This film begins with two kids doing what kids do best: being little assholes. One (Rocky) gets caught by the police, the other (Jerry) is faster and manages to avoid getting captured. Rocky ends up taking all the blame, which sets him on the path to a criminal life spent in and out of reform school and later jail. Jerry gets away and grows up to be a priest. Not to date myself as having grown up in the late 90s, but isn't that basically the most cloyingly sentimental subplot to Save the Last Dance?
It's sort of weird that they only show Rocky growing up during this period. If I was making this movie, I would have cut between the two men's coming of age stories, juxtaposing a life of crime and a life of religion. But hey, I was a seriously unborn fetus at the time, so who am I to judge?
As an adult, Rocky is sent to jail for three years, but before he gets put away, he makes an agreement with a super baby-faced Humphrey Bogart in one of his pre-leading man roles, presumably a super trustworthy person who will definitely not betray him. Frazier (Bogart) will be responsible for Rocky's $100,000 while he's in jail, and will use it to build up a real criminal organization. Then when Rocky gets out, they'll be business partners. Only when Rocky shows up on Frazier's doorstep, he's all, "What money? Who are you? I don't know what you're talking about, and besides, that was a handshake deal." No one could have predicted this.
Also, Jesus Christ, James Cagney was short. Humphrey Bogart towers over him and he was the original male star was like, "Yo I'm gonna stand on this box when I'm on screen next to girls so I look virile and strong and not at all like a tiny tiny man." Invented by Bogey, perfected by Tom Cruise.
So anyway, once Rocky gets out of jail and is back in the old neighborhood, he's reunited with his childhood pal Jerry, now a serious Father Jerry. He has made it his mission to start a gym to keep the local urchins off the street. The only problem is that they identify a lot more with Rocky, the cool, rich, dangerous guy, than they do with the boring neighborhood priest. The Lost Boys follow and actually listen to him, only its fairly obvious that a hardened gangster, even one on his very best behavior, is probably not going to be the best influence on a group of would-be hoodlums. Not for nothing, but he hits a lot of children in this movie. Like...a lot.
Jerry is, well, somewhat disappointing. For the life of me I don't understand why he doesn't use the fact that he used to be just like the neighborhood kids as a way to get through to them. You know, showing them a path out of their lower-class upbringings that doesn't evolve organized crime, basic stuff like that. It might have been more interesting if Jerry was still a little rough around the edges. As he is here, he's a little toothless, and it's easy to see why the kids don't respond to him.
In fact, I would have liked to see more of Father Jerry's interaction with his former self. Conflict between the pious man of god he is now and the young hoodlum he was, either by showing his coming-of-age story intercut with the one we say of Rocky growing up in and out of the justice system, or even just in his conversations with the kids he's trying to help. Maybe they would have had time for that if they cut all the scenes with the girl out, where she's literally doing nothing besides providing the obligatory love interest for Rocky that he barely seems interested in.
Seriously, can we talk about her for a minute? She's basically useless. I'm not even saying that she's boring or annoying, she literally has no point. She contributes nothing to the film and it would be just as good if not better without her. It's like they thought, "We should have a woman in this film," and then just inserted a hand drawn stick figure with boobs and a skirt into a handful of scenes and called it a day.
But anyway, it's really striking when you see just how incredibly Father Jerry is throughout the entire film. None of his attempts to win over the neighborhood boys are even remotely effective. The only times he comes close are when he's exploiting their hero worship of Rocky, which he continues to use to his advantage at the end of the film.
So yeah, Bogey/Frazier puts a hit out on Rocky, but you have to get up pretty early in the morning to get the best of James Cagney. One thing leads to another, mistakes were made, and somehow Rocky ends up on death row for murder.
What Father Jerry asks of Rocky only moments before his execution is really quite a lot. He's asking him to sully his reputation, the one thing that people haven't been able to take away from him, and go to the electric chair crying and carrying on.
By doing so, he will break the thrall he has over the young impressionable neighborhood kids. Father Jerry is asking him to die a coward instead of a martyr for low level criminals. Not for nothing, Jerry, but none of this would be necessary if you were better at your job.
(Regardless, it's an A+ piece of acting from Cagney, whose wails actually make a shiver run down your spine as he is dragged to the chair.)
These 1930s crime films always strike a strange chord because of the moral gymnastics required to tell a compelling story with criminals as protagonists while still following the production codes in place at the time. Rocky was a gangster, so for this movie to be made, he either has to die a grisly death, repent of all his sins, or both.
Only problem is, the audience has grown to like or at least become emotionally invested in his story over the course of the film. And why not? James Cagney is nothing if not a charismatic actor, and because he's painted as a kid who fell into crime by circumstance, we feel a certain amount of sympathy for his plight.
But at the same time, we're supposed to feel catharsis that at the end of the day, he is punished for his crimes. The implication that society is too fragile to tolerate a movie with moral complexities, where the "bad guy" isn't neatly dispatched as a matter of course in the third act, does a disservice to storytelling. It's a mark of how well-made this film is that it manages to rise above the massive weight chained to its ankle and still tell a compelling story.
There's some controversy over whether Rocky actually "turned yellow" or if he was just acting for the sake of the kids. I'm inclined to believe the latter. One of the most honest moments in the film is when Rocky tells Father Jerry that he's not scared of dying, because somewhere along the line he lost his heart, and you can't have fear without that. I do believe that Rocky had buried his emotions down deep, to the point where he couldn't feel real, genuine fear anymore.
I get that seeing the actual electric chair you're going to die in might (understandably) cause someone to break down, but that just doesn't seem like Rocky. I'm much more inclined to believe that Rocky fully understands how and why his life has gone wrong, and chooses to use his last moments on earth to maybe stop other no-good hoodlums from making the same mistakes.
So, "let's go say a prayer for a boy who couldn't run as fast as me." (OK so that line, said by Father Jerry to the neighborhood kids, really hit me in the gut. I'm not made of stone.)