In 2016, CBGB is an airport restaurant, and unless they’ve tried the food, everyone’s more-or-less okay with that. Five Seconds of Summer — a band who revolutionized product placement by letting American Apparel marketing executives write their lyrics for them — have introduced more suburban youths to pop-punk than The Descendents could ever hope to. And Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5 finally came out last year, promptly followed by the dismay of any sentimental sucker who paid money to play it.
I have no idea if punk is dead, but my generation’s version of it sure as howdy is, and that’s a good thing. Most of the music was pretty bad (especially the songs with trombones and trumpets), and a lot of the kids were kind of mean. Writer/director James Merendino’s version of punk is also dead. He eulogized it with the 1998 indie smash SLC Punk!, which joined Trainspotting and Suburbia among canonical films for my generation’s version of punk.
Assuming there’s a not-yet dead and somewhat-less jaded version of punk happening somewhere out there, if it needs a definitive film, the 2013 Swedish gem We Are The Best! already exists. Luckily, the debacle of Punk’s Dead: SLC Punk 2, in theaters this week and coming very soon to DVD and streaming services, makes no difference one way or another.
Punk’s Dead arrives flanked by red flags. The first film’s star and nexus Matthew Lillard is nowhere to be found. Its limited theatrical distribution comes via a service called Tugg which scans, at least to this reviewer, as an Emergenza for movies. If Punk’s Dead wound up a good film, or even a pretty-okay-not-bad film, it would be the Little Engine That Could story of the month. What we get instead is the Little Engine That…uh…well, it’s just kind of there. It’s the Little Engine That Exists.
To sum up the plot: Ross (Ben Schnetzer) is the son of Heroin Bob (Michael A. Goorjian) and Trish (Sarah Clarke, not Annabeth Gish?!) from the original SLC Punk!. Bob accidentally overdosed on pills and booze before Ross’s birth 19 years prior, hence Ross grew up with an unusually morbid worldview. Ross’s aloofness fades once he falls for Lillith the goth (Emma Pace). Then Lillith cheats on Ross and vanishes from the movie forever. For a post-heartbreak lark, Ross goes on a roadtrip to catch a punk festival with his pal Crash (Machine Gun Kelly?!?! Amber Rose’s ex-boyfriend is in this?!?!) and Crash’s buddy Penny (Hannah Marks). Ooooh, and the ghost of Heroin Bob stops by here and there to pontificate about punk and warble off exposition.
Trish, tragically aware of her son’s genetic predisposition for alcoholism, learns Ross is getting all fucked up with potentially unsavory types and wigs. Former acid burnout Sean (Devon Sawa, the Final Destination and Idle Hands guy) and ex-mod/current metalhead John (James Duval, from, like, almost every ‘90s indie movie) agree to help her track down Ross and drag him back to sober safety.
Sean and John both report uncle-like relationships with Ross, although neither seemed especially close with Bob from what we saw of his lifetime in SLC Punk!. Tellingly, an awkward attempt at catharsis between Sean and Trish late in the film makes way more emotional sense when you imagine the same dialogue exchanged between Trish and Stevo, Lillard’s character from the first movie. At the risk of presenting guesses as facts, I’d be damn surprised if it turned out Merendino didn’t write that scene — and all the other Sean scenes — for Stevo before he knew Lillard wouldn’t be joining the cast this time around.
So, what we’ve got here is two underdeveloped concepts for movies — one about alienated youths, another about aging hipsters — slapped against each other. Schnetzer and Marks will live to fight another day, but Punk’s Dead asks them to carry obvious non-actor MGK and their half of the film’s nebulous premise on the shoulders of toilet paper-thin characters. It’s too much with too little.
Penny’s rendering is particularly befuddling. Crash and Ross repeatedly reference and/or mock her supposedly masculine demeanor, leaving the audience to wonder WTF they’re talking about. Penny is boyish because she has a car? Or Penny is boyish because Crash and Ross’s threshold for androgyny is super-duper-mega low? I mean, you can see plainly in the publicity photos that Penny does not dress remotely dude-ish. And I’m pretty sure surly is a gender-neutral personality trait. So, yeah, I’ve got no idea what’s supposed to be going on there. Also, when a nasty depiction of father/daughter abuse flies in from a more serious movie and crash lands at the end of the second act, the startling trauma immediately gets brushed aside for a predictable romantic subplot, eliciting a resounding “Yeesh” from at least one reviewer.
But like those crusties you ran into on the train and later regretted telling where to find the basement show, Punk’s Dead breaks shit — particularly the boundary between acceptable stretches of the imagination and wanton disregard for plausibility — whenever it feels like. The kids spend the whole movie flagrantly drinking out of PBR cans while riding in a convertible, yet never worry about getting pulled over. The ill-advised Magical Black Man trope and unnecessary casual homophobia will surely piss off large swaths of this movie’s target demographic. And at the big finale punk show, Ross jumps onstage to grab a mic and speechify, and the band actually stops playing so everyone can hear his speechifying?!?! In what upside-down alternate universe has any punk band ever paused their set under these circumstances?
My generation’s mercifully deceased version of punk had its fair share of bands with an attitude of, “Well, our songs are bad and we can’t play our instruments any good, but look at how much fun we’re having! That’s the most important thing, right?”
Punk’s Dead is one of those bands, if one of those bands was a movie.
Punk’s Dead: SLC Punk 2 hits select theaters today, is released on Digital HD on February 16, and on DVD/VOD March 8 via Cinedigm. Follow Barry Thompson on Twitter @barelytomson.