“Bomb City,” a potently riveting drama by first-time feature filmmaker Jameson Brooks, spins the tragic tale of a punks-versus-jocks cultural clash that steadily builds to a furious altercation, with mortal consequences. In synopsis, it might sound like an updated version of “The Outsiders,” S.E. Hinton’s enduringly popular 1967 novel, which Francis Coppola memorably adapted in 1983 with a dream cast of young up-and-comers. But Brooks’ film, which the director co-wrote with Sheldon R. Chick, actually has its roots in real-life events of nearly two decades ago, and arguably cuts deeper as it methodically and relentlessly fashions a chain of actions and repercussions.
The apt title refers to the ironic nickname given Amarillo, Texas, site of the only nuclear weapons assembly and disassembly plant in the United States. But much of the film indicates another meaning: In 1999, two hostile cliques of Amarillo teenagers — clean-cut high-school football players on one hand, brazenly rebellious punk rockers on the other — are engaged in a cold war that always seems just one out-of-control encounter away from bloody mayhem.
Right from the start, Brooks — who, not incidentally, grew up in Amarillo, and shot this movie there — signals the inevitability of an explosion with sporadic scenes from an after-the-fact murder trial. A self-righteous defense attorney (Glenn Morshower) does his best to demonize a deceased punk rocker as a menace to society who was “destined” to be killed by some upstanding citizen (like the attorney’s client) in order to protect decent citizens from such vermin.
The audience gets an appreciably more evenhanded view of things whenever “Bomb City” flashes back from the courtroom. Brooks offers teasing suggestions — most notably, during a sequence that intercuts brutal slamdancing in a mosh pit with full-contact Friday night football — that the two seemingly disparate social circles might intersect more often than anyone could imagine. And while the movie’s sympathies are obviously weighted toward the punk contingent, Brooks doesn’t let either group off easy: In both camps, there is at least one reckless hothead with a dangerous penchant for lighting fuses.
As “Bomb City” proceeds, Brian (well played by Dave Davis), a punk poet with a raging Mohawk coiffure and a surprisingly close relationship with his loving parents, emerges as the protagonist of the piece. On the other side of the cultural divide, there’s Cody (Luke Shelton), a macho-deficient football player who endures merciless teasing from his heartier and heavier-drinking comrades, and tries just a little too hard to be as bad as he wants to be.
There are signs that these two are intended to come off as equally important counterpoints. Unfortunately, despite Shelton’s game performance, his character is too sketchily developed to have the dramatic weight he should. It might have helped if he had a tad more screen time — or at least a sympathy-building scene equivalent to the one in which Brian and his girlfriend, Jade (Maemae Renfro), adopt a cute puppy.
Yes, you read that correctly: They bring home a sweet little doggie. It’s one of the few heavy-handed touches in “Bomb City,” a film that for the most part manages to avoid clichés while evoking and sustaining, even during relatively lighthearted scenes, a clammy sense of dread.
Brooks demonstrates an instinctive appreciation for what buttons to push and what levers to pull in order to ratchet up suspense, particularly when a police pursuit of graffiti artists gradually escalates into a worst-case scenario. The overriding air of foreboding is stealthily intensified by the chilly musical score credited to scripter Sheldon R. Chick and his brother, Cody Chick, and by the evocative lensing of Jake Wilganowski.
“Bomb City” will keep you in its grasp during every moment leading to its climactic violence. And it won’t let go until the closing credits roll.