It’s a generally accepted strategy to play to your strengths. Like if I was Robert Wise, the Academy Award winning director of West Side Story, and I was looking to return to directing after a long absence, it would make sense for me to return to a well thats yielded not only results, but Oscar-winning results: tough teenagers involved in sexy dance fights. Thats at least the only logic I can grasp for Wise’s final film, 1989’s Rooftops.
For those of you unfamiliar with Wise’s filmography (or at least unaware that you’re familiar), let me assure you that sexy dance fighting was not the only place he could have returned to if he wanted to revisit his past successes. He could have tried big budget musicals (The Sound of Music, the aforementioned West Side Story), intelligent sci-fi (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain, Star Trek: The Motion Picture), horror (The Haunting) or even just editing other peoples films (Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons – yes, he edited those). But sexy dance fighting must have held a special place in his heart, because after three years as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and ten years after the release of his previous film, he decided to direct this movie.
Rooftops tells the story of T. (Jason Gedrick), a homeless teen who lives in the empty water tower of an abandoned tenement building on New York’s Lower East Side. When he’s not stripping empty buildings of scrap metal, he’s engaging in ‘Combat’ a competitive street dance that combines very fake fight choreography with late 80’s dance music. It’s the preferred sport among the area’s colorful rooftop denizens, including Squeak (Alexis Cruz), a pubescent graffiti artist, Amber (Tisha Campbell), T.’s ex-prostitute ex-girlfriend, Kadim (Allen Payne), the son of a damaged former boxer, and Jackie-Sky (Steve Love), a deaf, basketball-playing punk-rock dance-fighter, a non-speaking role that seems to have been created solely to yield the stupidest action figure of all time.
The Teenage Homeless Sexy Dance Fighters (THSDF for the rest of this review) take on crime in the form of Lobo (Eddie Velez), a dealer who is transforming the neighborhood into his personal drug empire by selling out of the abandoned buildings, including T.’s. The THSDF are forced into conflict after a raid leads Lobo to believe that T. has set the the police after him. (General life tip to be gathered from this: Don’t chill with the cops after being the only person in the building not arrested during the SWAT raid on your gun-wielding Scarface-wannabe downstairs neighbor. It leads your neighbor to infer unsavory things about your character.)
But of course, there’s a wrinkle in Rooftops – one night while showing off his sexy dance fight skills, T. meets Elana (Troy Beyer). They hit it off right away, riding a motorcycle together, engaging in non-pugilistic sexy dancing, and getting generally romantic to the genuinely terrible synth score by ex-Eurythmic Dave Stewart. She doesn’t tell T. about her job acting as a lookout for Lobo, her cousin. Will this be a wedge that drives them apart forever? Will their love be able to triumph over Lobo and his thugs? Will the THSDF be able to reclaim their block from the scourge of drugs?
As this movie is clearly a big dumb piece of candy, no one should be surprised by the answers to any of those questions. Instead one should sit back and enjoy its oscillations between just plain bad and wonderfully ludicrous. The writing is cliche ridden, the dialog is just stupid, and it’s made worse by the fact that no one can act. (Check out the trailer link below, and you’ll see that Gedrick is unable to convincingly say his own name. Not the character’s name, but HIS own name.)
Not a bit of this stops Rooftops from being really fun to watch. The pre-gentrification Lower East Side is a great setting and Wise makes the best of it. The decaying buildings and prominently featured pre-9/11 Lower Manhattan skyline combined with the colorful graffiti and the characters’ equally bright wardrobes make this a really amusing time-capsule. Not a good movie–not at all–but let’s not quibble over things like quality when we could be watching movies where people cope with their rage by getting trashed and going to capoeira. Because if we can’t all identify with that, really, what’s left to unite us humans?
Watch the Rooftops Trailer