Monday 26 June 2023

Class of 1999 (1990)

Director: Mark L. Lester
Writer: C. Courtney Joyner
Stars: Bradley Gregg, Traci Lin, John P. Ryan, Pam Grier, Patrick Kilpatrick, Joshua Miller, Stacy Keach and Malcolm McDowell

Index: The First Thirty.

There are a lot of cult movies to be found in Pam Grier’s filmography, especially during the seventies when her forte was women in prison flicks and blaxploitation. I’d seen most of them before, but I hadn’t seen her later cult films, 1981’s Fort Apache, the Bronx and this 1990 gem.

I see the names on lists and I’m very happy that this project allowed me to catch up with them. Of all the films in the second half of her First Thirty, it’s these, and The Vindicator, that I enjoyed most and am most likely to revisit.

This is the second in a trilogy of Class films that are only loosely connected. The original was 1982’s Class of 1984, a cult film in its own right, then this and finally Class of 1999 II: The Substitute, which featured a few flashbacks to this film but was otherwise unrelated.

The common factor is that they’re all set in a dystopian near future. Mass shootings didn’t prompt police forces to emulate the military as they did in our world; instead they led to an abdication of effort. The Constitution has been abolished, private businesses are banned and control of cities has fallen to street gangs. Free fire zones now exist where the police have no jurisdiction and what little law enforcement happens is by the Department of Educational Defense, which is part of the C.I.A.

Kennedy High School in Seattle is located in the middle of a free fire zone and the D.E.D. is taking an innovative approach to martial law there. They’re partnering with Dr. Bob Forrest of MegaTech, who looks and sounds utterly off his rocker but clearly has the clout to make a heck of a difference with his secret program, XT6, to deal with disciplinary problems.

What’s XT6? Why, thank you for asking. It’s where MegaTech repurposes humanoid robots previously used by the military into teachers. What could possibly go wrong, as they say?

Well, we expect everything to go wrong and for Dr. Bob to not care, given that Stacy Keach has white hair but a black moustache, a weird ponytail worthy of a credit of its own, a pair of bizarrely cheap contact lenses and a complete disconnect from human morality.

Now, it’s well known that filmmakers can’t make cult films on their own; the audience is needed to turn films into cult films. However, the presence of Stacy Keach in this form helps, as does Malcolm McDowell, as long suffering Kennedy High principal, Dr. Miles Langford.

How long suffering? Well, he has 3,287 kids in his school and 2,210 of those are members of gangs. Violent incidents happen every two and a half hours. Classes literally lock down at start time with hall monitors in body armour. There’s only so much that the razorwire and guard posts can do, even if school buses have roll cages and weapons must be surrendered.

That’s why there’s Pam Grier, as one of a set of three new XT6 teaching robots. She’s Miss Connors, Patrick Kilpatrick is Mr. Bryles and John P. Ryan is Mr. Hardin. None of them will stand for any nonsense at all and can defend themselves impeccably.

For instance, chem class hasn’t even started when some of the gang kids tell Miss Connors where to go. She tries verbal commands, then accelerates to physical punishment. They fall in line. Mr. Hardin operates on zero tolerance. When a fight breaks out in his history class, he goes right to physical punishment, spanking one combatant while standing on the other.

Mr. Bryles is the most unhinged of the three and he quickly causes the first death. The hero of the piece, Cody Culp, who’s being let out of jail because he’s honestly cleaned up his act, is quickly disciplined for saving the principal’s daughter from being raped. Needless to say, Dr. Langford keeps that out of his record but Mr. Bryles keeps him after P.E. to wrestle him into submission. When Cody’s friend Mohawk saves him with a gun, Bryles breaks his neck.

As the deaths add up, Dr. Langford begins to have second thoughts about this batshit crazy program but Dr. Forrest sees deaths as data. It seems the program is evolving faster than he expected. Stacy Keach is having so much fun, he even eats a banana as he talks about it.

I’m sure you can see where this is going, but it’s all handled with the utmost sincerity and extreme firepower and both make it glorious fun. It’s not hard to see why it’s a cult film.

The good kids, which basically means Cody and the principal’s daughter, Christie, plus a ragtag band of whoever is willing to tag along with them, want to save the day, so they break into the teachers’ house seeking evidence that they’re not what they seem.

The teachers, secure in their programming, escalate their violence to guarantee discipline, which quickly shifts from murder by reaction to murder as preventative maintenance. That expands the scope from the school to Seattle at large and suddenly we’re in a gang war, the Razorheads vs. the Blackhearts, with the XT6 robots playing Yojimbo.

“They’re waging war with my students?” asks Dr. Langford. “Isn’t that what all teachers do?” replies Dr. Forrest.

It’s fair that the kids are given the majority of screen time here, because this is their story, as much as it’s anyone’s, especially Cody. He’s the lead in an action film, a redemption story, a family drama, a mystery and a romance, all inside what’s a school story at heart wrapped up in science fiction clothing.

However, it’s the teachers who are the most fun, because they’re the antagonists. They’re not really the villains, because they’re subject to their programming and that’s the work of Dr. Forrest, who we recognise as the villain as soon as we see his ponytail. The teachers are the ones kicking ass and taking names though, and all three of these actors have a blast.

Pam Grier takes being shot with automatic weapons as a thrill and a challenge. She’s been eviscerated so naturally turns her hand into a flamethrower and takes on all comers. It’s wild and wacky and wonderful and she obviously had a whale of a time shooting it.

I don’t know that Grier has any particular fondness for films like The Vindicator and Class of 1999 that seem to be designed to be watched on VHS tapes rented from Blockbuster in good company with plenty of pizza and beer. They gave her the opportunity to utterly dominate scenes, though, and that must have felt like a freeing experience in a decade that tended to relegate her to bit parts and nothing roles.

So here’s to cult film craziness!

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