- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 4, 2002

''Deuces Wild" starts a tad hyperbolic and never recovers. The opening sequence is an operatic flashback. Set in a rainstorm, it recalls the fateful night when a Brooklyn tenement youth named Leon, played by Stephen Dorff, staggered home with the corpse of a younger brother, dead from a drug overdose.

The trek has taken Leon from playground to stoop. He pauses to hurl a threat across the street, where a youth named Marco (Norman Reedus) lingers on his own stoop. According to Leon, Marco supplied the fatal fix. A helpful narrator, subsequently identified as Leon's surviving kid brother, Bobby (Brad Renfro),predicts a showdown in the summer of 1958, when "Sunset Park ran red with blood."

One suspects that Bobby also might be a budding pulp writer, which puts him one up on the director and screenwriters of "Deuces Wild."

A ludicrous nostalgia trip if there ever was one, "Deuces" harks back to cross-street gang rivalries in Brooklyn of the late 1950s. Leon is the leader of the Deuces, preoccupied with defending their turf. The sinister Marco, who has done a stretch in the slammer, presumably for drug dealing, is about to return and resume command of the rival Vipers, being groomed for hard crime.

The ethnic composition of the neighborhood is a little hazy, although the presence of three actors from "The Sopranos" Drea de Matteo, cast as Leon's platinum-blond girlfriend, Betsy; Vincent Pastore as an ineffectual priest, Father Aldo; and Louis Lombardi as an overage Viper, Philly Babe inclines one to jump to Italian-American conclusions. Can that be, though, when Matt Dillon is cast as the local mob boss, Fritzy?

Wherever he hails from, Fritzy is masterminding an ambitious narcotics racket in collusion with Marco while deviously insisting that Leon and the Deuces cool it.

We watch the block heat up, sort of, as we await the showdown between good mixed-up youths and bad mixed-up ones during a miserably edited rumble at a boatyard.

Bobby complicates Leon's leadership responsibilities by drifting into a Romeo-and-Juliet thing with Fairuza Balk's Annie the Ice Cube, sister of Jimmy Pockets (Balthazar Getty), Marco's treacherous deputy. Annie is said to be a Velvet, evidently the femme auxiliary of the Vipers.

Bobby and Annie share the coincidence of having loony moms, abandoned by their spouses in the distant past and reduced to demented shrieking, babbling or crooning within the confines of their apartments.

Annie's is the more entertaining. Played by Deborah Harry, she sings Christmas carols all year long, which enrages Jimmy, who can't be riled enough, in my opinion. A potentially uproarious movie in the style of "National Lampoon's Vacation" looms at the fade-out, when Bobby, Annie and her mom leave Sunset Park for healthier climes in California. The idea of these three in the same car for 3,000 miles portends upholstery that runs red with blood.

The movie was shot two years ago on the Paramount back lot, which imposes obvious scenic limitations. The Deuces and Vipers seem to be contesting approximately two blocks of artificial neighborhood.

No one seems to drift away from the gangs, into the armed forces or into trades. You're conscious of this peculiarity because many of the cast members seem at least a decade too old for what they're pretending to be. On the other hand, there is the beau geste of Frankie Muniz as a neighborhood youngster called Scooch, whose loyalty is solicited by both Deuces and Vipers. It's as if they had a premonition that he would be the biggest name in the cast two years later.

In addition to showing Frankie before he became identified with TV's "Malcolm in the Middle," the movie gives us a different take on Mr. Renfro, who resembles a teen-age Rod Steiger, a manifestation I never would have expected from "The Client," "Apt Pupil" or "Ghost World." It's not as if liberating "Deuces Wild" from the MGM inventory shelf has been a total loss.

The Deuces have a forceful method of retaliation: dropping cinder blocks on cars from tenement roofs. It makes you suspect that the cinder-block concession could be more lucrative than the drug trade. The narration takes note of the defection of the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles a year earlier.

The clever thing is to formulate the rest of the movie so that it looks as if the Dodgers got out while the getting was good. There couldn't have been much of a future for anybody in Sunset Park.


1/2*

TITLE: "Deuces Wild"

RATING: R (Frequent profanity and graphic violence, fleeting sexual interludes and depictions of drug use)

CREDITS: Directed by Scott Kalvert. Written by Paul Kimatian and Christopher Gambale

RUNNING TIME: 97 minutes MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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