As an anti-establishment statement, a documentary on the making of Bomb The System, a low-budget guerilla feature about NYC graffiti artists, might have been more powerful than the movie itself, and certainly more authentic. Bomb The System's production notes are filled with colorful anecdotes about shooting on the streets, where the filmmakers confronted dealers, police, and belligerent New Yorkers, stealing shots whenever they could get them, including an astonishingly bold two-hour session on the Brooklyn Bridge. Fictionalizing a thesis short on tagging he made at NYU, writer-director Adam Lough displays an electrifying sense of style that gives his debut an unusual vibrancy, especially during the wordless sequences when his heroes are out on the prowl. But as a screenwriter, Lough can't keep from stumbling over clichés that seem penciled in by The Man, seriously undermining the gritty realist cred he so strenuously covets.
Mark Webber stars as what must be the director's alter ego, a white suburban teenager who's known on the streets as "Blest," leader of a revered crew of vandals that leave their mark on a city that's been whitewashed since Rudy Giuliani became mayor. When Webber and his partner Gano Grills (a real NYC graffiti artist) come into conflict with overzealous cops on the Vandal Squad, they resolve to fight back through a tagging campaign that hits government buildings, police cars, and monuments like the Brooklyn Bridge. But back home, Webber's mother pleads with him to go to art school in San Francisco, where his talents might be harnessed to more productive ends. His rebellious tendencies are further quelled when he falls for pretty Jaclyn DeSantis, a politically motivated vandal who posts anti-corporate and anti-authoritarian signs around the city.
There hasn't been a feature about graffiti art since Giuliani's successful campaign to clean up the boroughs, and Bomb The System percolates with anger over the harassment and oppression that go into the maintenance of tourist spots like the Disneyfied Times Square. Though she speaks mostly in Chomsky-ese—a language composed of strident, wordy leftist monologues—DeSantis introduces the idea that taggers are not rebelling in a progressive way, and are perhaps too consumed by their own reputation. But Lough mostly looks past his hero's annoying self-absorption and reveres the spirit of graffiti artists who are driven by an unshakable desire for personal expression. When he shoots these men at work, often through a transparent canvas that recalls The Mystery Of Picasso, Bomb The System has an exhilarating edge. It's only when they open their mouths that the movie gets into trouble.