Bad Boys (1983) (Blu-ray)
Before Oz, there was Bad Boys. Tom Fontana’s HBO series may have taken prison life to Shakespearean heights (or depths) of passion and revenge, but this 1983 low-budget cult classic was one of the first attempts to find serious drama in what had generally been deemed exploitation material. Credit is due less to Richard Di Lello’s script, which relies on too many cliches and coincidences, than to Rick Rosenthal’s understated direction and a remarkable cast of mostly young actors, many of whom went on to substantial careers.
Note: This is the film’s full-length theatrical cut, not the truncated 104-minute version initially released on DVD in 1999.
Film Length: 123 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: AVC
Audio: DTS-HD MA 2.0
Subtitles: English, English SDH, Spanish, French*
Disc Format: 1 25GB
Theatrical Release Date: Mar. 25, 1983
Blu-ray Release Date: Feb. 1, 2011
*Though not listed on the Blu-ray case, this subtitle option is included on the disc.
Teenage Mick O’Brien (Sean Penn, in the role that sealed his reputation as a major acting talent) is a Chicago street punk doing “smash and grab” robberies. Violence comes naturally to him, and he never gives his victims a second thought. He lives with a single mom (Fran Stone), who’s too busy with her own social life to care what her son does. The only person to whom O’Brien shows any emotion is his girlfriend, J.C. (Ally Sheedy, pre-Breakfast Club), who sees something worthwhile in Mick, even though her father warns her to stay away.
Another tough guy from the same neighborhood is Paco Moreno (Esai Morales, best known today as a police lieutenant on NYPD Blue). Moreno does have a father in the picture, but he’s ashamed of him for being unemployed. Determined to become the family breadwinner, Moreno has put together a major drug deal, but what he doesn’t know is that O’Brien’s friend Carl (Alan Ruck, Ferris Bueller’s best friend) has learned about the deal and decided to rip it off, with Mick’s help. Chaos ensues, and O’Brien is arrested and sentenced to the Rainford juvenile facility.
Rainford has its routines, its hierarchy and its colorful characters. One of the most entertaining is O’Brien’s roommate in the “dormitory” for hardcore offenders, Horowitz (Eric Gurry). A pint-size sociopath and borderline genius, Horowitz burned down a bowling alley and killed three people after some jocks beat him up for talking to their girls. He’s routinely pushed around by the two inmates who run this particular dorm, Tweety (Robert Lee Rush) and “Viking” Lofgren (Clancy Brown, who has worked steadily since, including as Brother Justin on Carnivàle). Sensing that O’Brien may be his best weapon against these two bosses, Horowitz incites a challenge, but Mick is reluctant – until Tweety and Lofgren cause the death of another kid. Then O’Brien takes them on.
Outside, Paco Moreno is seeking revenge against O’Brien. First, he targets J.C., whom he knows from school (which he apparently visits from time to time). When those actions land him in police custody, Moreno is sent to Rainford, where, as luck and Screenwriting 101 would have it, he’s placed in the same hardcore dormitory as O’Brien. A showdown is only a matter of time. Peretti (Dean Fortunato), the inmate who runs the cigarette franchise, starts taking bets, and the odds favor Moreno.
The essential question in Bad Boys is whether Mick O’Brien can be redeemed. His crimes are terrible, but there are people who see something in him that’s worth saving. J.C. is one; another is a counsellor at Rainford, a former gang member named Herrera (the reliable Reni Santoni, a Dirty Harry veteran); a third is Rainford’s teacher of remedial reading, Daniels (Fame’s Jim Moody). Director Rosenthal and the supporting cast do a lot to keep the story interesting while the elements align that will put O’Brien to the ultimate test, but the film wouldn’t be worth watching without a lead performance that could believably go either way. Sean Penn was in his early twenties when he filmed Bad Boys, and as the director says on the commentary track, there were few (if any) actors of that age who could have pulled off the critical scenes, in most of which O’Brien says little or nothing. Portraying that kind of moral conflict before the relentless eye of the movie camera requires concentration “at the cellular level” (as a fellow actor would say of Penn many years later).
