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MOVIE REVIEW : High Energy, Humor Mark ‘Homeboys’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Joseph B. Vasquez’s semi-autobiographical “Hangin’ With the Homeboys” (selected theaters) is a pure joy, a sweet and funny take on life in the South Bronx that offers quite a contrast to the violent and tragic dramas that are usual for that setting.

Vasquez, who started shooting super-8 movies when he was 12, got hold of a simple idea, a tale of a hectic Friday night in the life of four young men, all longtime friends, and crammed it with personal experiences.

The result is a kind of “Marty” for the ‘90s, timeless in its observations of human nature yet mint-fresh in its perspective and charged with high energy and humor.

Gathering for a ritual outing are Willie (Doug E. Doug), an unemployed black man of little direction whose reflexive blaming of the white man for his lot in life is regarded by his pals as comical excuse-making; Tom (Mario Joyner), who’s also black but in contrast to Willie is a highly motivated struggling actor; Johnny (John Leguizamo), a shy nice-looking Puerto Rican in need of encouragement in trying for a college education; and Vinnie (Nestor Serrano), a loud, aggressive would-be lady-killer whose brashness hides past disappointments with women. (Vinnie, born Fernando, is also Puerto Rican but would prefer people think he’s of Italian descent.) Each of these actors is terrific, but then Vasquez has written beautiful parts for them and has directed them with great caring and sure judgment.

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In the course of one very long evening, the friends encounter every kind of mishap--Tom even smashes the front end of his car--and of course they have a wide variety of encounters with women, mostly but not entirely negative.

Underneath the lively surface of their high jinks lies considerable pain, frustration and vulnerability. In time, we realize that Johnny is Vasquez’s alter ego, the one member of the group most likely to make it out of the South Bronx, the one who most values education and the possibilities it offers; yet Vasquez’s memories of the times with the guys he almost surely moved beyond, if not indeed left behind, are always affectionate, perceptive and never condescending. Because he cares, we care.

Vasquez is on firm ground throughout because he knows the territory--the habits, the attitudes, the pastimes, the hopes and dreams of these young men.

Nothing that happens to these four, nothing they say, can be said to be original but that does not matter because every second with them rings real and true. “Hangin’ With the Homeboys” (rated R for language, some sex) shows off Vazquez’s considerable storytelling skills, the classic straight-ahead kind that Hollywood always needs.

‘Hangin’ With the Homeboys’

Doug E. Doug: Willie

Mario Joyner: Tom

John Leguizamo: Johnny

Nestor Serrano: Vinnie

A New Line Cinema presentation. Writer-director Joseph B. Vasquez. Producer Richard Brick. Executive producer Janet Grillo. Cinematographer Anghel Decca. Editor Michael Schweitzer. Costumes Mary Jane Fort. Executive music producers Joel Sill, David Chackler. Art director Isabel Bau Madden. Set decorator Anna Czerwatiuk. Sound William Sarokin. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (for strong language and a strong sex scene).


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