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‘Rooftops’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 18, 1989

It's tempting to gauge how far we've fallen as a culture by measuring the distance between "Rooftops" and "West Side Story" -- both of which are street musicals about teens and both of which were directed by Robert Wise -- but that would too easy.

First of all, "West Side Story," which Wise directed in 1961 (when he was 47), wasn't so hot to start with. But that's not really the subject under discussion here. The subject is "Rooftops," and it's no rose.

Set on Manhattan's devastated Lower East Side, the film is about a battle for control of the streets between a powerful drug lord and a group of lost kids who live in makeshift rooftop hovels. The leader of the kids is a square-jawed young stoic named "T" (Jason Gedrick), who speaks softly (when he speaks at all) and works out a lot. At night, the locals gather at a vacant lot called the Garden of Eden to drink and engage in something called "combat," a form of competition that is half-martial arts, half-dance, the point of which is for one contestant to force the other off a raised platform without touching him.

T is the acknowledged master of combat, which makes him the most natural adversary for Lobo (Eddie Ve'lez), who moves his burgeoning drug business into T's building. Adding to his troubles, T falls in love with Elana (Troy Beyer), who as it turns out is Lobo's cousin and functions as a lookout for his gang.

Elana has to work for Lobo because her family is starving as a result of her father's heart attack -- or at least so she thinks. Elana's dilemma is that she must choose between T and what she believes to be the salvation of her family. T's dilemma is whether to fight or run. Or whether to fight Lobo "combat" style or in the style known as "capoeira," a form of dance fighting devised by Brazilian slaves. And there's never a second's doubt as to which choice each will make.

At times, "Rooftops" manages to achieve something almost like freshness -- in other words, it makes more original use of its formulas in some places than in others. The main question that pops up here is what Robert Wise thought he might bring to this hip-hop update of his earlier film. Grit has never been his me'tier -- the street is not his thing. Wise has worn many hats during his career and won many awards, but the last thing anybody would call him is "homeboy."

"Rooftops" is rated R and contains some suggestive scenes, references to drug use, and strong language.

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