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It's not often that a feature film focuses on the curious art of graffiti---in fact, writer/director Adam Bhala Lough's Bomb the System (2002) was the first in over 20 years. Shot on location in Brooklyn, New York, Bomb the System follows the exploits of Anthony "Blest" Campo (Mark Webber - Whiteboyz, Storytelling) and company as they attempt to literally leave their mark on the city. They've been practicing the art for several years now, stealing their supplies from local businesses and (mostly) avoiding run-ins with the cops and other territorial groups of artists. Outside of their graffiti---typically done at night, for obvious reasons---their daily routines include hanging out, smoking weed, drinking and just barely holding down day jobs. It's done in the tradition of Wild Style and Beat Street, focusing on just one side of the story instead of the broader picture.
I may sound like my parents for saying this, but it's incredibly tough to root for these guys. I've never understood the shallow mentality of vandalism in any form, and Bomb the System simply attempts to glorify those who practice it. Sure, there's crime on both sides of the coin, including the early murder of Campo's brother and the violent reaction of a cop who thwarts the shoplifting attempts of "Lune" (a member of Campo's group). Even so, the self-absorbed behavior of the main characters may turn off any and all viewers looking for a multi-faceted portrait of the graffiti subculture, fiction or real. The fact that it's not an actual documentary ultimately works against it, since the gritty atmosphere seems much less believable when you realize it's all just part of the show.
Since the underlying themes of Bomb the System don't exactly make me overly sympathetic for "Blest" or his fellow artists, the film is easier to appreciate on a technical level than it is to actually enjoy. Needless to say, those accustomed to happy endings and moral high ground should look elsewhere: while Bomb the System doesn't abuse its characters half as much as, say, Requiem for a Dream, it's still tough to find a shred of genuine optimism by the time the credits roll. Even worse, though, is the film's tendency to often drift into shallow preachiness when it's taking a break from promoting the opposite. On an unrelated note, this is a film that relies more on character interaction than plot to tell a story---so don't come expecting a cohesive narrative and Bomb the System may be easier to digest.
Even so, the highlights in the film are often as easy to spot as the drawbacks. The visual flair on display here is a true standout, treading the lines of flash and substance with energy to spare. Lough's eye for composition and color are on par with his subjects' work, transforming Bomb the System from a standard "day in the life of" picture to a quasi-artistic statement in itself. The terrific score (assembled by Definitive Jux artist El-P) is another highlight which may just elevate Bomb the System into a cult favorite by itself. Though the weaker plot makes this film a bit tough to swallow at times, the acting is convincing and strong for the most part. Case in point: while I couldn't empathize with the characters, the talents of Mark Webber, Jaclyn DeSantis (as Campo's girlfriend, Alexandra), Gano Grills and Jade Yorker (as brothers "Buk 50" and "Lune") are highly evident, to name a few. Other supporting performances---especially by the police officers, for example---tend to feel a bit too over-the-top, though it may just be due to the one-sided nature of the story.
The whole may not add up to more than the sum of its parts, but Bomb the System is still an interesting experiment---but whether or not the experiment is up your alley is another matter entirely. While it's certainly taken its time to reach us, Palm Pictures presents Bomb the System on DVD in a decent package than die-hard fans should appreciate. Like the film itself, it's certainly not without its faults, though the strengths of the disc are just as easy to spot. This one-disc release features a decent technical presentation and a few interesting extras, though it's ultimately a little tough to recommend as a blind buy. Let's see how this one stacks up, shall we?
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality:
Gritty and eye-catching, the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is pleasing but not perfect. The color palette is all over the place (though this is certainly intentional), while the DVD showcases the raw and stunning visuals quite well. No major digital problems were spotted, save for a bit of interlacing (especially noticeable during the quicker transitions, though it's not terribly distracting).
The audio is also strong, presenting the film in a clean, immersive 5.1 Surround mix that gets the job done nicely (there's also an optional 2.0 mix included). There's obviously a lot of music on display during this film, with each of the mixes displaying fine separation and ambience. Dialogue is clear and easy to understand, while the disc includes Closed Captioning support but no optional subtitles.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging:
The anamorphic widescreen menus are stylish but practical, allowing for smooth and easy navigation. This 93-minute film has been divided into 18 chapters, with no layer change detected during playback. The packaging is another highlight, as this one-disc release is housed in a clear keepcase that showcases appropriate double-sided "graffiti" artwork and includes a fold-out poster.
First up are four Deleted Scenes (13 minutes total), two of which feature Ajay Naidu and more screen time for Kumar Pallana (Rushmore, The Terminal). There's also the raw video footage of graffiti writing by "Blest" and "Buk50" called Video Graf---though it's nothing new, it's nice to have in its original form. Up next are a series of Interviews with Lee, SEMZ and BONZ (19 minutes total), though the Behind the Scenes clips that follow are more interesting. Included are at least two dozen short sequences that highlight interesting things that happened during production, from a unique look at the "studio" to a clip of The "Original" Bobby Cox accidentally breaking his ankle on the set. There's also a bit of footage from the Wildstyle 20th Year Reunion party and some words from DJ Spooky and others. Winding down the extras are a pair of Trailers for the film (the traditional US trailer and an alternate) and a few Previews for other Palm Pictures releases, including the second wave of Directors Series discs. Overall, the bonus features are a bit lacking in substance but they're worth a once-over.
There's no doubt that Bomb the System will grab your attention, but the nature (and structure) of the story alone may not be able to hold it. Even so, Adam Bhala Lough's feature film debut is a tough one to ignore on the surface, so interested parties should consider checking it out. The DVD from Palm Pictures isn't without its share of strengths, but the lack of more substantial bonus features doesn't offer Bomb the System the support it needs to win casual fans over. Even so, it's a package that has a few things going for it---so give it a weekend spin and judge for yourselves. Rent It.
Randy Miller III is a moderately affable art instructor based in Harrisburg, PA, who also enjoys freelance graphic design and illustration. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.