Reviews of four ”juvenile delinquent” movies on video
Juvenile delinquents — those snarling, incorrigible bad seeds — belong in reformatories until they learn the error of their ways. Or do they? Over the decades, moviemakers have tried to address that very question. Sleepers (1996, Warner, R, priced for rental), just out on video, is a cautionary tale (from the controversial book by Lorenzo Carcaterra) about the perils of punishment, the moral dangers of redressing every crime with the same force. Unfortunately, the movie dramatizes said moral dangers at the same time it delivers the lurid details of reform-school sadism with a suspicious degree of enthusiasm.
Sleepers is not the only film to question punishment as a one-size-fits-all answer to social problems. Indeed, as several movies available for home viewing attest, there stands a long history behind the struggle to define where innocence ends and culpability begins.
In Michael Curtiz’s Angels with Dirty Faces (1938, CBS/FoxVideo, unrated, $19.98), only an epic battle could determine which way the Dead End Kids would go. The archetypes arm-wrestling for their souls are bad guy Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney) and good guy Father Connolly (Pat O’Brien), once boyhood pals on New York’s Lower East Side. Reform school hardened Rocky’s resolve as well as his heart: It’s too late to save him, but Father Connolly has hopes for his flock of wayward boys. Of course, it’s hard not to root for Cagney, whose fascinating toughness is far more alluring than any do-gooder’s piety. So the boys’ final turnaround seems less determined by the father’s righteousness than by the old Hays Code’s stipulation that in movies at least, crime must never pay.
Half a century later, Hollywood could more freely explore (or exploit) the subtleties, brutalities, and hypocrisies of juvenile detention, but you’d never know it by watching Shout (1991, MCA/Universal, PG-13, $14.98). Set in 1950s Texas at the Benedict Home for Boys, Jeffrey Hornaday’s drama ends up more sentimental than even 1938’s Boys Town (home of Father Flanagan and ”there is no such thing as a bad boy”). Music teacher Jack Cabe (John Travolta, before his Pulp Fiction resurrection) arrives at the home offering salvation in the form of rock & roll — against the wishes of the cruelly strict warden, Mr. Benedict. Young miscreant Jesse Tucker (James Dean look-alike James Walters) naturally digs the sounds. These are stereotypes, not archetypes, and the movie amounts to cornpone from a box mix.
One movie that balances graphic violence with thoughtful dialogue, however, is director Rick Rosenthal’s Bad Boys (1983, Republic, R, $14.98), which holds out little hope of redemption for its characters. They are simply caught in a rising twister of violence that may or may not set them down somewhere better than the Rainford Juvenile Correctional Facility. Sean Penn and Esai Morales face off as rival teenage crooks who get sent down to the same lockup; it’s like putting two hungry tigers in a cage together.
Elements of all three disparate takes on youthful misdeeds combine uneasily in Barry Levinson’s overwrought Sleepers. Here, a quartet of Hell’s Kitchen boys, whose main crime is lack of judgment, suffer ordeals in a juvenile home that turn them into men who will do anything for revenge (Jason Patric, Brad Pitt, Billy Crudup, and Ron Eldard). Pitt becomes a lawyer who risks his career to punish those who took unspeakable advantage of him; he’s a major asset to the movie’s credibility, and it certainly needs all the help it can get, given that the characters actually utter phrases like ”loss of innocence” and ”It’s payback time.”
A major liability is the contrived amalgam of elements: Angels‘ kindly priest (Robert De Niro); Bad‘s vile juvenile prison, replete with sadistic guard (a scary Kevin Bacon), rape, and terror; and Shout‘s essentially good-hearted kids. Even more troubling, the movie plays up stunning camera angles over human anguish. Lost somewhere beneath Sleepers‘ overreaching is a simple story, the kind every juvenile delinquent might tell — the truth. Sleepers: C+; Angels With Dirty Faces: A-; Bad Boys: A-; Shout: D-