Judge Adam Arseneau used to live downtown...149th street.
Graffiti can be a powerful weapon.
Bomb the System is the best graffiti movie since Wild Style and Beat Street. Actually, now that I think about it, Bomb the System may be the only graffiti film since Wild Style and Beat Street.
Facts of the Case
Graffiti and New York City go together like white and rice. Dedicated bombers (graffiti artists who tag public property and disdain legitimate art gallery work) still run rampant through the streets at night, despite the best efforts of the city to curtail the vandalism. One particularly talented tagger, Anthony "Blest" Campo is at the height of his game, with his work receiving more and more recognition across the city, not only from the graffiti scene, but from legitimate art galleries which hope to lure him to legitimacy. But Blest has a score to settle over the death of his older brother, a legendary bomber killed in action. Despite being tempted by college and financial success, he cannot give up the spray paint can.
Things get complicated when Blest hooks up with a young woman with different ideas about subculture and civil disobedience, and begins to sway him away from his calling. The vandal squad (lead by the overzealous cop Bobby Cox) and the writers have played a cat-and-mouse game for years on the streets of New York, each doing their best to stay one step ahead of the next. But after Cox takes retribution on a young writer a step too far, Blest and his group explode across the city, bombing every thing in sight, all leading up to the holy grail of tag locations: the Brooklyn Bridge. No matter the cost, tonight, they will bomb the system.
There is a lot in Bomb the System that we have seen many times before. Guy likes his destructive lifestyle, guy meets girl, girl plants the seeds of doubt into guy's mind to change his ways, guys ends up on crash course with his peers who say bland things like "You've changed, man!" and so on. The endless stream of corrupt and crooked New York City cops, like Bobby Cox (in a blatant Tom Sizemore crazed cop impression), only makes it worse. Beyond the unique subject matter, the framework of the film itself is fairly clichéd. Surprising indeed, that Bomb the System feels so original and fresh, when the material at its core is so played out.
Despite the clichés, there is much to enjoy here. The style of the film is quite striking, full of excessive grain, rough film stock, and stylized editing techniques. The harsh, overexposed lighting bathes the film in a surrealist palate of saturated greens and reds, and combined with the eerily throbbing electro soundtrack, its urbane and often dystopic depiction of New York owes more than a passing nod to The Warriors. It has a quite unique look on its own, and feels fresh and inventive when watching. The acting, while not exactly Oscar caliber, holds itself up quite nicely, and the graffiti art featured in the film is nothing short of spectacular.
Beyond the argument of art vs. vandalism, Bomb the System captures the endless circle of futility in being a graffiti writer quite well, something most people never consider. Imagine the agony of having your best work painted over almost as fast as you can create it, again and again…not only for the artists, but for the cops as well. There is an element of romantic pointlessness to the whole affair, and the protagonists know it. Yet they stay on their path; they stay dedicated to their art, if only out of sheer single-mindedness. The introduction of Alexandra, Blest's romantic interest, and Blest has a chance to use his talents towards a more ambitious cause (albeit an even more pointless one, but that is a secret irony) towards counterculture and social change through disobedience in the form of his romantic interest Alexandra. Her culture jamming ideology only further illustrates the repetition and futility of Blest's bombing, but she only further steels his resolve. I admire that kind of character, someone so stubborn to see both sides of the argument, but still decide to make the unpopular choice.
There is an inherent appeal to this kind of subculture of reckless endangerment, social disobedience, and vandalism for the sake of cultural expression and artistic freedom that has a particular romanticism about it, like reinventing the Robin Hood mythology armed with spray paint cans. Bomb the System shows the culture in an admiring, often flattering, light but never quite glorifies the lifestyle either. It is always careful to illustrate the futile cyclical nature of a bomber's life to counteract the radical appeal, at ease in showing both the glamorous and destructive side of suburban graffiti art. Whether the film is "authentic" or not seems a moot point, because Bomb the System never feels fake. The graffiti art, featured by various artists too numerous to name, is nothing short of jaw-dropping, and the soundtrack (composed by E-LP) is fantastic.
Bomb the System has a good-looking transfer, full of oversaturated colors and gritty film stocks, and the presentation really highlights the aggressive editing and chaotic feel to the film. The film has a naturally gritty appearance to it, but still manages to keep exceptionally tight black levels, sharp detail, and an intense color palate for quite the good-looking transfer.
Two audio modes, a 2.0 track and a 5.1 track, are available. The stereo track is heavy on the bass, a good strong presentation, very thick; almost to the point of being muddled. The surround sound track is crisp and dynamic, though far less bass responsive, in exchange for a bright and immersive experience. Though the two tracks sound so diametrically opposite, it is simply a matter of personal preference which you select…they both sound quite good.
Palm has included a satisfying amount of supplementary material on this DVD, including deleted scenes, cast and crew interviews, behind-the-scene footage, and extended sequences. For a single-disc DVD release, the offering is quite sizeable, and they even tossed in a fold-out graffiti poster in place of pointless liner notes…good call.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Bomb the System often takes itself a bit too seriously at times, rendering certain elements of the film more preachy than needed, like the endless slow-motion shots of Blest running down the street, and some of the social activism monologues which feel lifted straight out of back issues of Adbusters magazine. Such ideology makes for great intellectual fare, but there is a very fine line between posturing and entertaining that gets tripped over here.
A film that is both expertly crafted and intensely passionate about its subject, Bomb the System is a bit weak in terms of story, but manages to emphasize its strengths consistently throughout the film. Visually striking, it has a unique style all its own, lingering in the mind (along with the art) long after the film has finished. Suffice it to say, I liked it.
Well-made, well directed, and full of fantastic art and music, Bomb the System definitely knows what time it is. Palm has done good.
Not guilty on all charg—hey, who spray painted my gavel?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Palm Pictures
• Deleted Scenes
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