I liked “The Wanderers” when I saw it in a theater 35 years ago (wow, that’s a long time – actually 38 years now that I’m updating this review in 2017) and I’ve seen it a few or maybe a dozen times since. It is far superior in all respects to 1979’s more popular gang film “The Warriors” (click here for my review). Ken Wahl is exceptional in his first film role and he is solid as the thread throughout the fabric of the film. The best part is how this is a character-driven gang movie and not just an excuse for action. Check out “The Wanderers” as it often makes the rounds on the movie networks.
(1979; 117 minutes; rated R; directed by Philip Kaufman and starring Ken Wahl, Karen Allen and John Friedrich)
HERE’S A TEEN GANG MOVIE DONE RIGHT, REALLY RIGHT
(NOTE: I expanded with review with some additional opinion, more trivia and the updating of links on July 23, 2017.)
What’s there to like about “The Wanderers?” The script? Certainly; it’s deep and it’s intelligent. The cast? Without a doubt; they turn out consistently great work here. The director? Absolutely; this one’s right up there with his space epic “The Right Stuff” (click here for my review). So, we have all the pieces and they fit perfectly … let’s watch it!
“The Wanderers” is a teen coming-of-age tale using the frame of an Italian high school gang in 1963 New York City. But this isn’t an action film like “The Warriors” of the same year. Does it have action? Yes. But the film develops mostly through the layers of its characters. Each finds their only destiny, whether it be predetermined by culture (in Wahl’s case) or by choosing to set off away from home.
The film is very gritty with cinematography and costuming to match the year and the talk, with racial comments, is also accurate and is the driving force of why this film is watchable. I’ll skip the deep explanation of the plot and just skim it.
Ken Wahl plays “Ritchie Gennaro,” the good-hearted gang leader who’s as much interested in girls as he is in his gang activities. Wahl’s gang, “The Wanderers,” is Italian and mixed in at school with black gangs, Irish gangs, a Jewish gang and an Asian gang. Through name-calling stirred up by a teacher in a class, “The Wanderers” and the “Del Bombers,” a black gang, square off, but they are coerced to ease the rivalry into a football contest. In the end, the two former foes have to join forces at the game for a huge battle with another gang, “The Ducky Boys.”
Throughout the film the guys, including sparkplug John Friedrich as “Joey Capra” and Alan Rosenberg as the doomed and twisted “Turkey,” get into some harassment (groping women on the sidewalk) or just hang around. Wahl is after Toni Kalem, who plays “Despie Galasso” the daughter of the local crime family leader, but becomes enamored of Karen Allen, playing “Nina Becker” two years before her signature role as “Marion Ravenwood” in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
After an amusing PG strip-poker game, Wahl’s infatuation with Allen grows (mostly because of her black bra) but it’s ultimately a case of staying in the neighborhood with Kalem – you’ll have to find out why by watching the film.
Here’s a rundown of some of the principal cast (and most actually have more interesting post-acting stories):
- Wahl showed he has talent with his work here, but hasn’t had an acting role since suffering life-threatening injuries in a motorcycle crash in the 1990s. His last of 16 credits was in 1996 for a TV movie “Wiseguy” and he previously starred in the TV series of the same name. “The Wanderers” was Wahl’s first film.
- As for Allen, her career is highlighted by her work in the “Indiana Jones” franchise and as the girlfriend of one of the frat boys in “National Lampoon’s Animal House.” She doesn’t have much to work with here, but you don’t mind the window-dressing role. Allen was also in “Scrooged” and, like so many others in Hollywood, did a guest spot on “Law & Order.”
- Primetime Emmy nominee Rosenberg does a really good job making “Turkey” such an annoying loudmouth. His character actually has several layers and Rosenberg doesn’t fumble the complicated, doomed character here. Rosenberg’s career has been mostly on TV, with his nomination for a guest spot on “ER” in that show’s first season. “The Wanderers” was Rosenberg’s first film.
- Friedrich is excellent with his hyper personality of “Joey.” He’s the emotional spark of the gang and his mouth can get him into trouble at the drop of a hat. However, it isn’t just his volatility that sets him apart from just being a “spark plug.” Friedrich manages several levels of acting with aplomb here. He didn’t have a lengthy career, notching only 17 credits over eight years until his last in 1984 on TV’s “The Paper Chase.” He is most recognized for “The Wanderers” but more so for TV’s “The Thorn Birds.” Friedrich retired to family life as a financial consultant and click here to read more about his life in his Wiki entry.
