Movies We Like
After Sean Penn’s solid supporting performance in Taps (as the sensitive guy, opposite Tom Cruise’s hothead), his now legendary scene stealing turn as stoner Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and then his work as Chicago juvenile delinquent Mick O’Brien in Bad Boys, Rolling Stone Magazine put him on the cover at the age of 23 and called him, “the next James Dean.” Since Dean only starred in three features, it's his cultural impact and dying young status that still make him a household name today. Dean also showed himself to be a gifted actor and it’s fascinating to imagine what his career would have been like had he not died so young. Penn has lived past those three early films (to some people’s surprise). He has had a long and eclectic filmography, with moments of pure acting brilliance (Carlito’s Way, Dead Man Walking, Sweet and Lowdown), while some critics have accused him of sometimes being a hammy overactor (I Am Sam, All The King’s Men, Mystic River). Either way the guy is easily a first-ballet hall-of-famer.
In addition to being a good jumping off point for any study of the truth and beauty in Penn’s acting, director Rick Rosenthal's Bad Boys is, for my money, the best American juvenile detention center flick. (Internationally you would have to add the British film Scum and Brazil's Pixote.) By 1983 Hollywood had only a spotty record grappling with teen crime flicks (the best at this point was Over The Edge) and Bad Boys sometimes feels a little overwrought with its occasional After School Special moments. On the other-hand it’s shockingly bleak and the violence is pretty brutal. Both teen prisons and the mean streets of Chicago are places full of predators - kill or be killed. Though Bad Boys doesn’t hit the exploitation highs of Class of 1984, it’s certainty much harder hitting and believable than most of the other teen dramas of its era.
Penn’s long-haired O’Brien is a petty purse snatcher, though his girlfriend, J.C. (a pre-Breakfast Club Ally Sheedy), seems to come from a nice family. O’Brien, on the other hand, has to go home to a mother taking baths with truckers while he sits in his crappy room and listens to Billy Squier. He gets involved in a caper to rob a rival teen criminal, Paco (the excellent Esai Morales who would go on to excel as Ritchie Valen’s no-good brother in the music bio pic La Bamba), but it goes wrong and O’Brien accidentally kills Paco’s innocent little brother. So he’s sent off to juvie while Paco plots his revenge. In the pokey he gets a cute little goofball cellmate, Barry Horowitz (Eric Gurry channeling Woody Allen), but the place is run by two super creep black & white teens, Lofgren (the always reliable Clancy Brown) and Tweety (Robert Lee Rush). They extort, beat and kill their fellow inmates (and Tweety is a little rapey) with what appears to be the guards' full permission. That is until they try to go after O’Brien. He meets them with a pillowcase full of full Pepsi cans, beating them to pulps, and thus taking over their status as prison top dog.
Meanwhile back in Chicago (apparently no relationship to that '80s city where teens frolicked in those John Hughes movies) Paco sadistically rapes and beats J.C. which pushes O’Brien to escape for some cuddle time. O’Brien returns to his rule in kid prison, but in a great twist, his nemesis Paco is sent to the same jail (none of the other detention centers have room for him) and then he teams up with Lofgren to bring him down. The intensity grows and everyone assumes the new super villain team will win, but after Lofgren gets hurt trying to boogie to some Little River Band, it becomes a one-on-one fight, leading to a final all out brawl with very little redemption, similar to the end of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes in tone.
There really is nothing likable about O’Brien, not much to root for other than the fact that he seems kinda sensitive about his girlfriend. But Penn has a natural vulnerability in his sad eyes that does elicit sympathy. It really is Penn’s powerhouse, often stoic, performance that makes Bad Boys such a winner. There is no hint of the comic chops from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, it’s all brooding intensity here, which he would continue to establish later in the decade with performances in At Close Range, Colors, The Falcon and The Snowman, and Casualties of War, all flawed but interesting films. For me, a kid who worshipped the method acting chops of Dean and Marlon Brando, Penn reigned in the '80s, along with Gary Oldman, Nicholas Cage, Mickey Rourke and Eric Roberts, as the actors of their generation. Oldman is still a master on the occasions when it seems to be more than just a paycheck, but the others seemed to have mostly become parodies of themselves. Penn, on the other hand, is still very significant. And even when he's hamming it up, he is incredibly watchable.