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The best, worst gang films

February 23, 2009|By PETER HARTLAUB / San Francisco Chronicle

While we're hoping that "Crips and Bloods: Made in America," the documentary by "Dogtown and Z-Boys" director Stacy Peralta (and producer/point guard Baron Davis) is great, we're worried what it's going to do for the gang-film genre as a whole.

Is the ridiculous gang fight in "The Wanderers" still going to seem fun after watching Peralta's serious treatment of gang violence in Southern California? Will we still wonder at the casting of Gerardo "Rico Suave" Mejia as a gang member in "Colors" after seeing the real story of the Crips and the Bloods?

In case it won't seem right to write this column one week from now, below are some of the best and worst from the gang-movie genre. The list was limited to movies about organized street gangs -- no biker gangs or members of the Mafia were included.

Gang movie that makes us glad we're not in a gang

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"Menace II Society" (1993): Next to this grim Hughes brothers movie, "Boyz N the Hood" looks like a "Muppet Movie" sequel. Start with the crack head trying to trade double cheeseburgers (and more) for a fix. Then look at Larenz Tate as the O-Dog, the gang-banger with no code. This gritty and well-made film is an unrelenting tale of brutality and depression.

Runners-up: "Romper Stomper" and "Assault on Precinct 13"

Best gang-movie nickname

Pac Man, "Colors" (1988): Sean Penn's police officer wasn't a gang member, but his nickname by the gang -- chosen because of the bright yellow undercover car he drives -- is still a classic. It also spawned the best line of Maria Conchita Alonso's career, after Penn's Officer Danny McGavin finds out she's something of the neighborhood skank: "Look at me! Look at me, Pac Man! This is me, too, man!"

Runners-up: Cochise in "The Warriors" and Dough Boy in "Boyz N the Hood"

Worst climactic gang fight

"The Wanderers" (1979): We're fans of this cult favorite by Philip Kaufman, which has become overshadowed by the movies he made before and after -- "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and "The Right Stuff." But even though the rest of the film about New York gangs is solid, the fight at the end looks like one of those battles they stage at your local Renaissance Faire. Imagine "Braveheart" filmed by Ed Wood.

Runners-up: "The Outsiders" and "West Side Story"

Most poorly accessorized gang

The Baseball Furies, "The Warriors" (1979): This was a really close one. The shiny gold and maroon jackets with a winding road stitched on the back that the Wanderers wear are pretty ridiculous. But we're still giving the award to the Baseball Furies, whose pinstripe uniforms and green painted faces make them look like a cross between Don Mattingly and the Wicked Witch of the West.

Runner-up: The Wanderers, "The Wanderers"

Least imposing gang leader?

Bob Sheldon in "The Outsiders" (1983): Another close call, because Leonardo DiCaprio just isn't plausible as a gang member. But Soc leader Bob Sheldon, played by a horribly miscast Leif Garrett, is about as menacing as a newborn panda. When Garrett's not saying something whiny in this otherwise solid Francis Ford Coppola adaptation of S.E. Hinton's book, you'll keep waiting for him to break into "I Was Made for Dancin'."

Runner-up: DiCaprio as Amsterdam Vallon, "Gangs of New York"

Strangest gang-member casting

Gerardo Mejia, "Colors" (1988): Maybe it was the fact that notorious drug user Dennis Hopper was directing, but there are scores of bizarre casting choices in this movie. If Damon Wayans isn't dancing around in a diaper on a PCP high with a stuffed rabbit on his shoulders, Mario Lopez is getting jumped on as a junior gang-banger. The prize goes to Mejia, better known to the world as Rico Suave for his 1991 single by the same name.

Runners-up: Leif Garrett, "The Outsiders"; Mario Lopez, "Colors"; and Stacy Keach, "American History X"

Best gang film no one has heard of

"Bound by Honor" (1993): Filmed in part inside San Quentin, this story of three young relatives in an East Los Angeles street gang was at least as good as "Colors" but never got its due. Also known as "Blood In Blood Out," the movie was directed by Taylor Hackford and starred a young Benjamin Bratt as a street hood who later becomes a cop and must deal with his less-honorable family members.

Runners-up: "South Central" and "Mi Vida Loca"

Best gang movie

"American Me" (1992): "Boyz N the Hood" and the movie version of "West Side Story" are arguably better, but the gang elements in both are kept in the background. "American Me," starring and directed by Edward James Olmos, gives a complicated, stark and violent view of gang life -- from the inescapability of initiation to the futility of trying to go straight. Covering nearly half a century, the movie informs, entertains and offers no easy answers.

Runners-up: "Boyz N the Hood" and "West Side Story"

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