From its tagline “He was tough enough for the streets…was he tough enough to leave them?” Walk Proud (1979) starring Robby Benson seems like it was destined to be a modern classic from Universal with a Chicano twist, ranking with Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story and Rebel Without a Cause. It was even written by Evan Hunter who penned Blackboard Jungle in 1954. It’s none of those because it tries too hard to be all of those. Walk Proud isn’t a bad movie; it just isn’t very good either.
Released in1979 along with a slew of other controversial (and better) gang-life themed movies that year such as The Warriors, The Wanderers, and Boulevard Nights, Walk Proud was originally titled Gang! Thankfully, they ditched that title as it would have been misleading, making this movie seem more like an action-filled gang picture than the weak melodrama it is.
Walk Proud is about a gang member and his gang’s lifestyle but that seems to play more in the background as the tagline may allude to. There’s gang antics for sure in the form of violent criminal activity, meetings at the hideout, cruising, drinking, partying, and even a big, weapons-filled, bloody rumble, which sadly happens off screen. Guess there wasn’t enough left in the budget to film that scene after spending the loot on Robby, Henry Darrow, all those classic cars, and the use of Santana’s “Se A Cabo” for the opening scene and Elton John’s “We All Fall In Love Sometimes” for the romantic one.
Walk Proud is centered around a Chicano teen named Emilio Mendez (Benson) as he falls in love with an Anglo girl named Sarah (Sarah Holcomb) at school and deals with their differences while trying to hide his gang activity from her, his mom (Irene De Bari) and his social worker (Darrow). Emilio eventually finds out his father is the typical no-good, drunken gringo who lives in Mexico which leads to a minor yet overly dramatic identity crisis. The cauldron of cliches comes to a violent head as he decides he wants out of the gang thanks to Sarah’s positive influence.
Trouble is he’s got to walk the gauntlet of his fellow gang members who now only have bad intentions as they “jump him out” of the gang. After that, it’s a proud walk with his girl, his little primo (cousin), and his true “carnal” (good friend/brother) Dagger. A walk away from the gang life and on to a better future as “adios yesterday” begins to loudly play. By the way, “adios yesterday” is the movie’s theme song, performed by Robby Benson himself in his Chicano accent. He also wrote the music but not the lyrics for it.
Walk Proud does stand as a good showcase for the other actors involved, especially the Latino cast who get to shine in the background and minor roles. Names like Pepe Serna, Trinidad Silva, Luis Reyes, Panchito Gomez, Ji-Tu Cumbuka, and a few others. Some of which will pop up in future movies in the same genre of gang movies and Chicano life dramas like Scarface (1983), Colors (1988), American Me (1992), Bound By Honor (Blood In Blood Out) (1993), and My Family (Mi Familia) (1995), all of which are better movies and give a more accurate portrayal of the subject matter. Not to mention better casting and writing in general.
It’s not that Robby Benson is bad in Walk Proud. I actually find his acting here sincere if a bit over done, humorous (at times unintentional), somewhat believable but too naive and lacking the hard edge of a gangster. He gives this performance his all as he does his best to embrace the Chicano accent, easy going/low key demeanor (think Edward James Olmos), and walk, which was taught to him by the cast of Chicano youths. He’s a good actor who did his homework well and without him none of this could have happened as the other actors have noted. There’s just a hokiness to it all, especially the dialogue and a couple of scoring misfires that gives Walk Proud a made for TV-movie/”after school special” feel. This could possibly be due to director Robert Collins whose body of work consists of mostly TV shows and TV movies. Evan Hunter’s (Hitchcock’s The Birds) writing doesn’t help as it’s dated and cliche filled.
The Blu-ray special features do stand out, for what they are, short (10 minutes give or take) facetime interviews with some of the cast. Not the headliners but we do get good stories and background on the people and making of Walk Proud from Irene DeBari, Panchito Gomez, Luis Reyes, and Pepe Serna. Reyes has the longest interview at 17 mins and is the most insightful as he’s gone on to write a few books on Hollywood and has recently published Viva Hollywood for TCM. Reyes is actually in the studio for his segment and does a fine job providing entertaining facts while going over Walk Proud’s many cliches and tropes.
I haven’t seen the movie since I was a very young child and it left an impression then which is why I jumped at the chance to review Walk Proud after all these years. It just doesn’t truly hold up as the classic it could have been but it was entertaining and I was hooked again for 102 minutes. I’m sure there’s a cult audience out there, who like myself have a soft spot in their heart for this one, with its solid supporting cast and it’s decent moments as well as its cringe worthy, overacted ones.