The Savage Stack - BLOOD IN, BLOOD OUT: BOUND BY HONOR (1993)

Taylor Hackford's gangland epic plays like the Latino ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA.

There’s always going to be – for lack of a better term – a stack of films we’ve been meaning to get to. Whether it’s a pile of DVDs and Blu-rays haphazardly amassed atop our television stands, or a seemingly endless digital queue on our respective streaming accounts, there’s simply more movies than time to watch them. This column is here to make that problem worse. Ostensibly an extension of Everybody’s Into Weirdness (may that series rest in peace), The Savage Stack is a compilation of the odd and magnificent motion pictures you probably should be watching instead of popping in The Avengers for the 2,000th time. Not that there’s anything wrong with filmic “comfort food” (God knows we all have titles we frequently return to when we crave that warm and fuzzy feeling), but if you love movies, you should never stop searching for the next title that’s going to make your “To Watch” list that much more insurmountable. Some will be favorites, others oddities, with esoteric eccentricities thrown in for good measure. All in all, a mountain of movies to conquer.

The fifty-fourth entry into this unbroken backlog is the Chicano gangland epic, Blood In, Blood Out: Bound By Honor...

Taylor Hackford's enjoyed a rather strange, fascinating Hollywood career. The '80s found him helming everything from the Richard Gere/Louis Gossett Jr. romantic trial-by-fire, An Officer and a Gentleman ('82), to the Jeff Bridges/Rachel Ward football player neo noir Against All Odds ('84), and the Gregory Hines/Mikhail Baryshnikov dance picture White Nights ('85). The '90s got somewhat stranger, as he crafted one of the most underrated Stephen King adaptations in Dolores Claiborne ('97), and cast Al Pacino as Satan Himself in The Devil's Advocate ('97). His biggest moment in the spotlight came during the aughts - when he helped Jamie Foxx win an Academy Award with Ray ('04), his biopic of the iconic blind piano man Ray Charles.

Yet between those professional milestones came Blood In, Blood Out: Bound By Honor ('93), Hackford's three-hour crime epic that follows three Chicano friends as they navigate the gangland underworld of East Los Angeles from '73 - '84. Operating like a hood telenovela crossed with Sergio Leone's One Upon A Time In America ('84), Hackford lingers on the details of the setting and its people, as Blood In, Blood Out adapts the true life experiences of Jimmy Santiago Baca (who co-wrote the screenplay) into a sprawling melodrama about ethical codes, masculinity, and the unbreakable bonds of family. It's big, broad, corny, and sports a score by Bill Conti (Rocky ['76]), whose bombastic brass connects the picture to the period better than any amount of production design ever could. Hackford's making a '70s pulp opus in '93, with enough brash machismo on display to make Oliver Stone jealous. 

Miklo (Damian Chapa) is coming home to East LA, just a few weeks away from his birthday and being off probation. His cousins - Cruz (Jesse Borrego) and Paco (Benjamin Bratt) - welcome the boy back with somewhat open arms, despite the fact that his abusive father left him passing for white (with light skin and blue eyes), which makes him a liability in the barrio. But Miklo is quick to prove himself to their gang Vatos Locos, busting out the back window of a rival's car while they spray paint their tag on VL's turf. Soon after, Miklo's knee-deep in a beef after getting the crew's letters tattooed on his hand, leading to a confluence of violent events that will land him in jail for the better part of his young life.

Cruz and Paco are operating with completely different goals in mind when we first meet them upon Miklo's arrival at his aunt's house. Cruz is kind and sensitive, winning local accolades with his paintings, which will also earn him his own gallery show (where individual pieces sell for a couple hundred bucks a pop and his fellow Cholos aren't welcome). Meanwhile, Paco is a banger - all bandanas and bad language, looking to start shit with just about anyone who doesn't have VL inked between their thumb and forefinger. The journeys these two take while Miklo's sent away to San Quentin after a fatal shooting are somewhat predictable, but still rather potently plotted. Cruz's art sends him down a self-destructive rabbit hole of heroin - a habit brought on by a debilitating back injury he sustained while getting jumped. Guilt, anger and a judge force Paco to enlist in the Marines, which "make a man out of him" and lead to a career as an undercover narcotics detective. 

