Like the streetwise art it celebrates, ''Bomb the System" is visually dazzling and dramatically trite -- it's virtuoso piffle. It also seems oddly behind the times: Made in 2002, this pungently filmed saga of a New York graffiti artist and the choices he faces feels topically stuck in the mid-'80s.
That's roughly where the film begins, as 7-year-old Anthony worships his wall-tagging older brother while break dancers twirl behind them on the housing project basketball court. Big brother dies off-screen, and we cut to the present, where a grown-up Anthony (Mark Webber) is now better known as Blest, part of a graffiti crew that bombs walls with graceful, swooping signatures. His partner is a tough-talking purist named Justin (Gano Grills), whose little brother Kevin (Jade Yorker) comes along as lookout.
The newspapers call them ''abusive vandals" and corrupt cops like Bobby Cox (Al Sapienza) want them brought down hard. Blest doesn't care. ''Hate I can deal with," he says. ''Anonymity I can't." He and the movie are proudly pro-graffiti and insist that it's a beleaguered art form, and just in case you don't agree, there's a brief appearance by Lee Quinones, star of 1982's ''Wild Style" and grand old man of the tag, as Blest's mentor. The score by Fab Five Freddy and Blondie's Chris Stein is just as defiantly old-school.
''Bomb the System" starts tossing curveballs at its hero early on. Blest has desultorily applied to art schools, and his mother (Donna Mitchell) is urging him to take his mad skilz upmarket. Justin scorns the graffiti writers who have gone over to the galleries, though, and insists ''it's all about the streets." Another possibility is represented by Alexandra (Jaclyn DeSantis), a dreadlocked art terrorist who knows Blest by reputation and thinks he might be the guy she'll fall for. These two go on tagging dates -- hey, it beats dinner and a movie -- and she tells him ''I know you love bombing, but it's about time to do something more meaningful with your talent."
You're right, this is ''Saturday Night Fever" with spray cans instead of disco moves. While ''Bomb the System" works overtime to seem gritty and hip, its narrative squareness is hard to shake, and the actors are hard-pressed to lift their characters above cliche. Webber's Blest especially seems too mellow a dude to be roiling with inner conflict, and his big ambition -- to tag the Brooklyn Bridge -- remains pretty small.
Whatever his limitations as a writer, though, Adam Bhala Lough has the goods as a directorial stylist, and the movie's a visual feast of color-saturated photography, slow-motion, stop-motion, time-shifted editing, post-production tweaking, and other fancy footwork. It works, too, lifting the film above the level of a second-hand music video and creating a darkly glamorous underground world that only lacks believable characters. With ''Bomb the System," Bhala Lough puts his name up there for all of us to see it, but it still isn't art -- not yet.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.