Deuces Wild

| May 8, 2002

“Who is the audience for this film?” That question ran through my mind several times while watching director Scott Kalvert’s Deuces Wild. It seems impossible for the film to claim fond remembrance for an era that’s set before the birth of the parents of the typical Hollywood audience member. Unless we consider that Deuces Wild’s nostalgia is not for the 50s but rather for the 70s’ reworking of the 50s as evidenced in a crop of Greaser films and TV series such as Happy Days, The Lords of Flatbush, and (god forgive me) Grease. That’s not to say there aren’t clear references to 50s films (On The Waterfront for example, or even 1961’s West Side Story), but more than anything, Deuces Wild reminds me of that ultimate Greaser corruption: Michael Jackson’s Beat It music video.
Which might imply that Deuces Wild is simply dealing in cliches. I propose that the card up this film’s sleeve is really the fetishization of late 50s street gang life. Or a scarier possibility: the fetishization of fighting. These kinds of stock situations assure our minds have little to do other than look at guys in T-shirts, “wife-beaters,” leather jackets and bowling shirts — Stephen Dorff’s body is far more on display than either of the principle women characters but not quite enough to fall into homoeroticism. [Though I will note that Kalvert’s debut was directing Marky Mark’s ’93 exercise video.] And the fight sequences become so stylized as to be almost laughable – come on, lightning and thunder? Slow motion? Though you have to admit that each dab of blood, punch and stab is artfully done.
The story is exactly what you’d expect – a Deuce (Bobby, played by Brad Renfro) falls in love with Annie (Fairuza Balk) who just happens to be the sister of a rival gang member, Jimmy, who is right hand man to Marco, the extremely violent and amoral leader of the Velvets. Marco is eager to take revenge on Bobby’s brother, Leon (Stephen Dorff) whom he believes ratted him out to the cops. A small-time mob guy lets these dramas play out until they start interfering with his business. If it seems confusing, trust me, it isn’t. The film keeps the lines pretty clear, and because we’ve seen it all before, it doesn’t take much thinking to follow along.
The twist here (and it’s kind of a perverse one) is that the Deuces are actually trying to keep drugs out of the neighborhood. In other words, they are unequivocally the good guys with very important things to do. They even adhere to a code of carrying ball bats rather than guns. (Hence the movie poster’s slogan quoted at the top of this review.)
Any mention of their own criminal acts is glossed over. Even their dumping cement blocks off of a building — which now means you better not sit in your car near any tall buildings, because you just know some jackass is gonna try to mimic it — is vindicated in the end. The film seems to be saying, “drugs bad, violence cool, gangs good.” Okay, I’m maybe being just a tad simplistic or cynical – I’ll leave it to you to decide.
There are some hints of broader themes (almost Shakespearean) and hopes to escape the violence, but none are developed. A couple of the story devices feel heavy-handed, such as juxtaposing Betsy’s rape with Bobby & Annie’s romantic tryst in the pool. Yeah, life’s ironic. Next. At least they spared us the details of both/either. Of course, the ultimate irony lies in the flashback of Marco’s being ratted out.
The performances here are quite good, especially Norman Reedus (Marco) who exudes just the right slimy veneer and evil glint in his eyes. Stephen Dorff goes for the gut and at times makes me believe this film could have been made in the 50s. Brando, anyone? James Franco (Golden Globe winner for James Dean) doesn’t have much to do which is a bit disappointing. Likewise with Malcolm In The Middle’s Frankie Munoz who hints quite well at the threshold of “manhood” (in that 50s adolescent way) in an underwritten part. And Renfro does fine as the romantic lead even if he’s a bit bland. Balk and Drea de Matteo basically exist simply for the guys, though each has a certain toughness about her. For the MTV demographic, Johnny Knoxville appears — though nothing here will supplant his being best known as host of that show and forthcoming film proving real people can act just as stupid as Beavis & Butt-head. And Deborah Harry is unrecognizable, which is to her credit.
Francis Ford Coppola visited this genre with far more heart in his early 80s films, The Outsiders and rumble fish. There’s a certain symmetry that Matt Dillon would now be the boss man in this 21st Century version of the Greaser film. Though they may not be in the same league as Apocalypse Now or The Godfather saga, Coppola proved that this kind of material could weigh a certain ambivalence and depth of character. Even Kalvert’s previous film, The Basketball Diaries, seemed to hold more promise than Deuces Wild.
So who will be watching this film? Well, it’s clearly not trying to tap the Spider-Man “geeks-are-us” (and I mean that in a good way) audience. So who’s left? Probably some very odd bedfellows: Fight Club wannabes, gay men, Jackasses and rabid fans of Toughman competitions. It won’t necessarily please any of them.

About the Author:

Josef Steiff Joe Steiff would gladly spend his days and nights watching movies and TV with a little writing on the side. Oh, and teach at Columbia College in Chicago. And maybe play Mass Effect. But sleep gets in the way. He's made a few films. edited Popular Culture and Philosophy volumes on Battlestar Galactica, Anime, Manga and Sherlock Holmes for Open Court Books, wrote The Complete Idiot's Guide to Independent Filmmaking and is a co-author of Storytelling Across Worlds: Transmedia for Creatives and Producers.
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