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Bad Boys (1983)
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by Jack Sommersby

"A Riveting Sean Penn in a Riveting Prison Drama"
4 stars

Sean Penn is remarkable in this emotionally affecting, tough-as-nails prison drama.

Infused with deep-seated emotional feeling and complexity, Bad Boys, a 1983 drama starring a pre-stardom Sean Penn as a violent juvenile delinquent, may have a familiar surface quality to it yet is far from derivative entertainment, thanks in large part to first-rate technical craftsmanship and uncommonly fine performances. What we have here is Penn's Mick O'Brien, a seventeen-year-old Chicago high-schooler whose rap sheet is infinitely more impressive than his report card: he's been brought up on charges ranging from B&E to assault with a deadly weapon only to have the charges dismissed due to his underage status. The film details how Mick -- tried and finally convicted for his unintentional running-down of an eight-year-old during a high-speed police pursuit after a drug rip-off gone bad -- transforms from a vicious criminal into a caring human being with a reawakened conscience. While I can't rightfully aver said transformation is entirely plausible, mature dialogue, Rick Rosenthal's well-calibrated direction, and Penn's phenomenal performance pretty much smooths this issue out.

Based on his mediocre direction of the deplorable Halloween 2, who would have thought Rosenthal had so much cinematic ingenuity (not to mention, heart) in him? He does what so few directors in this day and age bother with: concentrating and giving full attention to individual sequences. There's an organic clarity to each of them, as if what we're witnessing is incredibly vivid yet also entirely plausible. While one may assess the camerabatics as non-showy, they at least serve the material diligently, supporting rather than distracting from the story. Bad Boys is lean, mean, and (as former film critic Sheila Benson noted of Michael Mann's feature-film debut, Thief) having the aesthetic blunt force of a two-by-four across the solar plexus. It spares you nothing yet never comes off as exploitive, though -- just as a heavy dose of grim-faced, unflinching reality that clings and refuses to let go.

Mick is sent to an upstate juvenile facility, and the heart of the story lies in his adaptation and eventual emotional redemption therein. The place is populated by (as one of the correctional officer notes) "murderers, armed robbers, rapists, and mental defectors -- just like yourself, they've graduated top of the class.". The officer also sees fit to remind Mick, "Your crime is not that you got caught, but the crime itself.". Rather than pushing things, Bad Boys takes its time in playing things out, to give the audience ample time to get an open-minded reading on Mick. Can he be truly redeemed? Or is he going to wind up just another statistic to be written off? The outcome won't be surprising to those who've seen more than five films, but I'll bet you'll be pleasantly surprised at just how maturely the film arrives at it.

Refreshingly, Mick is treated as an actual human being, not a perfunctory plot device, and there's an undiluted pleasure in seeing a three-dimensional character emotionally change right before our eyes. (The film conjures up memories of Matt Dillon's beautiful work as the disadvantaged Oklahoma teen in 1982's Tex). Penn never overstresses the pathos within the role of Mick; he simply lays valid dramatic framework for us to identify rather than sympathize. It's really a landmark performance which works on so many levels, with astonishing emotional transitions that come and go like the wind. Penn effortlessly immerses and disappears himself into the role of Mick; but he isn't joylessly submerged in it like a halfass Method actor's dramatization -- it lives and breathes with authenticity, with the discipline and control to make it both vivid and grounded. Mick is presumed to be a sociopath incapable of change, and it's to Penn's credit that he uncovers the hidden facets of potential from within -- so much so that you come to believe he's capable of change if only he'd realize and succumb to that potential.

Of course, working strictly within this moral framework, the filmmakers would have been considerably hamstrung with making a two-hour film solely about a reformed criminal, so an undeniable plot gimmick has been added to the mix: the older brother of the child Mick killed (the charismatic Esai Morales) is implausibly sentenced to the same facility for raping Mick's girlfriend (a touching Ally Sheedy) because of (are you ready?) a logjam in admissions. The last forty-five minutes or so function solely as boilerplate material in building up to the inevitable violent confrontation between the two. The ensuing result makes for a contrived but admittedly dynamic finale.

