* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Max Reid

Written by John Sayles

With Rob Knepper, Kathleen Quinlan, Robert Davi, and Betty Buckley.

History, Herr Karl Marx sniffed somewhere or other in his collected works, repeats itself as farce. In cinema, however, this is no bad thing, at least not always. There’s nothing wrong with a sequel or a straightforward exploitation flick that offers audiences a witty farce or even an inspired genre satire on the film that is being shamelessly ripped off. One need look no further than the Magister Ludi of B-movies, Roger Corman, to clinch this case. Aside from his own directorial efforts, Corman over the years has been renowned for providing an invaluable if tacky training ground for film talents like Coppola, Scorsese, Demme, and, among many others, John Sayles. By challenging capable folks with some of the sorriest story lines imaginable, Corman forces his minions into the roles of so many Rumpelstiltskins, spinning celluloid (fool’s) gold from pretty damp straw. Within tight shooting schedules and budget constraints, the writers and directors can more or less do what they please with the raw material, and sometimes they do recycle fetid fare into pungent, even fragrant rubbish. Truly creative and cunning filmmakers can inject dreck with barbed social commentary, delicious parody, and all manner of rollicking wink-at-you asides.

No writer acquitted himself more honorably in this field of combat — pitting creative instincts against crap — than John Sayles, to whom we owe such “guilty pleasures” as Piranha, Alligator, Battle Beyond the Stars, and The Howling.

“My whole job,” Sayles says of Piranha, “was to contrive a reason why people, once they hear there are piranhas in the river, don’t just stay out of the water, but end up getting eaten.” There ought to be an Oscar category for this kind of alchemy. Sayles, a “legitimate,” as they say, novelist, not only has memorably tarted up many otherwise drivel-ridden film properties, he fed his screenwriter’s fees into such artistically redemptive projects as The Return of the Secaucus 7, Lianna, Baby, It’s You, and The Brother From Another Planet, all of which he directed. So, hey, it’s all for a good cause, too. Unfortunately Wild Thing, the latest B-grade film bearing a Sayles writing credit, starts with a bracing satiric verve — evoking all at once Burroughs’s Tarzan, Spiderman, and Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — and, after about 25 minutes, sputters down to an awfully tame and lockstep-plotted exercise replete with standard action sequences but exhibiting little of his customarily droll humor. More’s the pity because in the early going Sayles sets up a host of inviting subjects, and trots forth intriguing themes (the 1960s countercultural mentality versus whatever passes for a mentality in the 1980s; the “wild child” motif; the subculture of the “truly needy”) only to leave them there while the plot hurtles on through a grafittoed urban gutterscape jigsawed together, it appears, from the sets of The Warriors and Streets of Fire.

To the sibilant strains of “White Rabbit,” Wild Thing opens promisingly enough in 1969 with a shot of an archetypal hippie couple — all beaded, tie-dyed, and headbanded — and their unspeakably cute three-year-old son, named Free (what else?), aboard a VW microbus daubed with peace emblems and psychedelia, heading for the wicked city. Though the mother senses bad vibes, they pick up a hitchhiker. They arrive in a Haight-Ashbury-like locale where the purveyors of peace, love, and understanding long since have given way to plain old junkies and vicious drug merchants — not what Timothy Leary had in mind at all. Into the microbus suddenly bursts Chopper (Robert Davi), a drug dealer who spots the hitcher, an errant “employee” who for his swindling ways is forced at gunpoint to cram the remainder of a drug stash — rather heavy on the barbiturate side — down his throat. In a deserted warehouse the boy, tucked inconspicuously beneath a bundle of blankets, witnesses Chopper — and a police accomplice — murdering his parents. The boy hightails it out of there and, pursued by the killers, escapes by executing a Tarzan-like dive, only feet first, into a river; the pursuers presume him drowned. Cut to a refuse-strewn, rodent-ridden shoreline, and enter the scavenging Leah (Betty Buckley), who is one part bag lady, one part Macbeth witch, and one part 60s oracle. Tipping a cardboard box, she lovingly captures her “wild thing,” and proceeds to teach the lad things no Cub Scout manual contains. She vows to shield the unspoiled child from the “users” who work for the “company,” which may be deciphered here as all of corporate America. “I do not live off the company’s filthy paper,” she proclaims. “I live off the land” — or pavement, as is more the case. The kid takes a crash course in, you might say, ultracountercultural values.

Cut to 1975. A very robust “wild thing” (though mute from the trauma of the murders) cavorts among a collection of street derelicts who make up a rather vibrant community within the “Zone,” an urban nether region sort of like the South Bronx, only worse. Present are a demented street poet raging straight out of the pages of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” a legless junkie, a wino who with delirious aplomb plays matador to passing traffic, and other, less harmless folks. The ten-year-old has a roaring good time hunting and gathering — swiftly “gathering” goods off grocers’ shelves, and hunting, with trusty slingshot, other vittles such as filet de pigeon for the ailing Leah. Already fearful of “blue coats,” and of “white coats” who use electricity to “scramble your eggs,” the stealthy urchin somehow eludes all notice by authorities. The keenest of observers and mimics, he fashions a dandy crossbow after glimpsing a William Tell rerun on a TV in a barred and grated store window, perfects tai chi motions, and espies the apparently painful athletic activities that the postpubertal set engage in on dark rooftops. A.S. Neill’s fusty old Summerhill School was never like this.

Want to pillory any particular form of authority? Play off the “noble savage” image against a backdrop teeming with your average, everyday gang toughs? Pointedly contrast the education of the “wild thing” with whatever teachers manage to teach in inner-city school systems? How about satirizing the corporate culture or the counterculture or both? Well, Wild Thing is rife with opportunities, not so much flubbed as they are simply noted and then passed over. The first quarter of the film is tantalizingly filled with deft little pokes at many deserving targets, but, when the film lurches into “the present,” there is no follow-through flurry of sardonic punches. When grown-up Wild Thing (Rob Knepper) makes his gymnastic debut, all themes earlier dallied with make for the exits. It’s as if Sayles simply shrugged early on and let a carefully but conventionally concocted plot “kick in” and carry the rest of the film — and I’m hardly giving anything away — to its tidy and happy ending. Even Shakespeare and President Nixon’s press secretary, I suppose, must have had their off days.

What happens? Adult Wild Thing, now a legendary figure, rescues a brand-spanking-new social worker, named Jane (what else?) from the awfully unwelcome “advances” of two of drug king Chopper’s scumbag henchmen. Jane may be from Stevens Point, Wisconsin, and naive in a way that kinda shows, but she catches on quick and is no maiden. The poor virgin lad is sorely in need of a good woman who knows and can demonstrate the finer gradations between the harsh-appearing “body pump” and the petal-soft “belly bump.” (Leah never quite got around to that sort of stuff in her street pedagogy.) Chopper and the police chief, his 1969 accomplice in the parents’ murders, discover Wild Thing’s provenance, and he their crime. And we wonder: will Wild Thing avenge his folks’ deaths? and will this handsome, lithe, dashing, tenderhearted, and war-painted wraith of the ghetto night in some clever way contrive to win Jane’s heart?

You never know. Wild Thing is a terribly sensitive and compassionate chap, just the sort who might eventually repel Jane — if she turned out to be a textbook case of “women who love too much.” Yeah, that would add suspense.

OK, I’m reaching.