Not to be confused with the Will Smith/Martin Lawrence buddy cop Bad Boys series (‘Point Break or Bad Boys II?’), Rick Rosenthal’s 1983 Bad Boys tells a much darker tale. Sean Penn stars as Mick O’Brien, a troubled kid who means well, but keeps getting into trouble with the law. Shit hits the fan when he and his buddy Carl (Alan Ruck in his film debut) try to rob a Puerto Rican gang and it fails miserably, with Carl shot dead and Mick accidentally running over the Puerto Rican gang leader/local douche Paco’s little kid brother.
This leads Mick to prison, where he meets an interesting cast of characters, including his mousy and technically genius cellmate Horowitz (Eric Gurry) and the enormous cell block sadists Viking (Clancy Brown in his first role, which seems like the prototype for the sadistic Hadley in The Shawshank Redemption) and Tweety (Robert Lee Rush). Mick soon rises to the top, and after several fights and escapes, he learns to survive. Bad Boys is raw and brutal, and especially more hard-hitting since it’s all between kids in juvie (think Alan Clarke’s borstal film Scum to a certain extent). The acting and story are pretty great, especially from Sean Penn (there are so many buried treasures in his early filmography) in one of his first roles (his very first was Taps in ’81).
Things get worse when the local douche Paco rapes and attempts to kill Mick’s girlfriend (pre-Brat Pack Ally Sheedy, also in her debut role) and gets sent to the same prison as Mick. This leads to an exciting climactic battle, and the conundrum that Mick faces – screwed if he does, screwed if he doesn’t. Ultimately though, Mick is a really likeable character, just misguided, although from what we see in his family life, his mother is an idiot and his father is away – not much to look forward to. You can especially see how much he cares with his girlfriend, who he loves very much. I really hated that little shit Paco, and was hoping he’d have a worse fate, but oh well, I think the ending of the film works really well. The direction of the film is really good as well – the editing works great and Rosenthal creates a really stirring, visceral experience. Just looking at his filmography, it’s too bad he didn’t really do another great film because he’s so good (just a couple Halloween sequels), although his TV direction is worthy of note (he directed episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, both great shows).
Bad Boys is a gem in Penn’s filmography, and more evidence of a great, aspiring actor and director (check out The Indian Runner and Into the Wild). I admit that I really enjoy these prison films, and although this one tends to follow conventions, what makes it different is the fact that it’s set in a juvenile detention centre, there’s more of a sense of vulnerability and sympathy and a loss of innocence. What results is a great storyline and characters that are ultimately better than any Bad Boys buddy cop movie, and an indictment of a legal system that treats its children inmates like animals (I see no reason at all for any child to be in four weeks of solitary, let alone solitary at all; it’s the worst punishment I can think of that’s legal). I think things have changed since 1983, at least I hope so, but it’s still very eye-opening and really engaging viewing. I highly recommend it.