Taylor Hackford’s Bound by Honor is an attempt to inflate B-movie passions to an epic scale. Set over a 12-year period (beginning in 1972), this lurid, propulsive, 2-hour-50-minute melodrama traces the intertwined fortunes of three Hispanic toughs who have been raised in the inflammatory criminal culture of East L.A. Taught from a young age that white middle-class society has no use for them, they are ruled by demons of their own devising: the blood oaths and vindictive macho codes that keep them chained to a life of violence. In this world of hypercharged romantic fatalism, the only thing that makes a man worthy of respect is his willingness to die.
Essentially, this is a vintage Hollywood underworld picture dressed up in contemporary gang colors. Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman) stages the action with a ripped-from-the-headlines immediacy, but his delinquent characters are as flat and easy-to-read as those in any ’30s tabloid melodrama. Two are half brothers: the handsome, hotheaded Paco (Benjamin Bratt) and Cruz (Jesse Borrego), an artist who has begun to win attention for his spray-painted photorealist murals. The pair’s antisocial tendencies are ignited by the appearance of Miklo (Damian Chapa), their half-white cousin, who has emerged from 18 months in prison. Miklo considers himself a pure- souled Hispanic, even if he looks about as ”ethnic” as one of the James Dean clones on Beverly Hills, 90210.
A skirmish with a local gang soon blasts the trio apart. Paco repents and becomes an undercover cop, chasing down drug dealers — and, eventually, Miklo — with a straight-arrow fanaticism that mirrors his recklessness as a delinquent. The gentle Cruz gets his own gallery show, only to commence a 10-year slide into heroin addiction. It’s Miklo’s story that takes center stage. Convicted of murder, he is sent up to San Quentin, where he establishes himself in La Honda, a cultish Hispanic prison gang with the motto ”Blood in, blood out” (meaning that the only way into the gang is to murder one of its enemies).
Bound by Honor comes fully alive when it moves behind bars. There’s an exploitative thrill built into the genre — all those bald, burly convicts sporting tattoos the size of your head — but Hackford also knows how to lay out the squalid, byzantine workings of prison society. Tormented by his mixed heritage, Miklo finally takes over the leadership of La Honda, becoming the film’s pulp version of Michael Corleone, a man driven to violence by his need to prove that he’s a full-blooded member of his tribal ”family.”
Bound by Honor is alternately forceful and meandering. Hackford was clearly going for a movie of operatic, cathartic dimension, an inner-city epic with the power to wound and to heal. Unfortunately, the mostly unknown cast is at best earnest, too often anonymous. What the movie needed was the kind of dark explosion of star temperament that Sean Penn brought to 1983’s Bad Boys. Still, give Hackford this: He does a vivid job of taking you places you may not think you’d want to go. B-