Thanks to the musical explosion circa 1977, the term "punk" has lost most of its original meaning. Mention the word, and instantly clichéd images of mowkawked heads and safety pin piercings enter the conversation. Go a couple of steps further, and you're destined to hear "Emo" and pop-laced acts like Green Day referenced with such a tag. Yet prior to the Ramone-ing of the planet, a punk was merely a juvenile delinquent, a good for nothing adolescent who embodied the Sex Pistols' "No Future" following without resorting to a proto-pogo spit-launching ideology. It's this type of teen loser that sits at the center of American Punks, Mike Pacitto's feature film debut that took two years to make, and went through a couple of name changes (X-tinct, Generation X-tinct) before finally making it on DVD. Sadly, it may have not been worth the wait, considering what's up on the screen.
When Bobby Tilton discovers his best buddy murdered in a local diner, the pissed off punk vows revenge. While police detective Holmes believe the young tough may be responsible, our unemployed hood believes differently. Seems that a few hours before, the pair pranked a piece of Yuppie trash named Thunder Goldberg, and now all Bobby is seeing is dead suburban scum. He blames the arrogant real estate broker for his friend's death. He tries to get his gang of pot smoking pals to help him out, but when a planned retaliation turns fatal, it's up to the disaffected youth to handle matters on his own. Turning to a local drug lord, Bobby wants a gun, the better to pay Goldberg back for what he (supposedly) did. Little does he know, but the dope peddler actually offed his companion over a bad debt, and is now maneuvering to do the same with Bobby.
In indie filmmaking, there's a clear connection between ambition and amateurishness. We scribes are constantly admonished to "write what they know" and to "narrow the scope" of our ideas. These are two clear mandates that writer/director Mike Pacitto should have taken to heart, considering the sprawling senselessness of this crude urban crime spree. Relying on the unhinged performance of lead actor Mike Passion, and some internal irony that just doesn't gel (the lead police officer's name is...John Holmes), the Michigan-based moviemaker constantly exceeds the boundaries of his abilities. You can just tell that Pacitto was influenced by B-movie bullocks such as Deadbeat at Dawn and The Warriors. In fact, there is really nothing new about detached youth drugging and defying their life away in search of a purpose that may never ever come. But Pacitto tries something slightly different here. He wants us to really root for Bobby, to see him as a social misfit kept down by a rule of law that doesn't take into consideration his nowhere man reality. After a while, it becomes a hard bill of exploitative goods to swallow.
One things for sure - Passion thinks he is giving the greatest performance of this life. Given free reign to interpret the craven character any way he wants, our thesp goes gonzo and never really returns to Earth. There are moments in his turn where you wonder what he was thinking - or better yet, if Pacitto actually scripted all those simian slang racial slurs. At other instances, Passion brings an honesty to Bobby that's hard to avoid. We want to believe his entire persona is just one big blousy caricature, false bravado wrapped inside a dope smoking, beer swilling dolt. But when our anxious antihero offers a drug lord his last unemployment check in return for a gun, or lambasts a friend for turning narc, we see a real, discernible desperation, something that suggests both Pacitto and Passion know guys like this (or even more disconcerting, 'were' guys like this). While his work doesn't elevate the rest of the film - the knotty narrative never can quite figure out what it wants to be - American Punks would be barely watchable without the work of our larger than life lead.
The rest of the movie stretches to make sense. Coincidence takes the place of plotting and the police are depicted as so downright dumb that they resemble the Larry the Cable Guy of law enforcement. Thunder Goldberg has to be the biggest residual red herring this side of Scandinavia, and the rest of the retrofitted violence feels gratuitous and given over to mockery. This is the kind of movie that has one of its leads running around brandishing a starter's pistol as a weapon of mass destruction while utilizing found locations as drab as the dramatics themselves. Perhaps had Pacitto never ventured beyond his student film start, had he not thought to make a 90 minute movie centering on one unlikable lout's desire for unfocused revenge, we wouldn't have to suffer through stuff like American Punks. On the other hand, the given gumption here, meshed with a few minutes of brilliance from Passion, means that outright condemnation is next to impossible. Instead, get a Buick sized grain of salt and strap in for the semi-coherent ride. It's not great, but it's not completely horrendous, either.
Clearly crafted within the lo-fi side of early '90s technology, American Punks doesn't look too bad on the digital format. Granted, the night scenes are grainy as Hell, and the overall feel to the production is underfunded and underlit, but the slightly letterboxed 1.66:1 non-anamorphic image is halfway decent. The colors are dull and drab however, and the details lost in the subpar cinematography.
Though expertly recorded so that almost all the dialogue is discernible, the Dolby Digital Stereo mix offered on the American Punks DVD only comes alive when the kick-ass score by scene legends Itchy and Shock Therapy careen across the speakers. The rest of the time, the atmosphere is flat and first time feature filmmaker lifeless.
Bloody Earth Films (clearly associated with Camp Motion Pictures by the look of the logo and the rest of their advertised offerings) does a fine job of supplementing this film. The full length audio commentary featuring Pacitto and others is overloaded with dead air, but when he decides to share, the writer/director's thoughts are very telling. Also available is Passion's take on the shoot. Coming in the form of an insert essay, we learn that our lead was drunk at least 65% of the time during the making of the movie (his excuse? Nerves.). Along with outtakes and an audition reel, and a series of label trailers, this disc offers some rare, engaging insights.
Part of the problem with any film made by individuals unfamiliar with the medium is that you can literally see the mistakes manifest themselves right before your eyes. Any storyline that thinks smearing soup in someone's face is the height of anti-social behavior clearly needs remanding to a series of lessons about real life. But then nothing about American Punks is all that authentic to begin with. While not a total disaster, it doesn't have a lot to hold it together. Clearly, a Rent It will function as a properly balanced opinion. It will give fans a chance to judge the digital basics, while those who are curious can satisfy said craving without digging too deeply into their pocket. Had this movie really been about the contemporary 'cash from chaos' patrol, poseurs all putting on Sid Vicious airs, it might have been intolerable. But lurking somewhere inside this otherwise ordinary movie is a modicum of realism waiting to come out. Whether it's worth discovering remains its biggest commercial and critical challenge.
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