[Screen It]


(2002) (Stephen Dorff, Brad Renfro) (R)

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Drama: Two brothers and their gang try to protect their street from a rival gang and its drug dealer leader who's just been released from prison and is seeking retribution for serving time for their other brother's death.
It's 1958 in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. Leon (STEPHEN DORFF) and Bobby (BRAD RENFRO) are brothers and members of the Deuces gang that Leon formed when their other brother died after getting involved with drugs supplied by Marco (NORMAN REEDUS) and Jimmy Pockets (BALTHAZAR GETTY), members of the rival gang, the Vipers, that also inhabits their neighborhood.

Although the two gangs share an uneasy truce due to the efforts of Father Aldo (VINCENT PASTORE) as well as small time mob member Fritzy (MATT DILLON) who's the one who really runs the neighborhood, two events transpire that begin to threaten the peace. For one, Bobby has suddenly become involved with Jimmy's sister, Annie (FAIRUZA BALK), who's just moved in with him and their mentally unstable mother, Wendy (DEBORAH HARRY).

Then there's the fact that Marco's just been released from prison after serving three years for being involved in the dead brother's death. Looking for retribution, he vows to get even with the Deuces while starting up his drug trade once again. With Annie and Leon's girlfriend, Betsy (DREA DeMATTEO), wanting their boyfriends to stop with their gang-related behavior, the two prepare for war as the gangs' tit for tat activities progressively escalate into something dangerous.

OUR TAKE: 1 out of 10
In the card game of poker, the object is to obtain the best hand possible, convince the other players that yours is unbeatable, and then win the biggest possible pool with it. The same somewhat holds true for filmmaking. You assemble the best elements you can, market your movie hand as best as you can, and hope to collect as much of the cinematic pool as possible.

It's just too bad that in filmmaking there isn't the equivalent of deuces wild, the variation on the traditional game of poker where the number two card can be changed into whatever other card best fits your immediate needs. I can just imagine directors salivating over suddenly discovering they have that special, red-haired extra with freckles that they can exchange for an Oscar caliber performer or crewmember.

After seeing this week's release of "Deuces Wild," however, I don't think all of the exchangeable deuces or freckled redheads could have saved this fiasco that immediately starts out bad and only goes downhill from there.

As helmed by Scott Kalvert (who returns to the director's chair for the first time since 1995's "The Basketball Diaries") who works from a script by Paul Kimatian & Christopher Gambale (both making their feature film writing debut), the film may have been better had its subject matter been that of poker.

Unfortunately, it's about rival neighborhood gangs - one of them named the Deuces, hence the title - in 1950's era New York. While that's obviously not a horribly subject matter with which to use as a jumping off point - after all, that's where "West Side Story" began - this one's not working from a classic Shakespearean piece and it's not a musical.

Instead, it's a run of the mill story -- of no notable pedigree -- about stereotypical gangs that also happens to be possibly the most overwrought and mawkish drama you'll see all year. That's not just from the performance side - although there's plenty to spare in that department - but also from the director's chair.

I'm not talking about Kalvert adopting a music video mentality regarding the film's visual style or editing. In fact, a hyperkinetic, rapid-fire style of meaningless visuals would have been quite a welcomed step up from what's offered here.

Rather, the filmmaker's attempt to drive home the emotional point of scene after scene with slow motion footage, blue-lit fog, flashes of light and loud claps of thunder, the occasional and quite odd inclusion of a heavy metal guitar score (in this period piece) and just about every other overused directorial convention will make you wonder if he memorized or possibly was busy writing the Dummies Guide to Directing in the intervening years since his last effort.

From the atrociously manipulative and overdone opening sequence to the many gang battle scenes and the various human elements, Kalvert doesn't just spoon feed the viewer. Instead, he grabs you by the scruff of your neck and aggressively jams the material down your throat to the point of inducing the gag reflex.

It's hard to say if that's what caused most of the performances to be so bad, but that's exactly what they are. Despite sporting a decent cast featuring the likes of Stephen Dorff ("Blade," "City of Industry"), Brad Renfro ("Ghost World," "Apt Pupil"), Matt Dillon ("One Night at McCool's," "There's Something About Mary") and Fairuza Balk ("Almost Famous," "The Waterboy"), the efforts here distinctly feel like amateur hour.

All you have to do is stick around for Balk's big dramatic breakdown near the end, or most all of Renfro's performance for that matter. Don't even ask about Deborah Harry ("Cop Land," "Hairspray") playing the mentally unhinged mother, while Norman Reedus ("Blade II," "Gossip") makes for yet another disappointing, one-dimensional and flat villain.

The poor script, its lame dialogue and the parade of genre conventions and clichés certainly don't help any of them or their efforts. "West Side Story" this ain't, and it pales in comparison to most every other gang picture one can think of from the likes of Walter Hill's "The Warriors" to even "The Lords of Flatbush."

Simply put, the film is bad in most every way imaginable. Perhaps that explains it sitting on the shelf for quite some time and/or United Artists deciding to cancel additional, pre-scheduled press screenings after what apparently was a disastrous first round of them. Whatever the case, this is a losing hand that the studio should have folded long ago. "Deuces Wild" rates as a 1 out of 10.

Reviewed May 3, 2002 / Posted May 3, 2002

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