By the mid-1980s, gang violence had become a serious problem for American society. With the emergence of the relatively cheap and highly addictive crack cocaine, street gangs were able to turn a tidy profit and become real players in the world of organised crime, leading to the kind of all-out warfare that had middle class white America running for the hills. By 1980, rival gangs the Crips and the Bloods had grown to have an estimated 15,000 members, the bulk of them kids aged between 14 and 24. Forced to defend their suburban territories, drive-by shootings became commonplace as peewee violence poured out into the inner-cities.
In 1982, director Mark L. Lester tackled the issue in Class of 1984, a no-nonsense revenge flick in the Charles Bronson vein, one that saw Republican America go eye-for-an-eye, thriving on the very violence it was supposed to be condemning. The movie proved somewhat accurate by introducing metal detectors and security guards to its fictional high school, something that would become a reality less than a decade later in a society that had long-since suckled at the teat of media-spun hysteria following a rise in classroom violence, a subject that would even make its way into the spoof-happy realms of Naked Gun series.
Taking over writing duties from cult horror director Tom Holland, it was around that time that Lester returned to the socio-political fray with loose sci-fi sequel Class of 1999. This was an era when gangster rap emerged from the suburban battlegrounds, speaking out, rather vociferously, against corrupt authorities and institutional prejudice, making a statement against systemic racism that inevitably led to more. At its core, Class of 1999 is a dystopian allegory denouncing such behaviour. It’s also utter garbage.
When I say Garbage, I of course mean it in the most positive sense. Class of 1999 presents the kind of hackneyed futurescape that could have been imagined by a bunch of rambunctious toddlers in their parents’ backyard with props pulled straight out of a toy chest. Even more ridiculous is the fact that a movie with such political aspirations takes such a whimpering road. Lester is quick to distance himself from any direct controversy. Black kids are almost non-existent in this movie, replaced instead by runtish Bon Jovi fanboys trying their utmost to appear intimidating. Cops are also notable by their absence, an Escape from New York-style opening making clear that the perilous schoolyard is out of bounds for law enforcement in a way that makes playground warfare fair game. But in a mutinous land of drugs and murder, would those troubled tykes continue to attend school in the first place? I mean, if they were so damned scary, would they really turn up to class with their notepads and packed lunches day after day, year after year? Something tells me not.
One youngster looking to turn his life around is former gang leader Cody Culp (Gregg). After a stint in the slammer he disappoints his younger siblings by refusing to get high on designer drug Edge ― a characteristic that the majority of the cast are severely lacking ― and after informing the rest of the Black Hearts that he is through with the thug life, he is ostracised on both sides and treading a precarious line. Struggling with his newfound solitude, loner Cody soon finds solace in Christie (Lind), who is so out of place in this juvenile war zone you wonder why her parents sent her there to begin with, particularly since her father is the headteacher. When she’s almost raped and students begin dropping like flies, her dad at least shows some concern, but he’s more than happy to send her back to the classroom almost immediately. Perhaps he had some urgent admin to attend to.
Meanwhile, serpent-eyed scaremonger Dr. Forrest (Stacey Keach) has his own ideas about how to influence the scourge of the playground, convincing the school’s head, Dr. Miles Langford (Malcolm McDowell), to install military cyborgs in the classroom, and he agrees. Operating on a whopping one terabyte per unit, these machines are indistinguishable from your average human being, neither acting nor behaving like machines ― and to the movie’s detriment. With The Terminator, James Cameron nailed the concept by casting a wooden Arnold Schwarzenegger and creating a monster that was free from prejudice and relentless in the pursuit of its goal. These machines actually take pleasure in their work, a fact that makes them a) less terrifying and b) less effective as servants. The key to a successful army is to dehumanise its soldiers, not spend billions creating autonomous machines full of pesky emotions, a fact that multibillion-dollar conglomerate Mega-tech singularly fails to understand.
To be fair, Mega-tech does get the most out of its USB-brained super machines. Not only are they proficient in the fundamentals of education, they are programmed to deliver very particular levels of punishment based on each student’s profile and behaviour, and according to their NES-style action screens are highly skilled in karate moves, punches, kicks and the dreaded fight combinations #1 and #2. Safe in that knowledge, the androids waste no time in stamping their authority, dishing out various forms of tolerable, though incredibly perverse corporal punishment, proving that a bit of hands-on-bondage is enough to bring out the submissive side in anyone, regardless of how crazy and armed-to-the-teeth.
Class of 1999 crashes forth like an exposition express fuelled by nitrous oxide, but where the movie does excel is in its overblown action sequences. This is hardly surprising for a director who can add testosterone-pumped Arnie vehicle Commando to his back catalogue, though asides from featuring an in-his-pomp Schwarzenegger and making a shitload of money, Commando is little more than B-movie pap masquerading as Hollywood spectacular, a production with more cinematic faux pas than the rest of Arnie’s back catalogue put together. Put succinctly, Lester is more than at home in the urban battlegrounds of schlock, and Class of 1999 is no exception. Anyone with a taste for bottom-rung hokum is in for a seriously delicious treat.
It certainly helps that former Hollywood player Lester is able to recruit the kind of secondary cast that was once considered royalty. This alone is enough to elevate the movie’s entertainment value, a past-their-peak combination of A Clockwork Orange‘s McDowell and perennial bad guy Keach providing Class of 1999 with some much needed acting clout, despite the fact that they have very little to work with and are clearly phoning-in their performances from a very long distance. In a move that foreshadows Tarantino’s modus for returning former stars to past glories, we also get blaxploitation bad ass Pam Grier as a flame-wielding android daubed in the kind of second-rate practical effects that will leave you giddy with disbelief, though unlike her memorable turn in slick gangster thriller Jackie Brown, she’s clearly in it for the pay cheque. Good luck to her, I say.
Class of 1999 also stars the ever wonderful John P. Ryan. You may remember him as the maniacal drug lord who sent Paul Kersey on his fourth vengeance-fuelled rampage in Cannon’s equally dubious Death Wish 4: The Crackdown, before eating the wrong end of a bazooka in one of the most abrupt and overblown cowboys at dawn stand-offs ever committed to celluloid. Action movie aficionados may even recognise him from Michael Dudikoff/Steve James action vehicle Avenging Force, another Cannon classic which sees Ryan play an equally extravagant Republican madman who hunts humans for game and guns down kids with a wild-eyed insouciance that trumps even this movie. Here, he revels in the role of lead droid Mr. Hardin, a pipe-smoking, tweed-wearing menace who steals the show from under everyone’s nose. Ryan has done the B-movie rounds and always seems to attack his roles with relish, regardless of how low-profile. When it comes to chewing the scenery in self-aware action fodder of this variety, the man has very few peers.
I’m sure many of you will struggle to get through the first act of Lester’s harebrained follow-up, but if you have a taste for the ludicrously absurd this movie will be right up your alley. Like the majority of sci-fi schlock to come of out the late 80s, Class of 1999 ultimately descends into a farcical intimation of The Terminator‘s climactic scene, one that sees our indestructible killers put out of commission with a forklift truck travelling at a death-defying 2mph. I can only assume that Mega-tech went into liquidation shortly afterwards.