Back in Brooklyn of 1958, our scuzzy heroes are the Deuces, played by a pursed-lipped ensemble of leather-clad young actors strutting and preening like they're auditioning for Sha Na Na. The once-interesting Stephen Dorff plays Deuces leader Leon, who faces trouble from a vengeful rival named Marco Vendetti (Norman Reedus). Really, "Vendetti."
Meanwhile Leon's lunk-headed brother (Brad Renfro) falls for Vendetti's cousin (Fairuza Balk), and the star-crossed romance doesn't bother to disguise the West Side Story outline. Gang violence threatens the course of young love, but frankly, Balk and Drea de Matteo, as Leon's sultry girlfriend, are about a zillion times tougher and more credible than the male actors, whom they could eat as hors d'oeurves and not smudge their lipstick.
The bare-knuckled "rumble" scenes are so larded with slow-motion, back-lighting and thunderclaps that you except Michael Jackson to break them up with the chorus of "Beat It." Maybe one shot has visual interest, with a wheelbarrow full of cinderblocks tumbling off a roof to rain on a wiseguy's car -- so naturally, Basketball Diaries director Kalvert employs it twice. As a neighborhood Mafioso, Matt Dillon projects some genuinely menacing cool; it's a shame he didn't pass along any pointers to his co-stars.
Some decisions seem understandably misguided, like casting Vincent Pastore (Big Pussy of "The Sopranos") as a local priest or naming Frankie Muniz's young tag-along "Scooch." But when Balk tells her histrionic, Christmas-obsessed mother (Debbie Harry), "There is a Santa Claus, Ma -- he just don't come to Brooklyn no more!" it's like you've stumbled across a satirical John Waters script, only Kalvert got the joke. Make no mistake: Deuces Wild is a riot, all right.
I can see Rushdie's stuff adapting well. Lots of plot to play with.