Scott Kalvert’s period piece about gang disputes on a Brooklyn street in the late ’50s has actually been in the can for a couple of years, but in view of the musty cliches and exaggerated histrionics it’s replete with, the picture emerges from its prolonged entombment looking at least four decades old. The only marginally original element is some odd casting that has Vincent Pastore, who was Pussy on “The Sopranos,” here playing the kindly neighborhood priest and Matt Dillon, who seems young enough still to be one of the street fighters, taking the role of the local Mafia boss. But that’s hardly enough to make “Deuces Wild” any less hokey and derivative. It would barely pass muster as a direct-to-video title, and pawning it off on unsuspecting ticket-buyers is an act of cinematic victimization.
The plot centers on two rival gangs whose members apparently live across the street from one another in 1958 Brooklyn. One is the titular Deuces, a white-knight bunch whose goal is to keep their turf free of drugs; its leader is Leon (Stephen Dorff), who assembled the group after his younger brother Allie Boy (Blake Bashoff) died of an overdose three years earlier. Though the pusher responsible for the boy’s death, nasty Marco (Norman Reedus), has been in prison since then, his gang, the Vipers, still operates–though rather ineffectually, it would seem–under the direction of his old lieutenant Jimmy Pockets (Balthazar Getty), a junkie himself. Now, however, Marco has been released, and presently he’s plotting to take revenge against Leon, who he wrongly believes was responsible for his incarceration, and to set up a drug operation in the neighborhood–all with the connivance of local mob head Fritzy (Dillon), who feigns to mediate between the two sides while actually favoring the Vipers. To add to the confusion, Leon’s younger brother Bobby (Brad Renfro), who’s–of course–a real hothead, falls head over heels for Jimmy’s sultry sister (Fairuza Balk), who’s just returned to the family apartment (just across from the boys’ pad, one should note) in order to care for her deranged mother (Deborah Harry– she, for some reason, has some sort of fixation on Christmas; the guys’ mom, meanwhile is a boozer). The upshot includes plenty of brutal “rumbles,” the vicious rape of Leon’s girlfriend Betsy (Drea DeMatteo), some duplicity on the part of another gang leader named Freddie (Max Perlich), and a scheme by Bobby and Annie to steal a stash of money that Marco has borrowed from Fritzy. There are also other supposedly colorful characters floating around the edges of the narrative: avuncular Father Aldo (Pastore); Scooch (Frankie Muniz), the obligatory neighborhood kid with an abusive father, who idolizes Leon and wants to become a Deuce; and, of course, assorted gang members, distinguishable mostly by either their stylish hairdos or their relative girth.
Everything and everybody in “Deuces Wild” seems to have been assembled from bits and pieces of far better movies–“West Side Story” and “On the Waterfront” are the most obvious examples, but many others could be named, too–and the result is played at an insufferably high pitch by Kalvert and his cast. The director and his associates–the designers and cinematographer John A. Alonso–go to great lengths to drench everything is a period glow, which only makes the compositions persistently affected and glossy, and they periodically insert crushingly pretentious flashbacks. Of the performers, Dorff and Reedus probably come off best, simply because they occasionally try to underplay. Renfro, on the other hand, is embarrassing. Not only does he have to deliver a ludicrously fruity narration, but his accent is way over-the-top; physically he’s not in the best of shape either, looking flabby and unfit. Balk is supposed to be playing a hot number, but she looks positively homely. And most everyone else–Muniz and Getty are the most notable offenders, but there are others–chew the scenery extravagantly. As for Dillon, he’s visibly uncomfortable in a part for which he’s completely wrong.
Despite its title, “Deuces” is a tame piece of work, a string of cliches treated as though they were profundities and delivered without the slightest subtlety or inelligence. Almost any other film out there will trump this one.