The Outside Looking In

Blood In Blood Out (1993, Dir. Taylor Hackford)

“Some want all the money, well,  Some want all the honey, yeah…Some want all the power, They wanna be the man of the hour” – Albert King, We All Wanna Boogie

For the past year I’ve been working with a guy named Tony. He’s a Hispanic guy, grew up in Brooklyn, still in high school, and fluent in Spanish and English. Every once in a while I’ll try to discuss films with him.  He doesn’t see a whole lot. In fact, his most recent viewing was No Strings Attached on Netflix ( which he described  as “not that funny”). However, he does believe one film to be the greatest of all time, Taylor Hackford’s East LA gang epic Blood In Blood Out. So, at his recommendation, I gave the film the three hours+ it needed and let’s just say… it was tough.

Blood In Blood Out tells the story of three half brothers growing up in East Los Angeles who’re raised in the same neighborhood but end up on very different paths. The first brother, Cruz (Jesse Borrego), becomes a renowned artist in the style of early 90s MTV graffitti. He spends most of the film in his studio, doing heroin, listening to acid jazz and painting giant murals of neon skulls. The second brother, Paco (Benjamin Bratt) is the original rebel of the group but eventually takes his stepfather’s advice and joins the marines, later becoming a police officer in the old neighborhood. The third, Miko (Damian Chapa) is given the most screen time of all three. He begins as a small time gang-banger, ends up in prison, and finally becomes the leader of a powerful prison gang. In fact, the latter half of the film effectively drops the first two brothers for the sake of the more plotted world of Miko in prison. What was a family melodrama quickly turns into a dense prison thriller. And while this thread had some genuine surprises it felt like a separate movie crammed into the body of Blood In Blood Out.

Blood In Blood Out is high melodrama. The acting is soapy and overwrought. Every single scene escalates into someone yelling, weeping, or being stabbed. It’s also full of gang film hallmarks, including a tatoo that each brother has on their hand. At key moments of decision they each hold up this tattoo as a visual cue to each other, and the audience, so that just in case we forgot, they’re bound by blood!

It’s not surprising that the film was directed by Taylor Hackford. Hackford has had an interesting career and routinely works across genres. He’s directed some bona fide hits including Ray and Officer and a Gentleman as well as some real dogs including Proof of Life. What is surprising of course is that Taylor Hackford maintains the appearance of  a Viagra popping Santa Claus and yet is married to none other that Helen Mirren. That’s right, this Helen Mirren.

Anyway, when asked by IFC which of his films is underrated Hackford came back to Blood In Blood Out saying: “Blood In Blood Out” [also known as 1993’s “Bound by Honor”] was an interesting attempt to make an epic Chicano gangster story set in Los Angeles. In the northeast, the gangster stories are always about Italians, Jews or Irish. The whole process of dealing with Mexican-Americans is the right thing because that’s the criminal group that grew out of the L.A. area…It never got a proper release. Anywhere in the Southwest where there’s a large Latin population, try to go rent that film. It will always be checked out. It’s a favorite in that community, and that pleases me a lot.”

And he’s exactly right.  Every minority has their own gang epic. Italians are the most obvious with The Godfather. Cubans have Scarface. African-Americans have Boyz n the Hood. The Irish have The Departed.  It could even be argued that Anglos (not a minority by the way) have The Outsiders.  So, it makes sense that Blood In Blood Out would continue to live many lives as the de facto hispanic gang film. Tony’s ringing endorsement can attest to this.

But cult status aside, the film isn’t very good. In fact it’s often laughably bad. Here are a couple reasons why:

(Preface: so as not to sound like a complete asshole, just imagine this list was compiled by someone you love, a kindly grandfather with arthritic hands and a twinkle in his eye, rather than a twenty something blogger.)

  • Blood In Blood Out features one of the lamest drug busts in cinema history. We pick back up on the Paco story as he’s seemingly negotiating a drug deal with old women. For a split-second you might think that he’s gone back to a life of crime after the Marines. But it soon become clear he’s working undercover as a cop. The main giveaway being the ultra fake, party city beard he’s wearing. He ends up shooting the women and chasing a criminal down the street in his underwear.
  • Damian Chapa (Miko) gives a performance akin to a silver back gorilla who’s been taught only the most basic human emotions. He’s only ever sobbing, beating his chest, or throwing someone up against the wall. Despite this, according to Tony, Chapa is a sensation in the Latin American world. He’s constantly discussed in tabloids. And his other films like El Padrino: The Latin Godfather are huge hits.
  • The shooting deaths are comically over the top. After a character named Spider takes two to the chest, he throws up his hands in the air, does a full twist, some minor convulsions, then slowly falls to the ground with an expression that says “I see the light” all in slow motion.
  • Hackford routinely displays his lack of faith in the audience by heavy handidly guiding our emotions with a ludicrous score. Every time the action starts or a dramatic revelation is made a giant guitar riff rips out. “He’s Dead!” Whoa! – Rarrgg-rarrr.
  • Apparently all you need to gain parole from San Quentin is to complete your GED, which Miko does and is promptly released.
  • Actual line of dialog: “You’re gonna be outta here like yesterday’s coffee grinds!”

The film also looks a bit soft in light of the current gang situations in Los Angeles and elsewhere. In the last few years Mexico has fallen into failed state territory with its ongoing drug wars. Sure, Blood In Blood Out includes a few shootings, stabbings whatever, but in Mexico right now they’re literally hanging hundreds of beheaded bodies from bridges, using grenades against the police, and importing drugs to the U.S.  by fucking submarine! Just read this horrific article.

Overall, there is very little to like in Blood in Blood Out. It’s characterization is broad and simplistic. The cinematography is bland. The dialog is either basic emotional cliches or plot advancement. The only redeeming quality, if you want to call it that, is that Blood In Blood Out serves as a who’s who of early nighties character actors. Billy Bob Thorton appears as a neo-nazi prisoner. Ving Rhames plays a prison warden. Danny Trejo plays essentially the same character he always does. Even Tom Wilson (aka Biff from Back to the Future) shows up as Ben Bratt’s police partner. And when an appearance by Biff is a highlight of your film, well…



Random Notes:

At one point Chapa is wearing his shirt in classic Cholo style with the top buttoned and the rest wide open. I’d be interested to hear the history of this look. Maybe it’s to keep the neck safe from slashings and the waist exposed so people could see you packing heat. Just a guess. Regardless, my first thought was of those “Homie” toys that you can buy in grocery stores. The ones that come in the gumball machines. Do they still sell those?

One comment

  1. Jonathan Cohen · · Reply

    Are you kidding me??!! “Proof of Life” was an excellent film. I gave it an A+.

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