Sean Penn is a great actor. A lot of people don’t think he’s a great person, but I don’t care about that. In the early 80s, while the actors of the “Brat Pack” were making lightly comic dramas aimed at teen audiences, Penn dipped his toes in those waters once (as Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High) and then continued on a career of mostly intense, serious roles, making one indelible performance after another. His big screen debut was in Taps, where he easily held his own with Oscar winner Timothy Hutton, his scene-stealing role of Spicoli came next, and then this film, a taut, violent crime drama in which he plays a tough stickup kid sent to an even tougher juvenile detention center.
After some introductory sequences designed to let us know who the main characters are – Penn as Mick O’Brien, Ally Sheedy as his girlfriend J.C., Esai Morales as the equally tough Paco Moreno (his nemesis, of course) – the film moves into the tightly constructed suspense of a drug deal gone very wrong. Penn and his friend intend to watch the deal go down, then hold up the people walking away with the cash. But things go south fast, people die – one at Penn’s hand, albeit unintentionally – and O’Brien ends up in the rehabilitation facility where he’ll spend the rest of the film. Here we are introduced to a new cast of characters – O’Brien’s cellmate Horowitz (Eric Gurry), and the pair of toughs who run the center, Tweety and The Viking (Robert Lee Rush and Clancy Brown) – and Penn has to quickly learn the ropes of how things work in the center. There are adult supervisors there whose admixtures of toughness, world-weariness, and sympathy toward the youths give them a very tenuous control of the facility. But the real deal is in how things are run from the inside, and the film gives a fairly unblinking look at the black market of the institution and the violence that underpins things, all right under the adults’ noses. But it also sees the way that friendships are formed under these circumstances, the crippling lack of education, of resources, that keeps many of the youth locked in the place rather than pulling themselves up in Horatio Alger fashion. But it’s no 50s “social problem” film, bemoaning these poor wayward youth. It doesn’t linger on moralistic hand-wringing. The film, like the adults in it, has sympathy for the people it’s showing us and that’s where its heart lies.
There is, of course, a third act in which through an implausible set of circumstances Paco Moreno ends up in the same facility as O’Brien and then traces through to its inevitable showdown between them. And there are those who criticize this facet of the film, but I don’t find it troubling at all – it’s earned rather than tacked on, and the care with which it has drawn out the prison life and the people within it makes the final act feel real, even if it’s something we’ve probably seen before in other films. I should also note that the film takes great care with its younger actors – there isn’t a performance here that isn’t spot-on – but as with so many films focused on youth it doesn’t spend a lot of time getting to know its adults. Again for me it doesn’t matter; the film is fantastic at drawing us a realistic portrait of its prison life, a world where the adults are ostensibly in control, but only containing the chaos of the interior world by the barest of margins. And it also gives us a plethora of fantastic performances, most notably one of Sean Penn’s best early roles. And again, while many of his contemporaries gave us light entertainment through the rest of the decade, Penn turned in one great acting job after another – in Colors, in At Close Range, in Casualties of War, in The Falcon and the Snowman, in Racing With the Moon. It would be over 20 years before the Academy would award his work with a statuette for Mystic River. But it’s this film and others of the era that contain some of his best work.
- Patrick Brown