', 400 lb. leader named Terror (Erland van Lidth de Jeude). One of their members Turkey (Alan Rosenberg) even crosses over and enlists in the Baldies to keep his gang connections going after graduation but the Baldies comically end up enlisting in the Marines. When newcomer Perry (Tony Ganios) comes to the Wanderers' rescue during a street brawl, they recruit him for their gang and become confident enough to challenge the Del Bombers to a fight. After an abortive attempt to discuss racism in class ends in a brawl, the stage is set for a rumble but local mobsters channel this energy into a football game. When the Ducky Boys show up, however, the game turns into a free for all. Although there is lots of violence, it is of the comic book variety and never seems quite real.
The energy never flags throughout The Wanderers and the film is assisted by a great soundtrack that includes many sixties favorites: "Runaround Sue'' performed by Dion and other classic oldies such as The Contours' "Do You Love Me,'' the Shirelles' "Soldier Boy,'' and the Surfaris' "Wipe Out''. Karen Allen plays Nina, Richie's new crush who competes for his attention with his long time girl friend Despie (Toni Galem), the daughter of a local mobster. One of the best scenes is a hilarious game of strip poker with Nina and Despie that is fixed by Richie and Joey to achieve an inevitable outcome. When Nina, the symbol of the new generation, goes to Folk City to hear Bob Dylan sing "The Times They Are a-Changin'', and the boys watch television accounts of the Kennedy assassination, it is clear something has shifted and their lives will never be the same. For those who lived during this time, The Wanderers will bring back many memories. For others, it is an entertaining but often sad journey back to a time of innocence that now seems so very long ago.