(On the commentary, director Rosenthal relates with obvious relish how Penn’s confidence got a boost when, during a “ride along” with the Chicago Police Department that he and Penn undertook for research, a burly Chicago cop mistook Penn for a gang member and slammed him against a wall. The cop spent the rest of the night being mercilessly ribbed by his fellow officers for protecting them from a Hollywood actor, but actor and director took it as a sign that Penn could be convincing as O’Brien.)
Bad Boys never made any money, but it became something of a cult favorite because of the quality of the performances from Penn and the supporting cast. They’re the reason it holds up today, despite some of the script contrivances and the budgetary constraints.
Bad Boys presents a challenge for home video, and this Blu-ray is a mixed bag. The movie was shot with what was then a newly developed film stock designed for fast exposure in dark conditions, which director Rosenthal and his two DPs wanted for the many night scenes. The resulting image had deep blacks but also more noticeable grain. On the 2001 DVD from Anchor Bay, it was very obvious that the image had been scrubbed clean by DNR.
Lionsgate issued Bad Boys on DVD in 2008, but I have not seen that disc. Posters at Amazon claim that it’s the same transfer used by Anchor Bay, which seems unlikely, given the passage of seven years, but in any case, the transfer on this Blu-ray, while almost certainly not the same as the 2001 Anchor Bay version, has visibly been subjected to grain and noise reduction. The digital manipulation is most readily seen in brightly lit shots dominated by whites. An example occurs at time mark 22:06, where a vehicle brings Mick to the juvenile facility; it’s raining and foggy, but it’s hard to distinguish rain from fog, because what you see on your screen is a field of frozen grain patterns. Robert Harris has called this sort of thing “hanging grain”, and it greatly simplifies the compressionist’s job, which is essential when, as here, the publisher has opted to present a two-hour film on a BD-25.
It must be said, though, that the bulk of the film doesn’t suffer unduly. The grain reduction has been done lightly enough so that fine detail remains intact in all but a handful of scenes. We certainly never get any of the “wax dummy” phenomenon familiar from more extreme abuses of digital tools (and believe me, I was looking). With the exception of occasional shots where digital processing has frozen the film’s grain into unnatural patterns, the image remains natural and finely detailed, with good blacks and colors that are appropriate to the source material, which is to say that most of the time they’re urban and dingy. I expected to be disappointed with this Blu-ray, but for the bulk of the running time I was pleasantly surprised.
If Bad Boys were made today, even with a low budget, the prison environment would be alive with clanging doors, distant voices, footsteps and other sounds of life at Rainford. But it’s a 1983 film, and even with a DTS lossless presentation, the stereo track doesn’t offer much in the way of a surround environment. The voices are clear, and the various sounds recorded on set and added in post-production to tell the story are conveyed effectively, but the mix remains anchored to the center. The exception is Bill Conti’s score, which is one of my personal favorites because it’s relatively understated from a composer not known for subtlety. The score gets a decent soundstage across the front three speakers and sounds better than I’ve ever heard it.
Commentary with Director Rick Rosenthal. Rosenthal is a lively and entertaining speaker. This was his second film after Halloween 2 (Jamie Lee Curtis has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo), and he was clearly excited by the change of pace. He speaks at length about the casting process (both Kevin Bacon and Tom Cruise auditioned for the role of Mick), research with the Chicago PD, finagling to get his preferred steadicam operator, working with the production designer and two different cinematographers, shutting down production for eight weeks after Penn broke an ankle during a stunt, and the agonies of releasing a film that he knew was good but wasn’t supported by a major ad budget. Rosenthal also points out the shot where a cameraman is plainly visible; most viewers don’t notice, because your focus is on a weapon in the foreground. Toward the end of the commentary, he notes his displeasure with the fact that Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson were allowed to buy the rights to the title for their 1995 film starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence.
Trailers. The film’s theatrical trailer is included as a separate extra in standard definition, enhanced for 16:9. At startup the disc plays trailers for The Doors on Blu-ray, Apocalypse Now on Blu-ray, Buried, Rabbit Hole and Biutiful. These can be skipped with the chapter forward button and are also available from the special features menu.
Bad Boys has had a tough time on home video. It’s been cut, DNR’d, and now squashed onto a BD-25. Still, it looks better than it ever has, and this is probably the best it’s going to look for a long time.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS-HD MA decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub
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