Adam Bhala Lough’s Bomb the System captures the addictive, renegade spirit of urban graffiti writing even as it falters in its attempts to legitimize the illegal activity. Anthony (Mark Webber) is a graffiti artist who spends his nights covering Manhattan with his moniker “Blest,” and he and buddy Justin “Buk 50” Broady (Gano Grills), as well as Buk’s brother Kevin (Jade Yorker), form one of the most notorious crews in the city. Blest is torn between following in his deceased brother’s footsteps by continuing to “bomb” (i.e. spray paint during nighttime raids) NYC or going to college, and Lough’s debut presents this conflict as a choice between artistic insurgency and mainstream conformity.
The film proclaims that graffiti is both a creative statement as well as illicit vandalism, but it’s primarily concerned with the former rather than the latter, and thus the audience is asked to simply ignore the obvious negative aspects of kids defacing any and all city edifices. A villainous cop named Bobby Cox (Al Sapienza) who snorts cocaine, washes down pills with liquor, and blackmails prostitutes for free sex is meant to represent the evil establishment that seeks to quell these defiant kids’ expressive impulses. Unfortunately for the film’s agenda, an early speech he makes about Giuliani’s efforts to eradicate graffiti makes significantly more sense than Blest and Buk’s preachy talk about the purity and nobility of their rebellious nocturnal pastime.
Shrouded in darkness punctuated by deep primary colors and fluorescent greens and yellows, and shot with a semi-hallucinatory jaggedness (by Ben Kutchins) that complements the director’s photographic freeze frames and El P’s grinding, synth-based score, the film’s aesthetic smoothly mirrors the vibrancy of its protagonists’ illicit “tags.” Lough’s screenplay, however, is surprisingly clumsy with its female characters, whose dialogue wholly lacks the slang-inflicted naturalism present in conversations between the unassuming, low-key Webber and rowdy, headstrong Grills. Furthermore, the film’s nostalgic fondness for ’80s hip-hop/street culture—from the sight of Buk with a pick in his afro to break-dancers and guys decked out in Adidas tracksuits—respectfully pays homage to the movement’s roots while simultaneously standing at odds with the story’s supposed contemporary setting.
Via a plea from Blest’s girlfriend Alex (Jaclyn DeSantis) that he engage in more productive and meaningful protest (as well as leave town with her gang of political poster distributors), the filmmaker perceptively highlights the rampant narcissism that propels graffiti artists to compulsively display their names wherever possible. Unfortunately, Bomb the System’s pro-martyrdom finale (which champions lethal sacrifice as a means of achieving artistic immortality) winds up excessively, and unconvincingly, promoting the sanctity of such spray paint-swathed endeavors.