Judge Gordon Sullivan feels like an American punk'd after watching this.
Detroit: Murder City, USA
Punk is essentially a meaningless term. It embraces everyone from straight-edge Christians who volunteer at the local hospice to Sid Vicious-worshiping nihilists who only want to get violent and crazy. American Punks trains the camera on the latter group, and would more appropriately be called by its original title Generation X-tinct Made on a shoestring budget, the film tries to convey some of the working class angst of society's forgotten children. Think Slacker with more guns.
Facts of the Case
When his best friend (Ron Ramsey) is murdered over money owed to a drug dealer, violent loser Bobby Tilton (Mike Passion) seeks revenge. He initially sets his sights on a rich yuppie (Ron Wicks), but when it turns out that he's not the culprit, Bobby takes his rage out on anyone who has every wronged him.
Remember the heady days of the 1990s? It was a time when it seemed like every twenty-something with a camera and a prop gun would be the next Tarentino. When independent filmmakers with meager budgets slept while images of Sundance and the respectability and cash it could bring danced in their heads. The general idea seemed to be that if Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith could make a movie, then anyone could. American Punks is the dark side of that dream. The team behind the movie commit all the sins of their more famous forbearers (cheap looks, amateur acting, lack of narrative drive, obsession with criminals) while possessing none of their virtues (whip-smart dialogue, interesting framing, knowledge/reverence for cinematic history).
It could have been better. The plot has a sound premise: a social outcast seeks justice for the death of a friend, taking out his rage at the representative yuppie oppressor. The problem is there is no one to root for, no one to care about. The main character, Bobby Tilton, is such an obnoxious jerk it's hard to believe he has any friends. It's really hard to care when he (mistakenly) targets the wrong figure, so the film's plot is wasted. I've rooted for jerks before, but there's nothing at all to admire in Bobby, no intelligence or witty dialogue. He's doesn't come off as someone who's been dealt a bad hand, but as someone who has actively tried to alienate everyone who would help him. He's a loser, and it seem like he deserves it. No one else is quite as obnoxious as Tilton, but they aren't a clearly drawn either, so I couldn't really care about them, either. I mean when you get yourself killed because you smoked away 800 dollars worth of weed, it's hard to feel sympathy.
The characters aren't helped by the acting. Everyone seems to come from the "emotion = yelling" school of acting, so there are lots of raised voices, but that doesn't help the unremarkable dialogue. Coming from these actors it almost seems natural, but doesn't do anything for me as an audience member.
It might seem futile to call the violence of a nihilistic film pointless, but anyone with a more than passing knowledge of nihilism will know that it doesn't have to be negative. Instead of turning the freedom of nothing to lose into a positive change, Bobby merely uses his lack of inhibition as an excuse to commit the exact same crimes he assumes his yuppie enemy does: screw the other (wrong) guy. I'm not saying every movie has to have a positive social message, or even that violence needs an excuse. Rather, I wish the violence had been interesting.
Although the feature has little to boast about, the DVD does what it can with the limited source material. The film looks like the low-budget, first feature that it is. The transfer looks like a fair representation of the original elements, with no obvious problems with compression or authoring. The audio sources don't sound great, unsurprisingly, but the DVD mix is balanced. I didn't have to constantly adjust the volume to catch dialogue or avoid distortion, which is uncommon for a film of this era/budget.
The main extra is a commentary with director Michele Pacitto. Even if the film stumbles, the commentary is worth listening to. He describes his starry-eyed naiveté in thinking that his film would get to the fabled Sundance. He also humorously describes the trials and tribulations of completing a film of this budget. He is quite frank about his own shortcomings (as well as those of his collaborators), but he avoids sounding bitter or angry at their (or his own) faults. There are also some alternative scenes which did nothing for me, but fans might enjoy them. They also throw in some audition footage that's an unintentionally hilarious look back at some failed fashion.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Those who have a little more hate in their hearts for yuppies might find something to admire in this film. But, they'd still be better off watching a more interesting film, like SLC Punk.
Ultimately, the film reminded me of a failed Troma feature. Where Lloyd Kaufman and his merry band of pranksters meld social commentary and gleeful violence into a cinematic whole—even if it isn't to all tastes—American Punks never finds that unity. If it had been a little more serious, it might have been an effective critique of contemporary society. If it had been a little lighter, it might have been a fun entry into the twenty-somethings-with-guns sub-genre. Instead, it's hard to take seriously, but equally hard to laugh with instead of at.
Guilty of going nowhere.
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