The one genre of film that I resist more than any other is prison films, and that might be largely due to the impression that Bad Boys made on me during my youth. When I was first discovering the wide range of movies offered by the premium movie channels to which I gained access as a 12-year-old, Bad Boys was brand new, deadly serious and incredibly frightening. Although I watched this juvenile incarceration drama multiple times during those early years, it instilled in me a visceral aversion to prison that has grown over the decades to include displeasure at the mere idea of vicariously experiencing a fictional prison setting for two hours. As usual, my subconscious resistance to certain subjects is only a superficial roadblock, and once I force myself past that hurdle I have little trouble appreciating a prison film on its own merits. Bad Boys joins several other prison-set movies which I've avoided for decades and have been forced to confront as part of the greater PopGap project, and some of them have become favorites, like Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped, Jacques Audiard's A Prophet, Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion, and the Paul Newman classic Cool Hand Luke. Bad Boys doesn't quite hit those heights of prison drama, but it's a solid effort with strong performances by a young cast.
Sean Penn, a year after playing iconic airhead Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, boxes out his turf as the most serious young movie star in Hollywood by playing a burgeoning teenage thief who lands behind bars after an attempt to rob a Chicago gang results in several deaths. After a rough adjustment period, as he learns to negotiate the power structure of a hardcore juvenile corrections facility, Penn faces trouble from a new inmate harboring a personal grudge against him.
Bad Boys, like many of its characters, straddles the line between gritty adult drama and tepid "after school" melodrama, but director Rick Rosenthal — whose previous movie was the disappointing Halloween 2 — keeps it from spending too much energy on the latter. His handling of the emotional moments is restrained, the overall look of the film capably balances gritty realism with a larger visual scope than expected, and a few scenes that might have been ordinary are fraught with tension. There are too many coincidences in the plotting of Bad Boys, but Penn and the rest of the good young cast play their roles with such a quiet sincerity that they sell the movie's most implausible moments with little trouble. Esai Morales, Ally Sheedy, Clancy Brown, Eric Gurry all make an impression as promising talents (Gurry left acting to earn a law degree and become a venture capitalist), while Alan Ruck chalks up his first film appearance. Bill Conti supplies a typically anemic score, giving the film a more-maudlin tone than perhaps it deserves.
Bad Boys was brought to the Potluck Film Fest by Ty Tag. He ranks it on his Flickchart at #97 / 2838 (97%), where it's his favorite Prison Movie out of 17. It ranked on my Flickchart at #1077 (73%), making it #9 out of the 25 Prison Films on my Flickchart, and the second-highest ranking of the 10 movies Ty has brought to the Potluck Film Festival so far this year.