Ethics & Public Policy Center

Deuces Wild

Published in EPPC Online on May 3, 2002



Movie nostalgia for the 1950s is, I have always thought, strictly for baby-boomers — those whose dim childhood memories of the period are awakened to life by the look of its extraordinary cars and fashions, the sound of its music. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be a teen was very heaven. Set in the summer after the Dodgers left Brooklyn, Deuces Wild is something else again. There is very little period music and the clothes and the cars rarely call attention to themselves. Yet the director, Scott Kalvert, and the writers, Paul Kimatian  and Christopher Gambale, are nostalgic, after a fashion, for the gang culture of Brooklyn’s Italian neighborhoods, rumbles and all.

So does it have a point to make about community and tradition and their clash with the modernizing forces of the dominant culture? Not really. In fact, this is a movie about the fifties that, barring a few anachronisms, could have been made in the fifties. It has the same combination of earnest moralizing, filial reproaches to weak or absent parents and operatic self-dramatization as those classics of the period, Rebel Without a Cause and West Side Story. Like them, it seems to aspire to take its place in the iconography of the youth culture, in which parents are corrupt and don’t care and kids are always misunderstood and victimized.

What is the point of such stuff nowadays? How can we be meant to take seriously this saga of Leon (Stephen Dorff), the leader of the Deuces, and his brother Bobby (Brad Renfro) who, after the sinister Marco (Norman Reedus) sells a heroin overdose to a third brother, Allie-boy, are determined to keep drugs off their turf? Even more absurdly, we are given to understand that the Deuces’ public-spirited anti-drugs campaign was successful! So, what? The plagues of the sixties and seventies are supposed to have passed over those Brooklyn tenements marked with the sign of the deuce? I beg leave to doubt it.

What the movie is really nostalgic for, at some level anyway, is the all-male society of the gang. Only young men and the women they claim as property have any real existence here. There are no fathers to speak of, and even the Italian matriarchate is crippled and enfeebled: one the two visible moms (Leon’s and Bobby’s) being an alcoholic and the other a nut case who listens to Christmas music the year round. Small wonder, then, that young Scootch (Frankie Muniz), with his drunken brute of a father, has only Leon to look up to. Or that sizzling Annie (Fairuza Balk) must defy her cowardly, drug-dealing brother and all the Vipers to throw in her lot with Bobby and the Deuces. The only other adults present are the hired thugs of the local crime boss, Fritzy Zennetti (Matt Dillon). The gang is the only family people have, or can rely on.

At times it almost looks as if there is in all this a serious point about masculine honor and the gang culture — as when Leon, after a period of trying to keep the peace, tells Bobby that he had no choice but to fight when the Vipers beat up Little Jack. But here as elsewhere the code of the streets is pretty much taken for granted as a relic of the period, of no more intrinsic interest than the cars or the music. That is why it is apparently so easy to jettison when Annie decides she can’t take it anymore in Brooklyn and persuades Bobby to begin to think that there is, as Coriolanus says in not quite similar circumstances, a world elsewhere. Will he break away from the “cycle of violence” and start a new life with his Viper chick in the Dodgers’ new home? You’ll have to go and see for yourself. But there are no prizes for guessing.

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