Bad Boys is irrefutably manipulative but not insultingly so: it means to eradicate its lead character but not through entirely simplistic means. An early post-coital bedroom scene with Mick and Sheedy's J.C. is a prime example: it's Mick's true feelings for her that are stressed here, not the libidinous after-longings (which Bill Conti's evocative score lovingly accentuates). He genuinely cares for her but is too socially inclined to do the wrong thing in keeping with his rough-worn environment. Again, judgment isn't passed, just the wide-awake realization and acceptance of social circumstances and bringing-up. Mick's been reared to avenge as a rudiment of manhood regardless of the circumstances, and the point of the film is that a criminal is capable of discerning what's truly right and wrong, that dissipating a vengeful impulse is possible given that he or she is privy to acknowledging the long-range and moral consequences. Ordinarily, this would come off as preachy and maudlin; in the filmmakers' capable mitts, however, it's been developed and presented as dramatically feasible.

There isn't much room for lightness in Bad Boys -- its unsparing unpleasantness doesn't allow for it -- yet it makes for challenging and insightful entertainment for those willing to stick with it. The only form of comic relief comes in the form of young Eric Gurry, who plays Mick's techno-wizard, runt-ish Jewish cellmate. He's never entirely believable, but Gurry and Penn manage to work up such an ingratiating rapport that we're willing to buy into the character anyway. If Horowitz had been made out to be some kind of misunderstood delinquent, he would have been intolerable; luckily, he's been sharply etched as an intelligent but unscrupulous youth whose conscience easily takes a back seat when exacting murderous revenge on the bullies who pester him. It's a lip-smackingly fine portrait of the resourceful nerd who manages through brain, not brawn, to get the upper hand on his adversaries.

Bad Boys may not be everyone's cup of tea, but its refusal to sugarcoat matters makes for quite a welcome relief when far too many films gloss over the hardness of their subject matters. I can't claim you'll walk away elated after seeing it. I will, however, go on the record by claiming it a disturbing and devastating entertainment that'll floor you simply through its frankness and emotional honesty. The sheer brutality of the violence may be deemed as excessive by some, but it's no more so than the content of, say, a drunk-driving video, where the violence is simply representative of the harsh subject matter, without it being wallowed in for the sake of sensationalism. It's a very good film.

The DVD:

The immeasurable Anchor Bay Entertainment has come through with as fine a DVD transfer as possible in light of the age of the print and the mediocre cinematography. Grain and video noise are more prevalent during the night scenes (as to be expected), but the generous 1.85:1 letterboxing gives the images the chance to spatially breathe as opposed to the cropped VHS versions. The audio is a bit more varied and forceful than you'd expect from just 2.0 Dolby Digital. As for special features, a theatrical trailer is included, along with an interesting running commentary by director Rick Rosenthal, who divulges that Tom Cruise and Kevin Bacon were considered for Penn's role.

Not as good as "The Shawshank Redemption", but it's still one of the best of its sub-genre.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=3672&reviewer=327
originally posted: 01/06/03 13:01:56
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User Comments

9/13/17 morris campbell tense & brutal 4 stars
6/11/10 Mike Great film. 5 stars
4/13/09 vince great movie-I think Horowitz was in there bcuz he's dangerous despite his size, smart&evil 5 stars
3/24/07 goobs horribly brutal, redemption prison drama. I cried when the lil black kid gets raped 10/10 5 stars
2/27/07 action movie fan powerful reform school drama-exciting and riveting-entire cast is great 5 stars
2/06/07 Ken One of the best prison dramas ever. 5 stars
2/06/07 Eric P. Sean Penn is brilliant. 5 stars
12/31/05 Tanya Sean penn is always great in his movies 5 stars
9/22/05 Nick A classic 5 stars
1/31/05 Jeff Anderson The best prison drama ever made! Perfectly directed by Rick Rosenthal & acted by all!!!!!!! 5 stars
11/11/04 fdffdgfg hell yeah 5 stars
2/06/03 Arjun Gritty Realism, uncompromising, great score by Bill Conti 5 stars
1/06/03 y2mckay A hell of a lot better than that Fresh Prince/Black Knight buddy cop bullshit 4 stars
11/24/02 Charles Tatum Brutal and tough flick 5 stars
3/27/01 Jesse L Penn plays a great part. Grim reality movie. 4 stars
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  02-Apr-1983 (R)



Directed by
  Rick Rosenthal

Written by
  Richard Di Lello

  Sean Penn
  Reni Santoni
  Alan Ruck
  Esai Morales
  Clancy Brown
  Ally Sheedy

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