Lionsgate // 1983 // 123 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Roman Martel (Retired) // February 3rd, 2011
Before Will Smith and Martin Lawrence appeared in their little Michael Bay film, Sean Penn and Esai Morales were Bad Boys.
In 1982 the world was introduced to Jeff Spicoli, one of the most memorable characters of the 1980s thanks to Penn's hilarious performance in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. As good as he was in the part, I'm guessing he didn't want to get stuck doing that type of roll over and over again. So he picked this gritty drama as his next film.
Life on the streets of Chicago has turned Mick O'Brien (Sean Penn) into a small time crook. Always keeping his eyes out for a bigger score, he cooks up a plan to steal drugs from Paco Moreno (Esai Morales) and his crew. Things go bad and after the gun shots are silenced Mick has killed Paco's little brother and been busted by the cops.
Since he's not yet 18, he is sent to a juvenile detention facility for rehabilitation. As bad as the streets were, it might be worse here. He befriends the young but sociopathic Horowitz (Eric Gurry) and finds himself pitted against a twosome dubbed Tweety (Robert Lee Rush) and Viking (Clancy Brown). On the outside Mick's girlfriend J.C. (Ally Sheedy) is waiting for him. But Paco is preparing his revenge, forcing Mick to decide how he wants to play this game. Each choice could lead him to freedom or to further time behind bars.
For a story like this to work you've got to be invested in the characters. Most of the folks in this movie are guilty of something and most of them have done some really nasty stuff. Mick is a criminal pure and simple. We get the feeling that he doesn't want to hurt people physically, he's just out for himself. But when you go after drug dealers and you're packin' heat, you have to expect someone to end up getting hurt or killed. While most of these guys are street smart, they aren't too bright otherwise. So you've got a cast of dull witted losers. And you get to spend over two hours with them. Hard sell indeed.
But the acting is where it all comes together. Penn is in top form here, allowing us to understand Mick. Yeah he's a screwed up kid, but he's not irredeemable, unlike some of the other punks we meet. He really cares about J.C. and he forms relationships with some of the other boys in the facility. All these give us a bit more insight into his character. We have hope that he could get out of this, as long as he stays out of trouble. Penn plays most of this with his eyes, allowing us to see the fear behind the macho front. He lets his guard down a few times and it works well.
On the flip side is Morales as Paco, where intensity is the name of the game. Like Mick, we get to see where he's coming from at the beginning of the film. He's trying to look out for his family because his dad's been out of work for over a year. Still, he's selling drugs and violence comes with the territory. So when his little brother gets killed, you can see the mixture of guilt and hatred in his performance. The movie shifts over to Paco from time to time. Morales makes his scenes count as we watch him take his revenge on Mick and eventually get an opportunity to face him. The final twenty minutes of the film are gripping because of Morales' focused hatred and Penn's controlled calm hiding desperation as Mick tries everything to stop the situation from exploding. Without these two performances the finale would not work like it does.
The supporting cast does a great job as well. Clancy Brown is intimidating as the hulking Viking. Ally Sheedy does a good job with a the small but key role of J.C. Eric Gurry nails the part of a teenage sociopath. The scenes where he calmly tells Mick about the time he killed three guys that were bullying him is funny and disturbing all at the same time. Alan Ruck pops up early on as Mick's nervous friend. Reni Santoni rounds out the cast as one of the adults in the facility who is trying to help the boys break out of the cycle of crime.
This was director Rick Rosenthal's second feature film and he did a good job with it. He uses a combination of framing, a moving camera, editing to pull us into the action. Bill Conti supplies a supporting musical score that combines blues, urban rhythms and melancholy piano. It works well with some of the source music right out of the early '80s.
Lionsgate provides you with a pretty good looking disc. the 1080P High Definition transfer looks fine, especially for a film from an era where film stock can look notoriously soft. The night sequences are nice and clear with solid blacks. The HD Master Audio sounds good too, with clarity for the dialogue and soundtrack. You get the original theatrical trailer of the film as well as a commentary track by director Rick Rosenthal. This is a good track with Rosenthal talking about all kinds of things, including shooting in Chicago, working with the young actors, dealing with the then new Steady Cam, and some little known facts about the film.
This Blu-ray contains the entire original theatrical version of the film. Some previous releases contained an edited version that brought the movie in under two hours.
As good as the movie is, there are a few things that keep it from being as effective as it could be. The main issue is time. Some viewers are going to find the plot and many of the elements in it overly familiar -- especially if you've seen an prison movie. What was once shocking is now standard, and that's a shame because the movie is well made.
Also I'm not sure how to put this other than coming right out and saying it. Fez from That '70s Show looks like he was heavily inspired by Esai Morales as Paco, but with a silly accent. It's especially bad in the beginning scenes where Paco is dressed in his early '80s attire and walking down the street -- you keep expecting him to run into Topher Grace or Mila Kunis. I feared that was my own issue, until my wife threw in a "I say good-day!" at a key moment and we both cracked up. Kinda ruined the atmosphere.
If you can avoid any Fez related humor, this movie is worth checking out, especially for anyone looking for early performances by some of their favorite actors. If you're a big fan of the flick this Blu-ray is the way to go. It's the original version and the commentary track is icing on the cake.
Not Guilty. Mr. Hand would be proud.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 123 Minutes
Release Year: 1983
MPAA Rating: Rated R