Brooklyn on Film: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Aside from several Italian horror movie directors, most folks might not consider Brooklyn a cinematic city. But fortunately for us, directors like Walter Hill, John Badham, Nick Gomez, Spike Lee have seen fit to represent for the rest of us. This is not to say that good location equals good film, though. What follows is a mere sampling of the good, bad, and downright ugly flicks set in and shot in Brooklyn.  Read on, y’all.

Good: Little Fugitive and Saturday Night Fever.
Bad: Lords of Flatbush.
Ugly: Gravesend.

Winner and Undisputed Champion: The Warriors.

 

Little Fugitive
The husband and wife team of Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin ranks among the most influential New York independent filmmakers. All one has to do is watch their movies next to some Cassavetes and you quickly realize the team of Engel and Orkin is Cassavetes minus the booze, pills, weed, mentally instable dudes, and wacked out broads.

Although all their movies are set and shot in NYC, Little Fugitive is the only one completely centered in Brooklyn, and in our humble opinion, it’s far and away their best flick, although others may disagree. 

Little Fugitive centers around the antics and exploits of 7-year-old Richie Andrusco, who, believing he shot and killed his older brother (a clever prank played by the latter), takes off to the safety and fun of Coney Island, which in 1953 looked starkly different than it does today. At the time it was still New York’s playground, a summer vacation spot where Richie decides to flee while on the lam. What follows is a compelling, completely engrossing view of 1953 Coney, from a pristine condition Cyclone, to pony rides, the parachute drop, and hordes of people infesting the beaches. This is truly a priceless time capsule of a bygone era.

We must note, however, that in some circles Little Fugitive is considered similar to Steven Spielberg’s taboo-defying Hook as one of the landmarks of NAMBLA cinema, and some folks might view the material as objectionable. But unlike Hook, the opinion here is that the filmmakers had nothing other than innocent intentions, and the film was unfairly co-opted to suit some people’s needs.

Saturday Night Fever
“Two-slice” Tony Matero is one struttin’, paint-mixing, too-tight polyester-wearing, disco-dancing fool! Never has a dark movie captured a milieu so accurately and become a huge cultural touchstone at the same time. It’s a crime that people actually talk about this film in the same breath as Grease. As if this movie just strung a bunch of dance routines with a Bee Gees soundtrack. Go scratch!

Story aside, this movie just reeks of Brooklyn. From the many White Castles to the xenophobia, “pussy fingers,” and dance studios on every block, you can tell by the way Tony and Crew use their walks that they’re ladies men with no time to talk. It’s Saturday night, the disco’s on, and Tony’s gotta get through a lot of family shit to get there. His self-doubt, his yearning for a more fulfilling life, and his admirable display of strength when he breaks ranks with his buddies and the neighborhood, make him one of the most real characters in the history of Brooklyn cinema. John Travolta gives us his best-ever performance, bringing to life Tony Monero’s blow-dried descent into disillusionment and madness.

Lords of Flatbush
Start out with the unbearable stench of doo-wop, the continuous mush-mouth of Sly Stallone (he needs subtitles), the homo-stylings of Henry Winkler’s Messhuganah/Fonz routine, and a healthy dose of the TV mini-series talent of Perry King.  Let it go on for nearly two hours (!) and you have the least entertaining of the numerous American Graffiti rip-offs.

Yes, this movie sucks out loud and smacks of the producers trying to cash in on ‘50s nostalgia, which cast a dark cloud over the ‘70s like so many Penny Marshalls. The plot centers around a bunch of brain surgeons who run a gang called the Lords, who aside from many hours playing pool and the occasional rumble, engage in painfully dull relationships with local chicks.

The Lords as a gang are so completely lame that the guy with fucked-up skin in Grease could wipe them out singlehandedly. Are we really to believe that Sly Stallone is a tough but sensitive type who loves his girlfriends as much as his pigeon coop?  It’s no wonder he cites this as one of his best performances (he considers it multi-layered).

Gravesend
From the opening Cheese Streets voiceover you just know this movie’s gonna suck. The name alone, which tries to portray a death-riddled, dangerous white ghetto, is misleading. Gravesend is actually one of the most comfortable and safest suburbs in the whole city. The fun starts with some kid accidentally shooting his friend’s brother. They naturally put the body in the trunk and embark on their cliché-ridden night of stupidity. First stop is guess what? Fighting a gang of hooded sweatshirts “chillin’,” spouting hip-hop slang and doing some of the worst macho posturing since Gabe Kaplan donned a leather jacket in Welcome Back Kotter. Finding no safe haven with the local “gangstas,” they decide to seek help from one of their “wiseguy” friends.

“Jo-Jo the Junkie” agrees to help them for $500 and a thumb. Keep in mind that this film exists in the fantasy world where unentertaining fights break out every 10 minutes and people yell shitty dialogue at each other. After a bunch of this “gritty” garbage, the movie finally and thankfully ends. Oddly enough, this turd since landed a three-picture deal with Dreamworks. I guess Spielberg didn’t want to let the next Matty Rich go work his cinematic magic elsewhere.

The Warriors
No, not the Blitz OJ anthem but the story of the badass gang from Coney so righteously captured by Walter Hill.

The Warriors have been asked to attend the NYC gang summit up in the Boogie Down Bronx. Cyrus, leader of the city’s largest gang, the Riffs, is uniting all the gangs under one cause. “Take over the city, can you dig it? I knew that you could!” The Rogues—the Warriors biggest rivals—have their own brand of mayhem in mind. They take out Cyrus then pin it on the Warriors. And that’s when the shit hits the fan. The Warriors are trying to get back to Coney, and every other gang in the city stands in the way. In the Bronx, they run into the Turnbull A.C.S., who represent the first appearance of skinheads in American cinema, and the pathetically naïve Orphans who are like the girl not invited to the dance. In Central Park they run afoul of the Baseball Furies, an incredibly menacing bunch donning painted faces and unis and carrying baseball bats, with moves like Broadway dancers. Downtown, of course, they run into the Lizzies, an all-Lesbian gang that first seduces and then parties with their prey before they strike. The final confrontation takes place on the Warriors home turf of Coney Island, a three-way dance between the Riffs, Rogues, and Warriors. Will the Warriors be trounced? Will the Riffs clobber both gangs and leave them in a pile of leather vests? Or will the truth come out? You’re just gonna have to watch to find out. And if you’ve already seen it, then you owe it to yourself to experience it all over again.

This is by no means a complete list, natch. Stop by Reel Life on Bedford for some other tips.

Contributors

John Woods

Woods is a contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.

Joe Martin

JOE MARTIN is a contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.

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