Deuces Wild (2002)


It’s da summer of 1958 and Brooklyn’s Deuces are at war with a rival gang. Theirs is a long-running conflict, and for the Deuces’ charismatic leader, Leon (Stephen Dorff), the stakes are deeply personal. You know this because the film opens with a scene so broadly operatic you might mistake it for parody. As rain pours down and thunder crashes, Leon staggers down the street to his mother’s house, carrying his brother’s dead body. Arriving on her stoop, he collapses, his face turned up to the torrents of rain, his cries so terribly plaintive: “Maaa! Maaa!”

All the while, Leon’s younger brother, Bobby (Brad Renfro), looks confused, part anguished, part uncomprehending, part resentful. It’s a complex moment (and recalls Renfro’s similarly strong performance last year in Larry Clark’s Bully), and it almost saves this first scene from looking as utterly ridiculous as it does. Alas, there is no saving it, and the rest of Deuces Wild careens quickly into self-parody without even seeming to be aware it’s happening.

Directed by Scott Kalvert, whose previous film was the more earnest, more perversely nimble Basketball Diaries (1995), Deuces Wild is a heavy-handed glob of a movie. Quite unable to get out of its own way, it invests heavily in its characters’ posturing and longing. “Every kid wants to be James Dean,” says Renfro of his role, and this is, indeed, what the film appears to be about, that “universal” desire to be a famously moody and self-destructive movie icon. And so, the boys — the Deuces and their sworn enemies, the Vipers — all look and act alike. Young toughs, Italian guys with names like Philly Joe and Jimmy Pockets, they wear those straight-bottomed shirts with open collars or tight t-shirts with rolled sleeves, shine their shoes and slick their hair, and hang out with girls in ponytails, pedal-pushers, and red lipstick. They spend their days arguing about the Dodgers’ move West, or standing on street corners, usually near pizza joints, and stare each other down.

Because the Deuces and the Vipers argue over turf — mostly the aforementioned street corners, and sometimes even whole blocks — you might imagine that they are relevant. Like, maybe they’re duck-tailed parallels to today’s turf quarrelers. Or perhaps they’re model bullies, with some insight to offer about the ways that kids (however old they are) seek their identities in damaging others. But any of that would be a stretch. Deuces Wild is so dated, in concept and execution, that it’s hard to take any of the characters or situations as seriously as they take themselves. It even features Matt Dillon as a local kingpin named Fritzy Zennetti, a character seemingly plucked right out of Dillon’s own 1980 gang film, My Bodyguard, without taking time even to change his costume or rethink his sneer.

Fritzy’s scheme brings all kinds of pain to Leon, who’s been trying to get over Dead Brother, who, by the way, died of a drug overdose, as well as take care of Bobby and their Ma (ragingly alcoholic since Dead Brother’s death), as well as be a good helper to the local priest, Father Aldo (The Sopranos‘ Vincent Pastore, looking predictably uncomfortable in his frock). He’s trying to be a good role model for Scooch (Frankie Muniz), whose own dad, a drunk, of course, beats him when he asks for money for a pretzel. And one more thing, Leon’s got a vavoomy, high-maintenance blond, Betsy (Drea DeMatteo), whose bullet bra and saddle shoes are only setting her up for a violent abuse scene. Really, the poor fellow has too much pressure on him, even for a James Dean clone.

As if all this isn’t enough, Fritzy just disrespects the heck out of Leon. When the latter asks Fritzy to make his case (Please don’t bring drugs into the neighborhood, you know I’m touchy about them because my brother died of an overdose, etc.), Fritzy blows him off royally: “Go wear your shirts, sing your songs, do whatever the fuck it is that you kids do.” Maybe Fritzy’s just mad because Leon’s Matt Dillon imitation is so weak.

In any event, Leon takes all this pretty hard, mainly because he knows that Fritzy’s being egged on by Leon’s arch-enemy, Marco (Norman Reedus), just out of jail for selling drugs to Dead Brother (who actually does have a name, Al). And oh yes, a few other guys hang around making trouble for Leon and Bobby, namely the snively wannabe Jimmy Pockets (Balthazar Getty), who wants only to beat down the Deuces so he can get in good with Marco. He’s mainly in the picture, though, so that his kid sister, Annie (Fairuza Balk), might throw a wrench in Bobby and Leon’s lives.

That is, Deuces Wild treads heavily into Romeo and Juliet/West Side Story territory, where it plainly has no business going. While this conflict does help, in one instance, to enrich the Bobby-Leon dynamic (they have a serious talk about the relationship in their little, shared bedroom, and they actually look like brothers rather than sock-hop posers, for a minute), for the most part it’s a trumped up plot device, and the brothers spend too much time looking like any other set of brothers in any other movie just like this one.

Annie’s contribution to Bobby’s dilemma, aside from being the enemy’s sister, is that she is desperate to get outta town, to rescue her crazy, Christmas-carol singing mom (Debbie Harry) from the poverty and meanness and frankly, the overweening masculinity of their neighborhood. She convinces Bobby to help them escape, and of course, his not very well-considered scheme leads to tragedy. It’s not hard to guess which brother pays the Big Price, and which actually Gets Out. It’s more difficult to figure why anyone signed on for this project, which has reportedly on the shelf for a year, but feels more like it’s been there for, oh, twenty.