The blandly-titled Bad Boys is penned by Richard Di Lello, whose other works, if not ignored at release, have since been forgotten. His main character is 16-year-old Mick O’Brien (the 22-year-old Sean Penn), the kind of hood Fonzie never had the cojones to be. He spends his adolescent hours away from his sleep-around mother and her “friends” thieving women and assaulting all witnesses.
But it’s when Mick inadvertently strikes and kills a rival’s little brother with a stolen car that he lands himself in Rainford Juvenile Correctional Facility, where he gets the fresh fish treatment from Viking (Clancy Brown) and Tweety (Robert Lee Rush), two lugs with great hair. Mick, at first mute to others, takes his sensitive, firebombing cellmate Horowitz (Eric Gurry) under his ruffled wing.
On the outside, Mick’s rival, Paco (Esai Morales) exacts vengeance on the rumble fish by raping his girlfriend, J.C. (Ally Sheedy, in her debut), leading to his own incarceration in Rainford, which Mick has since climbed the ranks of.
Bad Boys, from here, is a steady 40-minutes buildup to an anticlimactic scuffle on the dingy dormitory floor. We know, perhaps from the first twenty minutes, this was coming and who will come out on top. We’re expected to take Mick’s final judgement in the fight as an arc, even though it’s a decision he’d likely have made before being locked up.
This is a picture that, not wanting to be lumped as exploitation, depends on its leads. Penn, whose previous role was as stoner Jeff Spicoli in Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, makes his bones as a serious actor here, while the supporting cast of young talent stops short of implanting their names. Gurry, as Horowitz, reminds us of Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause, while Sheedy (who wouldn’t leave a mark for another two years in John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club) has a certain Jennifer Jason Leigh quality.
Whether director Rick Rosenthal (Halloween II) was inspired by S.E. Hinton isn’t a question. Bad Boys, part prison drama/part revenge flick, has enough class/teenage angst and moral dilemma for Ponyboy and his gang to last a dozen more novels.