Light It Up
1999, R, 97 min. Directed by Craig Bolotin. Starring Usher Raymond, Judd Nelson, Forest Whitaker, Rosario Dawson, Robert Ri'Chard, Fredo Starr, Sara Gilbert, Vanessa L. Williams.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Nov. 12, 1999
Judd Nelson is finally back to his old Breakfast Club stomping ground, but this time around there's guns, a wounded cop, and a media circus to match the angst roiling within the five kids trapped in the Queens, New York, high school they've, well, commandeered. Actually, Bolotin's film matches up the old John Hughes classic with 1984's Toy Soldiers to make a decent jab at the system, and elicits fewer accidental guffaws than you might imagine. To say Light It Up panders to teenage kids' fantasies of bustin' loose in home room understates the case, and to say that it also grovels to the general air of high school paranoia (Littleton, Colorado, et al.) is equally obvious. This is strictly B-grade, teen revenge thriller territory, though; it lacks the Cormanesque smarts of, say, Mark Lester's Class of 1984. Still, taken for what it is (heartfelt marketing plea for a better teenage world), it's easy enough to swallow and even easier to forget. Nelson plays Mr. Knowles, a teacher of something or other (we're never told, exactly) at distressed Lincoln High School in Queens. Not that you can tell straight off that this is Queens -- that borough's wonderfully nasal native accents are nowhere to be found, and, frankly, this looks a little more like the Warsaw Ghetto to me, or maybe Beirut during a particularly chilly fall. At Lincoln, water pools on every available surface, central heat appears to be a euphemism for the NYPD, and even the windows don't close. Meanwhile, new cop on the high school beat Dante Jackson (Whitaker) is convinced that every kid there is a gangbanger and the principal just doesn't get it, man. Leave it to Mr. Knowles to save the day when he triumphantly marches his charges off-campus to learn the Three Rs at a diner down the street. That's a bad move, tenure-wise, and Knowles is hastily suspended, resulting in a melee between class and cop that ends with shots fired, officer down, and kids in control of the school and angling with NYPD hostage negotiator (Williams) for “more books and better windows.” From this point on, Bolotin plays things as a modern-day urban morality play, pitting the kids (among them Raymond as the good kid whose dad died at the hands of the NYPD; Ri'chard as the tormented artist naïf; Starr as the gangbanger; Gilbert as the sad, bad, not-so-dangerous-to-know girl, now with child; and Dawson as the sensitive grade queen) against the establishment. It's a hokey affair at the best of times, and Bolotin's direction lacks anything even remotely resembling flair, but when we see Raymond tell his tale of woe (in extreme close-up, no less), it can be downright painful. The message, at least, is a good one: Don't shoot your high school safety officer unless you're prepared to let the media exploit your situation to sell ad revenues. At least I think that was it.