Friday, September 10, 2010

Class of 1999 (1990)

The Movie: In the far-flung year of 1999, the last decade has been bad. The rise of gang activity and the growing gap between the rich and the poor has resulted in parts of cities being declared “free-fire” zones, areas completely under the control of the gangs, where the police will not enter. Gang problems at public schools have resulted in the formation of the Department of Educational Defense; who seek to find a way to control the gangs.

In a grand experiment, Dr. Forrest (the prolific Stacy Keach), representative of the megacorporation Globotech, provides a potential solution. Mr. Bryles (Patrick Kilpatrick), Mr. Hardin (John P. Ryan), and Ms. Connors (Pam Grier, famous for such blacksploitation flicks as Coffee and Foxy Brown); three android teachers, will be employed at Kennedy High School in Seattle. Kennedy High is right smack-dab in the middle of a free-fire zone, and the new principal, Miles Longford (the extremely prolific Malcolm McDowell, of such diverse flicks as Royal Flash, Tank Girl and A Clockwork Orange), is eager for the chance to clean up his school.

Our hero is Cody Culp (Bradley Gregg, of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors), who is being released from jail to participate in the experiment. Cody doesn’t know that he’s part of an experiment; all he knows is that he’s back in jail permanently if he screws up one more time, and he’s determined to avoid that. However, that seemingly noble goal is faced with some serious obstacles.

First, Cody’s old gang the Black Hearts, who his brother, Angel (Joshua Miller of Near Dark), is about to be initiated into, is furious that he wants out. The Black Hearts’ rivals, the Razorheads, want to get their own payback from Cody now that he’s an easy target. And then there’s the authority, in the form of the new teachers, who have signaled him out as a threat. This gets further complicated by his growing romance with Christie (the beautiful Tracy Lin of Fright Night 2), the principal’s daughter.

The new teachers, it turns out, are refurbished battle droids; and they are falling back on their old military programming, seeing the gangs as an enemy to be eliminated. Cody starts to see signs that they are systematically murdering problem students, but nobody will believe his suspicions. Then, just as Cody starts to put the pieces together, the androids exacerbate the Black Hearts’ and Razorheads’ mutual animosity into a full-fledged gang war. Cody’s only hope is to unite the warring gangs against a common foe. But can he do it? And will even that be enough?

The Review:

"Now be careful; these things are like some bad, fucked-up George Jetson nightmare."
-Cody Culp

Admittedly, Class of 1999 requires a few suspensions of disbelief right off the bat. First is the date; 1999 having come and gone without the specific scenario portrayed. Hell, I was in the class of 2000. Then there’s the idea behind the androids that, more than ten years after this movie allegedly takes place and more than twenty after it was made, are still far beyond our current technological capacity.

However, once you get past those two suspensions of disbelief, Class of 1999 has some elements that I find entirely too plausible. The end of the Reagan Era, when this movie was made, saw a huge gap between the wealthy and the poor; one that has only gaped wider in the two decades since. They have since cleaned up most of the inner cities, but I understand that this just means the problems have moved to the suburbs. With the current economic situation, who knows what this country will look like in another ten years?

Then there’s Kennedy High School, which is portrayed as a fascist police state. I happen to remember high school as a fascist police state; albeit nowhere near the level shown in this movie. The middle of my high school years saw some highly publicized school shootings, the most notorious being the Columbine shooting in Colorado. Considering the idiotic measures the Powers That Be at Mouth of Hell High School took to show that they were on top of a problem that might, ever so possibly, happen; a clear and present danger such as warring gangs on the doorstep would definitely have inspired Kennedy High levels of extreme measures. The only difference is that MHHS would not have been able to afford half as many rent-a-thugs.

The cast is mostly decent, good enough as far as B-movie standards go. Gregg and the script make Cody Culp a fairly believable character. Cody in this movie is portrayed somewhat weary of his environment, having seen firsthand where it leads. However, while Cody doesn’t do the macho posturing of his fellow gangers; he doesn’t pass up on doing the right thing, or let others roll over him. This is why the authorities find him a threat, even though he’s not as blatantly disruptive as the gangers. In fact, the movie suggests that the Black Hearts really look up to Cody, which is why they’re so pissed about him wanting out of their ranks.

Gregg comes across as a little wooden at a few points, but overall does adequately. The parts I find most convincing are the scenes that show his relationship with his brother. Gregg and Miller do a great job at portraying two people who really love each other, even though they don’t “get” each other anymore.

Grier, Kilpatrick and Ryan do a great job as the android teachers. All of them present clear personalities; Kilpatrick is great as the stereotype sadistic gym coach, while Ryan is near perfect as the arrogant, and sadistic, intellectual. Grier, I would say, pretty much reprises her roles from her blacksploitation days; except that here she plays an outright villain instead of a sympathetic anti-heroine. The three alternate between their character stereotypes, inhuman machines, cackling villains and black comedy; but overall they hit all the bases well. They’re the most engaging part of the movie, and they give the impression of having a lot of fun with their roles.

Stacy Keach is wonderful as the slimy, villainous corporate head. Whoever thought of those creepy contact lenses he wears should be commended. McDowell, meanwhile, does a good job as a well-meaning principal who doesn’t realize the full extent of the Faustian bargain he’s made until it’s way too late. Lin is decent as the love interest, though I really wish she could have been a little more competent and a little less the helpless, screaming heroine.

Finally, I think James Medina does great as Hector, the leader of the Razorheads. Most of the movie he’s kind of creepy and threatening, but he does reveal some good traits after he joins with Cody against the teachers. He has some good interactions with Gregg as well.

For the most part, I love Class of 1999 because it is competently made, albeit low budget; and because of its anti-authority message. One of my favorite touches, the moving signs around school that kind of act as a Greek chorus, help bring out the kind of nightmarish world the characters inhabit. When the characters first enter the school, it’s under one such sign that displays the words “Respect, Obey, Learn!” The school represents the system that has placed the gang members in their current position, and in the end is what they unite together to bring down. The explosive (literally) final battle in the end is obviously on a low budget, but the crewmembers just as obviously did everything they could with what they had.

Overall, Class of 1999 is a low-budget but competently made little B-movie about striking against authority. It requires a little suspension of disbelieve, but it has a few parts that seem prescient. Above all, it’s fun. Class of 1999 isn’t high art, but not all entertainment has to be.

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