Bad Boys stands out amongst the other American teen movies of 1983. While this benchmark year presented such classics as The Outsiders, Risky Business, and Rumble Fish, Bad Boys delivers a blow to the gut, a bloody snapshot of teenage delinquency and doomed futures.
Pitched by producer Robert Solo as “a Jimmy Cagney picture set in modern-day reform school,” Sean Penn plays Chicago hoodlum Mickey O’Brien serving a stint in juvenile corrections for killing a kid. That kid’s older brother Paco Moreno seeks justice while, inside, O’Brien teams with brainy Barry Horowitz against top dogs “Viking” Lofgren and “Tweety” Jerome.
The prison quickly becomes a toxic microcosm of teenage anger and masculinity, much like what you see in high schools, and it isn’t long before O’Brien must choose between revenge and reform. It’s one of those movies where the answer to the hero’s problems is painfully obvious to us but oblivious to them. Penn saves it all from collapsing.
He hardly speaks. In the first few scenes, we see him steal a purse, brush up his guitar, and sweeten his girlfriend J.C., first-time actress Ally Sheedy. “I don’t want something to happen to you,” she says. “I love you.” Penn gives her a glance and smirks. Here’s a ‘dumb’ teen that won’t lie to his girlfriend about their chances for real love. He knows better.
Later, Penn throws shades of Brando, Lancaster, and Cagney when he attacks Viking and Tweety and gets thrown in solitary. Does he yell and punch the walls? No, he just plops onto the cement and lets us read him.
But not all of Bad Boys is abstract and artistically sound. It’s blatantly vicious. Director Rick Rosenthal, best known for directing Halloween II, splatters the movie with teen violence that even Francis Ford Coppola wouldn’t touch in Rumble Fish. While Coppola’s movie leans more French New Wave, Rosenthal casts hard shadows of film noir.
It actually improves upon classics like Brute Force and White Heat because the organized crime is at times clumsy and unbelievable. It’s run by confused teens pretending to be gangsters. They’re not so tough and they know it. Trigger-happy and insecure, still we watch hoping O’Brien will find the light.
Overall, there are parts to Richard Di Lello’s script that feel as though he jam-packed every lurid tabloid story of 1980s teen violence in that he could. He didn’t think the movie beat audiences over the head, but I disagree. One prison break, two rapes, and three onscreen kid deaths are enough to knock me into submission spouting “Ok, enough already!”
Bad Boys is a unique coming-of-age teen movie that shook audiences with Penn’s breakthrough performance. It’s got equally restrained but memorable actors like Esai Morales as Moreno and Reni Santoni as prison psychologist Ramon Herrera. Eric Gurry’s Horowitz feels out of place at times as the anarchistic brains to O’Brien’s brawn, but in the present era of mass shooters and techno geniuses maybe not so much.