The rawness of Bad Boys is what drew me into it’s gritty and harrowing story of street gangs in Chicago. Starring Sean Penn as Irish street tough Mick O’Brien, Bad Boys showcases the realities of street life and the unrelenting tribalism that surrounds the entire environment and atmosphere. The stakes are quite clear from the very start that this is not some sentimentalized world of “lessons” and “growth”. There are consequences for the actions we take, for the mistakes made in the heat of a moment. In a drug deal gone bad, Mick kills his rival, Paco Moreno (Esai Morales), brother and is sent to reform school, which is basically a prison for minors. Finding no peace and wanting to maximize the damage to Mick, Paco stalks, beats, and rapes his girlfriend (Ally Sheedy), with the police showing up and catching him in the act. Paco is sent to the very same reform school where Mick is being housed, setting the stage for an epic showdown of bravado, machismo, and male dominance. Most of the film takes place inside the reform school and, therefore, resembles a prison film more than strictly a crime drama. The warden and correctional officers have a very laid back approach to discipline and safety of the inmates and they let the boys manage their own tribal affairs.
Mick finds himself in a confined and violent jungle that houses some very dangerous people to whom he constantly has to prove himself. Viking (Clancy Brown) and Tweety (Robert Lee Rush) are power hungry top dogs in the prison and exert their strength and power on whomever they can gain something. Mick puts up with their overbearing nature at first, but then completely changes when he sees Tweety kill another inmate by throwing him off the catwalk. His refusal to be intimidated by these thugs is such a powerful driving dramatic force in this film and makes me care for and root for Mick all the more. Because he refuses to be intimidated and recognize their status, Viking and Tweety confront Mick, who beats them unconscious with a pillow case full of soda cans. Through their time together at the prison, Paco consistently goads, insults, and provokes Mick into fighting. He wants his life to be ruined as he feels his life has been ruined by the death of his brother. What we see throughout is that the tribalism and violence of gang warfare has no future, there is neither growth to be gained nor a clean way out.
There is one tough talking guard (Reni Santoni), a former gang member himself, who tries to look out for Mick through all of this. He consistently reminds Mick what is waiting for him if he doesn’t change his ways, the looming shadow of Maximum Security Prison. Bad Boys does involve some movie cliches and formulaic story elements despite it’s gritty attitude and heightened dramatics. Would there be the hardened former gang member offering sage advice to the troubled youth, directing him to change his ways? Probably not. For a coming of age movie about the life of street kids in Chicago, I thought it was pretty rough and tumble and was utterly fascinating. I love the world that Rick Rosenthal creates and the willingness to show who these kids are. He never shies away from showcasing the brutality, coldness, and mood that permeates Bad Boys and it’s a nice companion piece to Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish. While not being the artistic piece that Rumble Fish is, it’s a great meditation on violence leading to a violent life and, eventually, an equally violent end. There is no hope to grow or thrive, there is just a bleak understanding of force and power equating to the law of the streets.
Sean Penn provides a wonderfully vulnerable performance as Mick who, despite some of his actions, wins us over with his humanity. The movie ends in a somewhat conventional way but it’s earned – we’ve seen and experienced enough through Mick’s eyes that we feel he really has grown, and he doesn’t want this bleak life for himself. I feel that Bad Boys was the successful genre version of the John Hughes 80’s movies which were ripe with sentimentality and feel good narcissism. There is no middle class ennui, or pretentious teenager problems of the suburbs. This is gritty-as-shit Chicago where you have to be aware of everywhere you step, every place you go, who is around, and what lurks around the corner. It’s steeped in such an elemental mood and atmosphere in a way that Hughes family friendly comedies never did. Basically, those Hughes movies were for people who wanted to escape reality, not observe it. Bad Boys is that life lesson that truly reaches out from the streets of Chicago to illuminate our understanding of humanity through the eyes of teenagers who don’t understand the weight of their actions. Bad Boys succeeds in bringing that world alive to the screen and allowing it to breathe and be fully realized.