Starting in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen in the 60s, where four young friends (Brad Renfro and Jonathan Tucker among them) attempt to pull a prank on a hot dog vendor commandeering his cart, a stunt that proves fatal and will change the boys forever. Found guilty of reckless endangerment, they are sent to a reform school, where they are under the rule of a cabal of sadistic and perverted guards. The guards are headed by the repugnant Kevin Bacon, who leads his crew in mental, physical, and sexual abuse on the boys. Cut to 1981 (in a film containing enough plot for one film already), and the boys have never gotten over their brief but torturous stay at reform school. Two of them (now played by Ron Eldard and Billy Crudup) have become petty crims who encounter Bacon (in a major contrivance) in a restaurant one night, and take out their revenge on him. Childhood buddies Brad Pitt and Jason Patric take an interest in the events, with Pitt now a DA planning on prosecuting his former buddies, but with a hidden agenda. He plans on getting his buddies off the charges, and in the process, nailing their former tormentors once and for all. Patric, now a journalist is aware of the plan, as are two other friends from the old neighbourhood; local girl Minnie Driver (who has strong bonds with several of them boys), and father figure priest Father Bobby (Robert De Niro), who will do anything for his boys within the limits set out to him by his religion (Gee, do you think those limits are going to be tested at some point?). Dustin Hoffman plays the Defence lawyer, a drug-abusing, erratic sort, who is nonetheless competent.
Supposedly based on a true story by Lorenzo Carcaterra (and based on his book), this 1996 Barry Levinson (“Diner”, “Good Morning, Vietnam”, “Rain Man”) film strains credibility from about a quarter of the way in, and never recovers. It’s a classic case of just because something is based on truth, doesn’t make it in and of itself believable. This despite fine performances by Bacon and De Niro, and enjoyably (if jarringly) showy work by Hoffman. Nice small turns by veteran Italian actor-director Vittorio Gassman (as a neighbourhood mob guy), and Terry Kinney (as Bacon’s right-hand man) too. The story is just too contrived and unbelievable as presented here, the central conceit of the court case is truly ridiculous, and it is no wonder that many are sceptical about Carcaterra’s adherence to fact. As for the other performers, Patric is serviceable enough, but Pitt is pretty underwhelming, Driver as bad as I’ve always found her to be, and Crudup and Eldard might as well not have bothered turning up for all they get to chew on. Department store mannequins could have done their jobs.
Somehow it remains entirely watchable, if sometimes unpleasant in subject matter. The early scenes are easily the best in the film, even though they sometimes cover material similar to that in the early passages of “Goodfellas”. If the film focused on these, and the juvenile prison scenes, throwing away the court stuff, the film might’ve been better for it. I’m not sure how they’d end it, but at least it wouldn’t seem so contrived and jam-packed with plot. Scripted by the director, based on Carcaterra’s controversial novel, this one just doesn’t quite come off like you’d wish for.