It’s hard to figure what the makers of Youngblood were after, because while the picture strives to portray a group of young African-Americans as fully realized individuals, the movie also traffics in stereotypes. After all, the overarching narrative involves an impressionable Los Angeles teenager who gets drawn into street violence, and the most dynamic scene in the film features a chaotic street fight between rival gangs. So is Youngblood a serious-minded melodrama designed to spotlight social ills, or is it merely a gussied-up riff on blaxploitation? Chances are the picture represents a well-meaning attempt at merging both things. However, parsing such nuances might not be worth the trouble, because even though Youngblood eventually arrives at a mildly exciting climax, the first hour of the movie is numbingly dull. The story’s protagonist is Michael (Bryan O’Dell), a latchkey teen who’s acting out at school and getting into trouble while roaming the crime- and drug-infested streets of his neighborhood at night. Michael joins a gang called the Kingsmen after proving his bravery during a fight, and the gang’s top guy, Rommel (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), accepts Michael as a protégé. Meanwhile, Michael’s older brother, Reggie (David Pendleton), seems to have escaped the ghetto for life as a businessman—but in actuality, Reggie’s a middleman for a drug cartel.
You can pretty much guess where it goes from here. Michael gets pulled deeper and deeper into gang violence, his brother tries to keep him out of trouble (while also concealing his illegal activities), and Rommel turns out to be a terrible role model. No surprise, things end badly. Despite the trite storyline, there’s some decent stuff in Youngblood, a lot of it related to Hilton-Jacobs’ character. (The actor was riding high on TV’s Welcome Back, Kotter at the time, and was therefore the biggest name in the cast.) His character, Rommel, is portrayed as a conflicted Vietnam vet who’s slowly realizing he’s outgrown gang life, so the pertinent dramatic question is how much hardship he will cause for the people who emulate him until he learns the error of his ways. Ultimately, though, the drab elements of Youngblood drown out the meritorious ones. Just to name two examples, the star-crossed-lovers subplot about Michael’s love for a girl whose brother belongs to a rival gang is hopelessly contrived, and the song-driven soundtrack by R&B group War gets old fast—how many aimlessly funky jams can one movie handle?