Film Review: The Wanderers (1979)

Release Date: July 4th, 1979
Directed by: Philip Kaufman
Written by: Rose Kaufman, Philip Kaufman
Based on: The Wanderers by Richard Price
Music by: various
Cast: Ken Wahl, John Friedrich, Karen Allen, Toni Kalem, Jim Youngs, Tony Ganios, Alan Rosenberg, Dolph Sweet, Olympia Dukakis, Richard Price (cameo), Wayne Knight (uncredited)

Film Finance Group, Polyc International BV, Orion Pictures, Warner Bros., 112 Minutes

Review:

“It’s a shame to see kids beatin’ each other’s brains out, especially when there’s no financial advantage.” – Chubby Galasso

This movie’s been in my queue to watch and review for a really long time. I’m glad that I finally got around to it, though, as it’s pretty damn enjoyable. Especially, if you like teen gang movies that take place in the ’50s and ’60s.

The Wanderers kind of feels like one-part The Outsiders mixed with one-part The Warriors but then it meets somewhere in the middle.

Mostly, this is a dramatic, coming-of-age story that just happens to be set in the Bronx in 1963, which was overrun by youth gangs. It also reflects a time when America was just about to head to Vietnam and the civil rights movement was starting to make significant changes in American culture.

I liked most of the characters in this movie a lot, except for the one kid that was always causing all the problems for the gang because he was tiny and couldn’t shut his mouth. I had a friend like that in my high school crew and when he thought he could talk shit and then hide behind us, we let him get his ass kicked. That cured his short man’s syndrome really quick.

Anyway, I like that all of the gangs have unique identities and that many are segregated by race. It allows the story to show the racial tensions between the different groups of kids but ultimately, it shows many of them from various backgrounds, coming together to fight the biggest asshole gang of the bunch. Through that unity, the kids of different cultures gain each other’s respect and a broader sense of brotherhood.

All of the young people in this were really good. I was really impressed with Ken Wahl and Tony Ganios’ performances, as they’re the two that really stood out. Karen Allen also held her own and was as sweet and charming as always. I also thought that Toni Kalem was really good and your heart kind of breaks for her, witnessing what she goes through in this.

I also have to point to the incredibly intimidating performance of Dolph Sweet. As a kid of the ’80s and ’90s, I only really knew Sweet as the loving police chief father on the sitcom Gimme A Break. Here, he essentially plays a 1960s Tony Soprano. Honestly, he’s like a proto-Tony Soprano that gives such a powerful performance that I wouldn’t be surprised if James Gandolfini didn’t look at it and take some pointers. The scene with the bowling ball was an absolutely chilling but perfect sequence.

I like that this movie also included a side plot about a shady Marine recruiter that dupes a bunch of drunk youth into joining up, just as America is one the verge of war.

There are a lot of characters in this and they’re all pretty well-balanced. You mostly care about everyone and there are just so many good sequences that they all get their moment to shine in some way.

The Wanderers isn’t a film that people talk about today. It feels kind of lost to time. But I think that fans of The Outsiders, The Warriors, Rumble Fish, etc. will find a lot to love in this picture.

Rating: 8.25/10
Pairs well with: other youth gang movies of the ’50s through ’80s.