This is perhaps one of the only major flaws of the film that I wish had been more greatly fleshed out. The book goes into great detail on the many reasons Wilkerson decided to leave Pennsylvania and go to New York, as well as his background in a long line of Pentecostal preachers. It's almost worth reading the book simply to have all this background information handy before watching the film. In fact, if the book is used at all in regards to Wilkerson's life and ministry, it might be best used as an introduction (especially since only half of the book is covered in the movie).
The opening of the film has the producer saying that, although the events may seem unreal, they did indeed happen. You realize how important this message might have been as you see Wilkerson go to work. Almost ten minutes into the movie this white man in a nice suit is taken to a New York City slum where he looks the leaders of two rival gangs (one Hispanic, one black) and says, "God loves you." It's surreal. To explain this further, imagine if a character from The Office walked right onto the set of West Side Story and started telling the Jets and Sharks about God. Although this isn't exactly how it happened (the first thirty minutes of the movie, which takes place within 48 hours, are a conglomeration of events that happened over the span of a few weeks in the book), it does capture how soon Wilkerson went to work, and how readily he was able to meet with gang members and leaders alike.
Let me take a brief moment to be honest about something here: I am not a huge fan of "Christian movies." By "Christian movies" I don't necessarily mean any movie about anything Christian (ie., Peter and Paul or Passion of the Christ). What I mean is a movie geared entirely towards a Christian audience. When this happens (as it did with the "blaxpoitation" films of the 1970's) the filmmakers often tend to appeal to the lowest common denominator, and as a result cliches and tired stories abound. One noticeable example is the "born again moment": a series of montages in which a character thinks about their life, showing angst and confusion in their face with slow Christian music playing in the background.
The Cross and the Switchblade avoids much of this because, instead of following a list of cliches, it instead moves to be a character drama. Part of what makes this work is the script, which focuses most of its attention on the individual members of the Mau Mau gang, in particular Nicky Cruz. Part of this is also the acting talent of the individual actors.
Nicky is played by Erik Estrada, and I have to say that his performance completely surprised me. It's not that I've ever thought Estrada was necessarily a bad actor, I just never realized he could be a great actor. Yet the way he performs the resentful nature of Nicky's sinful state towards the love shown by Wilkerson left no doubt in me that behind the cult status actor was some serious talent.
It might be safe to say that, next to Wilkerson himself, Nicky is the main character of the film. Unlike most "Christian movies" with the climactic born-again moment, Nicky's born-again moment is the entire film itself. The start of these happenings is in one of the earliest moments in the film, with the supposedly word-for-word recreation of the second encounter between Wilkerson and Nicky. When Wilkerson offers Nicky his hand, Nicky spits into it and threatens to kill Wilkerson if he ever sees him again. The Pennsylvanian pastor coolly replies:
"Yeah, you can do that. You can cut me up into a thousand pieces and lay 'em on the street...and every piece will still love you."After watching the film, I went and watched a brief documentary on the real life Nicky Cruz. His back story is one of growing up in Puerto Rico with abusive parents who dabbled in the occult and regularly beat him without mercy. He knew nothing but hate and violence his entire life (Wilkerson records in the book that he would laugh at the sight of blood). When Wilkerson said the previously quoted words to Nicky, it was the first encounter with selfless love that he had ever experienced. God used those words to eat away at the hate and violence that had built up over the years. Estrada captures this well in the scenes afterward, as the gang leader who can kill without blinking an eye suddenly finds an inner torment growing within him.
One of the most appealing and strongest aspects of Richard Burton's character in The Robe is that he spends much of the movie resisting that strange grace given to him by God, until finally, in the end, he realizes there is no way to run away from such grace. Indeed, Wilkerson himself tells Nicky at one point in the film, "Someday you're gonna stop running, Nicky - and when you do, I'll be there waiting." While there is a point at the end of the film where Nicky "gets it," it is not a long, drawn-out moment but rather a "clicking" where Nicky finally realizes that the love of Christ is what will help heal his life of hurt.
Another fine performance is Jackie Giroux as Rosa, a heroine addict who prostitutes herself for money. I was a bit disappointed to find out (courtesy IMDB) that after this film she fell into obscurity with a chain of Z-grade movies. Her performance here reminded me a bit of Ellen Greene's performance as the distraught Audrey in the 1986 Little Shop of Horrors. Except, of course, whereas that was played for laughs, this is entirely drama. Next to Nicky's story, a good part of the film focuses on Rosa's desperation for heroine, as well as her struggles to overcome it under the watch of Wilkerson's friends, her eventual recovery and near relapse. The character of Rosa herself is actually based off the person of Maria in the original book, who really did walk to where Wilkerson was staying and threaten to kill herself.
If you're wondering about a gospel presentation, you shouldn't let the notable absence of any detailed exposition early on worry you. I was personally worried when it seemed like all we were hearing was "God loves you" ad nauseum. Even Wilkerson himself seems to be a somewhat passive character; if you're expecting him to be an urban John Wesley for much of the film, you might be disappointed. As I said, much of the film focuses on the gang, and Wilkerson becomes something of an enigma. You don't see what Wilkerson is doing so much as you hear what kind of affect he's having on the other characters - whether this was intentional or not, I'm not sure.
Where things really come through is in the last 16-minutes of the film, at the climactic youth rally. With both the black and Hispanic gangs in his presence and no police protection, Wilkerson stands up on the stage and, Bible in hand, presents the love and sacrifice of Christ, and offers forgiveness of sins through faith. "I don't preach religion," he says, "I preach about a Man." The gangs are to never trust in their own flesh again, but "in the flesh sacrificed for you by Jesus." He gets heckled during the sermon, asking how he can expect the gang members to love their enemies when they've been defaced by or even lost family to them. Wilkerson returns to the cross - in all things, he returns to the cross. This was the climax of the film, and for certain it does not disappoint.
Let me give a warning: I would probably suggest Christian parents and pastors review the film before showing it to their children or congregation. There are some swear words throughout the movie (not incessantly, but they're there, and are mostly the "h-word" and "d-word"). There are at least one or two uses of the "n-word". There is also some drug use: you see Rosa purchase heroine and then (though from behind) stick the needle in her arm; a character in one scene smokes a marijuana joint; in another scene, Rosa shows Wilkerson the needle marks in the veins of her arms; there's also the withdrawal scenes with Rosa (they're not too bad, but I know some parents may not want their children to see such behavior). There's also some violence (mostly involving two scenes of rumbling between the gangs) that, although it gets no more violent than people fallen over and getting hit on the head by sticks, does involve the sight of blood and gashing wounds afterward. It's tame by today's standards, but again, I thought I would give parents and pastors alike a fair warning.
There are, of course, some plot elements they added in for suspense and tension which never happened in real life (Rosa being told to kill Wilkerson for heroine; the supposed rumble to take place at the rally, etc.). However, this does not detract from what is a surprisingly strong film about a strong, faithful man of God. In the end, I was pleasantly surprised by The Cross and the Switchblade, and felt it inspiring me the rest of the day. I would definitely say it is worth at least a one time viewing.