Directed by Mark L. Lester. Starring Bradley Gregg, Traci Lind, Malcolm McDowell, Pam Grier, Patrick Kilpatrick, John P. Ryan, Stacy Keach, Joshua Miller. Horror/Sci-fi/Action, USA, 96 mins, cert 15.
Released in the UK on Blu-ray by Lionsgate on 25th February 2019.
At one time having Pam Grier (COFFY/FOXY BROWN) as your teacher would probably have been every teenage schoolboy's fantasy but in Mark L. Lester's 1990 sci-fi actioner CLASS OF 1999 that fantasy proves to be exciting in a different way as Grier plays Miss Connors, one of a trio of cyborg teachers hired to control discipline in the John F. Kennedy High School which is situated in the middle of a 'free fire zone', an area where the police refuse to go due to heavy gang violence. Miss Connors is joined by Mr. Bryles (Patrick Kilpatrick - DEATH WARRANT) and Mr. Hardin (John P. Ryan - DELTA FORCE 2), and together, along with school principal Miles Langford (Malcolm McDowell - A CLOCKWORK ORANGE) and the very strange Dr. Forest (Stacy Keach - MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD), they are enforcing a new regime in the school with zero tolerance towards any bad behaviour.
Which is unfortunate for Cody Culp (Bradley Gregg - A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS), a juvenile delinquent let out of prison but returning to a broken home and probably not up to dealing with more authority figures. In trying to go straight, however, Cody can see that the new teachers don't appear to be normal and their methods a bit extreme, and when members of Cody's former gang and their rivals start being killed for minor discrepancies the troubled teenager takes matters into his own hands, discovering the truth about the new teachers and uniting the two gangs to go to war.
Of course, this is a late 1980s view of a dystopian future so there is lots of big hair and shoulder pads but fashions aside, CLASS OF 1999 steers clear of going for camp and plays it fairly straight, doffing it's hat towards THE WARRIORS, THE TERMINATOR and ROBOCOP albeit being a bit more limited with what they could do on the budget they had. The idea that your teachers at school are really cyborgs - and not only cyborgs but former military units with sentient learning capabilities - is actually quite terrifying when you think about it more carefully and there is a very sinister undertone throughout that could easily have misfired had the casting not being right, and that is probably the greatest strength of the movie thanks to an experienced B-movie cast.
At its heart CLASS OF 1999 is an exploitation movie so who better than ‘70s blaxploitation queen Pam Grier to play the lethal chemistry teacher Miss Connors, and she plays it ice cool throughout which cannot be said for John P. Ryan who usually goes OTT in whatever role he’s in but here it works, with history teacher Mr. Hardin essentially the brains of the outfit and going from mild-mannered pipe smoking historian to a raving maniac in an instant. Also, Ryan adds a few little character quirks to Mr. Hardin, such as silently nodding in agreement whenever the subject of discipline is mentioned, that make his character feel a little more than just a mindless killing machine.
Which leads us to Patrick Kilpatrick as sadistic coach Mr. Bryles, who is the most physically intimidating of the trio. Kilpatirick has always looked like he enjoys going toe-to-toe with whichever muscle-bound action lead he happens to playing against – he has gone up against Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, Steven Seagal and Arnold Schwarzenegger in various movies – and here he gets to play the big bad and comes off very well as the Terminator-esque sports teacher (he would go on to play a Terminator in THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES years later). His character is the most fun and whenever Mr. Bryles appears you know there is going to be trouble, regardless of if there was any to begin with.
Naturally, Dr. Forest’s answer to it all is that if the kids behaved themselves there wouldn’t be a problem but life doesn’t work in black-and-whites, unlike Stacy Keach’s wig and contact lenses which give him a weird albino appearance. Dr. Forest drinks milk, eats bananas and seems to love interpreting his creations’ violence as a success, which makes him intriguing as a character but unfortunately nothing much comes of this as no explanation is given for his quirks, although Keach is always a joy to watch and plays the oddball scientist with obvious relish.
So the antagonists are all pretty good but what about the protagonists? Well, they don’t come off nearly as strong mainly because of the very serious nature of the performances, especially from Bradley Gregg and Joshua Miller as two of the three Culp brothers who just seem to think that straining your voice when reading lines makes your words sound tough. It doesn’t and Gregg comes off a bit Keanu Reeves-ish in his “Hey dude”-style delivery while Miller is just annoying. However, Traci Lind saves the day as the principal’s daughter and adds the right amount of colour and sparkle to an otherwise bland bunch of reprobates.
Released by Lionsgate as part of their revived Vestron Collector's Series, CLASS OF 1999 comes backed with crew interviews, trailers and an archive promo video but strangely nothing from any of the cast members. The picture quality is as colourful as you would expect from a late ‘80s sci-fi movie but with a bit of grain which keeps from exposing some of the less-than-perfect visual effects for the gags that they are. Overall, CLASS OF 1999 holds up as a hugely enjoyable and fairly tight exercise in sci-fi action/horror with enough going on in it to appeal to fans of all three genres, and while its budgetary limitations and occasional lapses in performance from some of the younger cast mean it will always play second fiddle to the higher profile movies that inspired it, it does have a life all of its own thanks to the cult following it has picked up over the years and this polished Blu-ray edition will now hopefully expose it to the wider audience it deserves.