Sunday, April 26, 2009

Movies: Stay classy, Part II.

So, after making the raw and effective Class of 1984, Mark Lester was briefly a hot Hollywood commodity. He was tapped for the King-adaptation Firestarter and the Governator vehicle Commando (which briefly held the vaunted and hotly contested title of "most violent film ever" – until the most recent Rambo flick left everybody in the dust with its 15 minute abattoir finale). But, as his star began to fade, Lester and his co-conspirators decided to see if they could capture lightening in a bottle twice. In 1990 they though the time was ripe to revisit the issue of school violence, so they hatched the idea of Class of 1999.

Sadly, instead of updating the original to include things like multi-national youth gangs, like the Bloods and Crips, or focusing on the phenom of teenage mass murderers, which were increasingly common, Lester thought the best way to grapple with the subject was to create a mash-up of Terminator, Robocop, Zero for Conduct, The Outsiders, and Westworld.

As awesome as each of these ingredients might be, the results are a disappointing mess.

In the distant future of 1999, schools apparently became a battle zone. Youth gangs not only made schools unmanageable, but they took complete control of the blocks around the school creating what "future" citizens call a "Free-Fire Zone." Police officers refuse to patrol the free fire zones, leaving to them become Road Warrior-grade post-apoc areas where aptitude with firearms far outweighs fashion sense. The introductory narrator informs us that "some schools have closed." That's good to know; though, really, isn't the bigger question why would anybody continue to send their child to school in what was officially acknowledged to be a micro-Sudan in your own backyard?

This time, the action takes place in Kennedy High School, a little Gitmo of a school in the lawless zone in the heart of Seattle. (The name of the school alludes to the presidentially-themed school of the previous flick: Lincoln. We also learn that there's a Nixon High nearby. This sort of stuff hints at the notion that there was at least one person on the project who felt, wisely I think, that the whole project should have Gremlin 2 on the first flick. Sadly, these little hints of parody never manage to become a guiding principle.)

One of the students at Kennedy is Cody. A former member of the Dark Hearts gang, Cody is fresh out of juvie and looking to stay on the straight and narrow. Unfortunately, the rest of the Dark Hearts feel that membership in their club isn't a sometime-thing. To make matters worse, the leader of the Razorheads (a splinter group of the Division of Echuca gang, the remains of a civil war between the Bismuth Strontium Calcium Copper Oxide gang and the Pluralistic Walkthrough gang, both of which descended from the Gang with the Stupidest Fucking Name in the World gang), the gang that controls Kennedy's depoliced zone, has a special disliking for Cody. To top it all off, just about the only person in this flick that doesn't want to see Cody's head on a pike and displayed for the masses in the DPZ to see is a cute square by the name of Christie. And, wouldn't you know it, she's the principal's daughter. In a nod to '84, the principal is another McDowell – this time Malcolm performs the rites.

As if Cody doesn't have enough crap to deal with, Kennedy High is the test school for a new program from Megacorp (I kid you not, that's the name) and the Department of Educational Defense. To re-establish a bit of control over the riotous student population, the corporation and the pols decide to insert three military hunter-killer cyborgs into the school under the guise of teachers. These things were originally slated to fight some war in some Second World hellhole in South/Central America (in that more innocent time we didn't know all our hellhole wars would be fought in Asia and the Middle East), but with a few tweaks, perhaps a jacket with patches on the elbows, and maybe a little faux flesh so as not to spook the straights, they're ready for school service. Completeist may note that one of the combat robots slash teachers is Pam Grier; but, honestly, only obsessive completeist should note this. She's woefully underused and never really gets to kick into her full-on ghetto fabulous Amazon mode. (On the other hand, Stacy Keach – sporting a bizarre set of cat's eyes contact lenses throughout the flick – does an outstanding job of thoroughly enjoying his role as the mad jackass corporate who allows things to go well past the point of no return. If there's such a thing as a Stacey Keach fan, then this flick is a must see for you.)

Before you can say "I welcome our new pedantic robot overlords," the robo-subs are killing students for minor infractions and reverting back to their original combat settings. To prevent either of the two major gangs from putting up organized resistance, the robots play them off one another. They kill Cody's younger brother and frame the Razorheads for the job. (A Razorhead is similarly dispatched, but his sole purpose in the flick was to get dispatched at this point, so its hard t feel dramatic about it.) This, of course, knocks Cody of the straight and narrow and encourages both gangs to get their war on.

Eventually, Cody puzzles everything together. He unifies the gangs and they march on the school for a final confrontation with the education/war machines.

The end of Class of 1999 is kinda spiffy. The image of Mad Max'ed out teens laying siege to a high school is more happy-making than you'd think. Especially the pan-gang expeditionary force's mounted troops who, though I can't see that it would be all that useful, refuse to get off their motorcycles and spent a considerable amount of the final scene tearing around through school hallways and classrooms. The heavy-handed washes of color and the surreal image of the teachers, who end up ripping their own flesh off to expose their re-commissioned military hardware, reminds me off whacked out Asian fantasy/horror flicks like Wicked City, though Class never pushes the sex and gore envelopes those flicks do. Which is a shame, because it would have helped.

Other than that last scene, Class of 1999 suffers from having too many influences and not enough inspiration. Riffing off a dozen or so flicks, the movie can't decide if it's an action film, a sci-fi flick with horror overtones, a teen rebel movie, or a comedy. In its effort to be all these things, it fails at becoming anything. This would perhaps be forgivable, if the savage, primitive force of the first flick was still a crucial component of the film. But success seems to have ruined Lester. Though the body count is certainly higher, the petrol is gone. Perhaps jaded by the carnage of flicks like Commando, the danger in this film seems impersonal and tired. The rough edge of crazy is gone.

Visually, the flick (with the aforementioned exception) is lackluster. By cribbing images and ideas from flicks like Road Warrior, Terminator, and Westworld, the movie begs comparison with those films and there's little here that packs the punch those sciffy cinema milestones.

There was, inexplicably, a sequel to this film as well. Though why anybody would revisit this concept is beyond me.


Anonymous said...

I just wanna say this-- you need to start an online store of "And now the screaming starts" merchandise and sell things like bumper stickers that say, for example: "I welcome our new pedantic robot overlords!"

I've never seen CLASS OF 1984, CLASS OF 1999, its sequel, or even CLASS OF NUKE'EM HIGH (which I think I actually confuse with this film sometimes).
Too bad the mixture of genres didn't work in this movie. I tend to be a sucker for unholy collisions of various genres. Well, at least, theoretically.
Perhaps it's the choice of genres that was the problem.
Maybe they need to combine the post apocalytpic/cyborg teacher concept with something more teen friendly, like HEAD OF THE CLASS 1999, or HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL: APOCALYPSE!
You know me, always thinking...

Sasquatchan said...

Would Yul Brenner have made it a better film, I wonder ...

CRwM said...

Screamin' Sassy,

He couldn't have hurt it.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Cattle,

Long time, no hear. Thanks for stopping by.

I should have made it more clear that the idea is silly enough to have come merit. The problem comes in the execution. The film ends up so lifeless and dull that the novelty and charm of the wacky concept can't save it.

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