Miklo's prison digs come with an assortment of friends nobody would want. The gangs run the clink, divided by race. Aryan Vanguard, Black Guerrilla Army and La Onda - which Baca based on the real prison gangs Aryan Brotherhood, Black Guerrilla Family, and the Mexican Mafia, respectively - all want a piece of him, mostly for use as a pretty sex toy. Even Popeye (Carlos Carrasco), his Latino guide to these nefarious tribes, tries to rape Miklo on his second day inside. It takes bonding himself through blood - an assassination ("blood in") that initiates him until he dies ("blood out") - for Miklo to survive, shanking AV's Big Al (Lanny Flaherty) after clinging to him as a faux boyfriend, rejecting the Aryan boss' advances under the guise of "building anticipation". It's a gnarly stretch of filmmaking where Hackford really leans into trying to be as "authentic" as possible, recruiting actual San Quentin staff members and inmates to shoot on location, mixing these scarred, lumpy faces in amongst a crew of character actors (which includes Tom Towles and Billy Bob Thornton). 

While the bulk of Blood In, Blood Out takes place behind bars, it isn't until Miklo is paroled - after seeking tutelage from Montana (Enrique Castillo), who advises him to reject a system of cyclical abuse inside the white man's world - back onto the street into a dead end manufacturing job where his supervisor skims the con's paycheck to pay off his own gambling debt, that the true intent behind Hackford and Baca's film is revealed. Stuck in a halfway house with multiple Chicanos to a room - throwing parties that keep Miklo up all night and tired at work the next day - there's little comfort found in the straight life, and he's right back to his old hood ways, attempting to knock off an armored car for some quick cash. Yet the sad irony isn't the repetitive nature of his existence, but the fact that the cop who'll put him away (in the process maiming Miklo in a shootout) is Paco, having been tipped off by a dejected, disrespected Popeye, who the "fluorescent skinned" ex-con punked out for the job. 

The system Paco has bought into is a mirrored opposite of his cousin's, and no less oppressive. At one point near the climax, his partner (Thomas F. Wilson) shouts at the Latino cop about how he shouldn't care that a bunch of Chicano gang members are offing each other in San Quentin (all due to a power coup Miklo is orchestrating). Their deaths have no effect on the outside world. But for Paco and Miklo, the prison walls barely separate their overlapping operations, one trying to prevent the other. The violence spills out into the streets the cops are working, but once he gains an actual lead on his own blood, outside agencies swoop in to try and scoop the case away from East LA. Seems there's no trusting one of these barrio men on either side of the badge, but Paco isn't going to let his own cousin's business go unfinished without him. 

Though the structure is New Hollywood - right down to a Godfather ('72) aping mass assassination montage that echoes that La Cosa Nostra opera's "baptism" sequence - the execution is mostly in the style of blunt exploitation filmmaking. There's almost zero flair to Hackford's direction (or Gabriel Beristain's dingy, sun-soaked cinematography), bringing a blocky precision to the location shooting, which lingers on multiple street murals (painted by artist Adan Hernandez). In a way, the director's letting his lens get out of the way of Baca's script, which is the true voice of this project. Through this workman, a stage is built for an outsider not usually represented on a huge Hollywood platform, who's now able to represent the world as he sees fit, via a cast mostly fronted by a collection of his own people. The rough edges are all present and accounted for, but add a healthy dose of truth to these otherwise full-throated pulp histrionics. 

Originally released in '93 - with the re-worked title Bound By Honor, mandated by the studio due to fears the movie would incite gang violence - Blood In, Blood Out was met with mostly awful reviews. Roger Ebert commented, "there are no role models in this nihilistic story", and Empire (almost ten years later) would label it "ugly". But Hackford's epic doesn't seem to care about providing characters that others can idolize, or sanitizing what life is like on the streets or behind bars for poor Chicano kids trying to grow up in a hateful Caucasian universe. Any ugliness comes from the recognition that this family is existing on its own terms due to so many forces acting against their better destinies. In the end, all they have is each other, and even then there are wars fought within families. Blood In, Blood Out may be epic in length, but its concerns are microcosmic: hoping that these three individuals can break free of their molds, while still being true to themselves. 

Blood In, Blood Out: Bound By Honor is available now on DVD from Hollywood Pictures.