- Tony Ganios plays “Perry LaGuardia,” who is the new kid on “The Wanderers’” b If you’ve seen any of Ganios’ other work, you’ll see it here. He pretty much plays himself. Ganios has a much more famous role as “Meat” in the “Porky’s” franchise of films (click here for my review of the original). He had only 18 credits (including “Die Hard 2” and as an over-confident bodyguard in “Rising Sun”) before retiring from acting in 1993.
- The adult gang the “Fordham Baldies” (they all have shaved heads) is led by “Terror,” who was played by Erland van Lidth. He does a wonderful job conveying the menace of his character. It’s incredible that “Terror” in real life sang opera (at a nationally recognized company), founded his own computer company and was the alternate heavyweight wrestler to the 1976 Olympic team. Van Lidth died of a heart attack in 1987 after only four acting credits including “Stir Crazy” and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “The Running Man” (click here for my review) as “Dynamo,” the opera-singing stalker.
- Dolph Sweet plays neighborhood crime boss “Chubby Galasso” and he’s Wahl’s father-in-law-to-be. Sweet knocks this one out of the park from talking to, with and at Wahl to finally getting physical with him. Sweet is especially good in the bowling alley scene where he and his brothers teach some hustlers a lesson. He had a somewhat prolific career with 67 credits over three decades before his death of cancer at 64 in 1985. He was in the bloated Warren Beatty film “Reds” and did most of his work on TV.
- Another excellent small role is by Burtt Harris (yes, spelled with two Ts), who plays a U.S. Marine Corps recruiter who ropes a bunch of the “Baldies” into signing up to be Marines. He has the perfect switch on-off-personality for the role. Harris was in the original “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” (click here for my review) and was in the verdict, but has even more credits as a second-unit director or assistant director including on films “Serpico,” “Marathon Man” and “Dog Day Afternoon” as well as being second unit director on “Pelham” along with acting in that one.
Of the other gangs’ members, I would have liked to have seen more of Michael Wright, who plays “Clinton Stitch” of the “Del Bombers.” Wright’s character should have been better developed (I’d say at the expense of Rosenberg’s annoying “Turkey”) so he could spotlight his considerable talent.
In the end, it is Friedrich and Ganios, who pair up and are the ones setting off to find their own future away from family, while the rest, like Wahl, will be left to obviously live out unfilled dreams and the lives they could easily see on their horizon.
Oh, yes, the soundtrack is wonderful, too. From the Four Seasons with “Walk Like a Man” to “Baby It’s You” by the Shirelles to “Do You Love Me?” by the Countours to the almost title track “The Wanderer” by Dion, all the songs work well in the film.
“The Wanderers” is an excellent film and you won’t regret watching if you haven’t or watching again if you’ve seen it before.
At the U.S. box office for 1979, “The Wanderers” came in far down on the charts with $5 million domestic, while the other gang movie “The Warriors” fared better at 32nd place with $22.4 million. The No. 1 film was the treacle of the overrated mess called “Kramer vs. Kramer” with $106.2 million, according to Wiki. Worldwide, “The Wanderers” brought in $23 million. Here are the films from 1979 that I’ve reviewed for this blog:
- “All That Jazz” (signature Bob Fosse) – click here for my review
- “Breaking Away” (best coming-of-age flick) – click here for my review
- “Electric Horseman” (terrific Redford) – click here for my review
- “French Postcards” (nice coming-of-age flick) – click here for my review
- “Going in Style” (top-notch drama) – click here for my review
- “The Jericho Mile” (sensational TV movie) – click here for my review
- “Meatballs” (terrific Bill Murray comedy) – click here for my review
- “North Dallas Forty” (so-so adaptation of a novel) – click here for my review
- “Salem’s Lot” (great TV vampire flick) – click here for my review
- “10” (outstanding comedy) – click here for my review
- “Time After Time” (neat time travel) – click here for my review
- “The Warriors” (OK gang movie) – click here for my review
Other cast notes (via IMDb.com):
- Wahl’s real name is Anthony Calzaretta.
- Directly from IMDb.com’s sparse trivia page: “The Ducky Boys, an actual Bronx gang that was portrayed in the movie, continued in existence through the 1970s. Though portrayed in the movie and Richard Price novel as ‘killers,’ neighborhood residents recall the gang as annoying rather than criminal.”
- Other gangs in the film were also based on real gangs.
- Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley was an actual member of The Ducky Boys gang. In his autobiography titled “No Regrets” he recounts his initiation and involvement with the Ducky Boys in his youth.”
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