In its overwhelmingly artificial depiction of the street gangs that ruled Brooklyn's mean streets in the 1950s, "Deuces Wild" draws from a phony deck. The most antiquated aspects of "West Side Story" -- minus the music and the Puerto Rican-Anglo conflict -- are seen here, from the faux street-tough attitude of several attractive but dull Hollywood hunks to the unmistakable backstage look of the entire project.

In its overwhelmingly artificial depiction of the street gangs that ruled Brooklyn’s mean streets in the 1950s, “Deuces Wild” draws from a phony deck. The most antiquated aspects of “West Side Story” — minus the music and the Puerto Rican-Anglo conflict — are seen here, from the faux street-tough attitude of several attractive but dull Hollywood hunks to the unmistakable backstage look of the entire project. This is a movie that can’t say no to a melodramatic opportunity, and whatever verisimilitude inspired Paul Kimatian and Christopher Gambale to write a script based on Kimatian’s memories of the gangs has been utterly lost along the way. UA’s much-delayed pic, first set for spring 2001 release, will deal and fold with hardly a trace.

Meller mood is laid on thickly with a brief 1955 prologue, which shows Deuces gang leader Leon (Stephen Dorff) and his family after his brother Sal is found dead of a heroin OD administered by Marco (Norman Reedus), the nefarious sparkplug of the rival Viper gang. Three years pass, the Dodgers have left Brooklyn for L.A., Marco is about to be released from prison and the Deuces and Vipers are in a truce, but their feud over a few blocks of turf could get bloody at any time.

A lack of specificity over the exact Brooklyn neighborhood (the predominantly Italian flavor suggests Red Hook) is just the opening hint of pic’s generic storytelling approach, with characters tending to be played as stereotypes familiar from other, better movies.Leon is the Good Leader, determined to keep drugs out of the area, while brother Bobby (Brad Renfro) is the Wild Man, constantly itching for a fight with Viper guys like Jimmy Pockets (Balthazar Getty). Jimmy’s sister, Annie (Fairuza Balk), is the Tough Chick for whom Bobby falls hard.

There’s the Mobster — Fritzy (Matt Dillon), who really runs these streets, and his drug-dealing associate, the Funny Italian Goon, named Philly Babe (Louis Lombardi).

The Bad Guy is, of course, Marco, who is already strategizing his moves to build, with Fritzy’s help, a drug trade in the neighborhood even before he’s a free man. Surprisingly, there’s no Irish Cop With Twirling Billy Club, but there is the Spunky Kid, nicknamed Scooch (Frankie Muniz), who dashes around gathering intelligence for the Deuces. Things heat up in a nighttime knife fight in a park staged by director Scott Kalvert (“The Basketball Diaries”) in such a way as to make it impossible to distinguish Deuce from Viper.

When Marco is released, he takes the war to a new level, at one point casually laying waste to an entire city block. The Bobby-Annie romance further stirs the gang battle while heightening pic’s already irritating tendency for characters to say exactly what’s on their minds at all times. Further complications tend to play out merely as genre requirements rather than aspects of a fresh story.

Strange casting has thesps (such as Dorff and Reedus) playing kids blatantly much younger in age; Dillon conversely, seems a bit young to be bossing everyone around. The age oddity running through the film seems like a real mistake, since the performances generate little credibility and only occasional bursts of passion. Inclusion of ensemble members from “The Sopranos,” such as Lombardi, Vincent Pastore as a kindly priest and Drea de Matteo as Leon’s g.f., only remind what incisive material these actors can work with in the small screen format. Buried under a bad wig and makeup is an embarrassing Deborah Harry as Annie’s and Jimmy’s delusional mom.

Though the pristine widescreen look of Nicholas Ray’s ’50s color melodramas may have been a model (along with Robert Wise’s stylized West Side), the result is a production that’s actually too dazzling for its own good. In his last turn as lenser, the late, great John A. Alonzo provides a highly polished tone that tends to accentuate the artificial appearance. David L. Snyder’s grungy sets scream “art direction,” while Marianna Astrom-DeFina’s costumes are absurdly clean and fresh-pressed. Stewart Copeland’s incongruous guitar score sounds like it’s imported from another movie.

Deuces Wild

Production

An MGM release from United Artists of a Cinerenta-Cinewild and Unity Prods. presentation in association with Presto Prods. and the Antonia Co. Produced by Michael Cerenzie, Willi Baer, Fred Caruso, Paul Kimatian. Executive producers, Mario Ohoven, Eberhard Kayser, Marc Sferrazza. Co-producers, Charlie Loventhal, Scott Valentine, Melissa Barrett. Directed by Scott Kalvert. Screenplay, Paul Kimatian, Christopher Gambale.

Crew

Camera (FotoKem color, Panavision widescreen), John A. Alonzo; editor, Michael R. Miller; music, Stewart Copeland; production designer, David L. Snyder; art director, Donna Ekins-Kapner; set designer, Greg Hopper; set decorator, Jan Bergstrom; costume designer, Marianna Astrom-DeFina; sound (Dolby Digital), Stephan Von Hase; supervising sound editor, James Lay; special effects coordinator, Josh Hakian; fight choreography, Pete Antico; assistant director, Adam Druxman; second unit camera, David Barrett; casting, Felicia Fasano, Mary Vernieu. Reviewed at MGM screening room, Santa Monica, April 18, 2002. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 97 MIN.

With

Leon - Stephen Dorff Bobby - Brad Renfro Annie - Fairuza Balk Marco - Norman Reedus Freddie - Max Perlich Betsy - Drea de Matteo Father Aldo - Vincent Pastore Scooch - Frankie Muniz Jimmy Pockets - Balthazar Getty Esther - Nancy Cassaro Fritzy - Matt Dillon Wendy - Deborah Harry Tino - James Franco Philly Babe - Louis Lombardi

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