Homeboy tells the story of Johnny Walker (Mickey Rourke), an aging boxer who drinks too much, knows too little, and fights like he hardly cares. He’s a bit of a loner, but early in the film he piques the interest of gregarious criminal Wesley Pendergrass (Christopher Walken) and earns the trust of the likewise lonely Ruby (Debra Feuer), proprietor of a few attractions at a seaside amusement park.
Johnny is torn between his alliances to Wesley, Ruby, and his sport. These competing interests come to a head when Wesley plans a jewelry heist that necessarily includes Johnny on the same night that Johnny has one last shot to win a major fight. Complicating the dilemma further is Johnny’s health; his temple is fractured and even one punch to the head might kill him.
An aging boxer with potentially fatal health problems, torn between the love of a decent woman, the companionship of criminals, and the possibility of final glory in the ring? Yeah, you’ve seen this one before. Aging fighters show up in American film again and again, looking back on lives of violence (and often crime, too), asking themselves if they could have done it better, or if they might be able to do it one more time.
Rocky concluded, rather optimistically, that it’s never too late to be the fighter you could have been. On The Waterfront was similarly optimistic, though it used fighting more as a metaphor. Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy declares, “I could have been a contender!” Mickey disgustedly tells Rocky Balboa that he should have been a great fighter in his prime. Johnny Walker asks, childlike, “Do you think I could’ve been good?” The issue Johnny’s question raises is if Homeboy has what it takes to distinguish itself from the films that preceded it, and if it can pull it off with the subtle shades suggested by Johnny’s insecure take on the theme of glory days unhappily passed up.
The answer is that Homeboy almost succeeds, but the film is wracked with flaws. Its positive qualities come close to outweighing those flaws, but not quite. One of the film’s greatest shortcomings is its pacing. About two hours long, the movie gains no momentum until it is well over halfway through. Even when the story is done dragging its feet and the stakes are raised high, the film has little urgency.
The lack of urgency can be attributed less to the pace of the storytelling, though, and more to the film’s soundtrack. The score was composed and performed by Eric Clapton and Michael Kamen, and it is like a cement brick chained to the ankle of Homeboy. The musical choices are obvious to the point of caricature (funky slap bass when the black champion fighter is introduced and airy, echoing guitar melodies during scenes of blossoming love interest). The tempo rarely goes above turtle-slow, too lethargic to keep up with changes in the story.
As is his wont, Clapton takes no musical risks with this score and proves once again that he is the most boring thing to come out of the ‘60s. In the process, he bogs down what otherwise might have been a very good film.
The specific guitar effects Clapton uses and other musical choices he and Kamen make tie the film to the time in which it was made, but it is not only the music that dates Homeboy. The overuse of slow-motion photography, especially for shots of things like birds flying or Johnny running on the beach, not only dates Homeboy but betrays some poor directorial taste.
Despite fundamental shortcomings, Homeboy is not an entirely fruitless effort. For instance, although supporting characters are woefully underdeveloped, the characters of Johnny, Wesley, and Ruby are thoroughly human. Wesley, for instance, hopes to steer Johnny into the same dangerous and loveless lifestyle he leads, but he is not entirely Johnny’s enemy. Christopher Walken’s character genuinely seems to enjoy Johnny’s friendship, and at moments betrays sincere care for his well-being in spite of the fact that his ultimate use for Johnny will most likely bring him harm.
Likewise, Mickey Rourke presents Johnny’s undereducated but emotionally deep character so earnestly that the subtleties of his performance make Johnny more than just a tired film trope. Johnny is world-weary but innocent in his childish willingness to trust others and speak candidly. The narrative (penned by Rourke himself) expertly weaves his story with Ruby’s via the theme of horses, the image of Ruby’s painted-pony carousel uniting the joys and sadness of their separate pasts with the uncertainties of their present.
In the end, Johnny never gets a direct answer as to whether he could have been good or not, but the film gives the viewer enough images, not words, to decide for himself. Much in Homeboy is left to imagery, to acting, and to the viewer’s imagination. Despite the score’s attempts to kill it, subtlety is Homeboy’s greatest virtue.
As far as Mickey Rourke movies about drinking and fighting go, the Bukowski-penned Barfly and Rourke’s recent triumph The Wrestler are the two essentials. Homeboy may never have made it to DVD if not for the latter film, a more engaging and heartbreaking take on the same themes as Homeboy.
There is little in The Wrestler, however, that can match Homeboy in understatement. For those who think Rourke could’ve been good for all those years spent in Hollywood wilderness, Homeboy provides proof that, sometimes, he was—his performance could rise above a movie’s flaws and bring out the subtleties not only of his character but of the film in total.