“Dangerously Close” (1986)

While I’m on the subject of 1980s pretty-boy actors that turned to writing and/or directing too young, I might as well devote some space to “Dangerously Close,” the 1986 teen exploitation outing co-written by actor John Stockwell; while not on Netflix, it can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube. Produced by my favorite overzealous schlockmeisters at Cannon, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the film was most notable for the clean-cut Stockwell’s attempt to portray a ruthless preppie vigilante. Shortly before the film’s release, Stockwell told the Atlanta Journal and Constitution that it was director Albert Pyun’s idea to cast him as the head vigilante. Stockwell got a kick out of exploring “the other side” of the wholesome characters he played in “Christine,” “Top Gun” and “Losin’ It.” But even when he grabs his brain-dead girlfriend (Carey Lowell) by the arm, or shoves her onto the bed, or plays malicious pranks on the “outcasts” in his high school (his gang, the Sentinels, has a particular aversion to punks and malcontents), Stockwell merely comes off like a preppie in a vaguely foul mood.

I saw “Dangerously Close” about two years ago (a friend of mine bought me the VHS tape) and since the plot is so threadbare and preposterous–but in a boring, uninvolving, not particularly funny way–what I remember most about it is the quick-cut editing, the way Pyun breaks up potentially gripping scenes with irrelevant shots of cars squealing, teens fighting, teens posing. Pyun favors foggy, moonlit chase scenes in the woods, with faraway shots of the preppie gang (clad in camouflage gear) perpetrating various misdeeds that gradually escalate in viciousness. First a wimpy kid is strung up by his feet on a tree, but the gang just squirts ketchup at him and laughs; later on, a stoner punk with an earring is placed in the same position and murdered. These scenes have a sort-of forced gruesomeness, but they’re too frequently cut short–or diminished through cheesy, self-important slo-mo-and-opera montages. (Elsewhere, though, the film has a decent rock soundtrack; the early, brooding Depeche Mode song “A Question of Lust” intensifies an otherwise silly sexual jealousy sequence).

Much funnier are the initial scenes demonstrating how shallow and identity-free the high school is. When the main character (J. Eddie Peck)–who looks exactly like the preppie gang members except for his glasses and scruffy, eye-shrouding haircut–drives to school in a beat-up, music-blasting car with his punk friend, all of the various airheads and jocks in the parking lot turn to glare at him, in polished close-up. They’re the squarest kids imaginable, yet their mentality dominates a 1980s high school. It’s also pretty funny to watch Peck channel James Dean when he pushes his honest father around, ordering him to wash the lasagna stain out of his shirt (he’s just as image-consciousness as his foes). The teens in this movie have extraordinary control over the adults, whether it’s their parents or the hapless guidance counselor (Madison Mason) who’s somehow involved with the Sentinels’ killings. The Sentinels are the Armani-and-sweater-wearing rich kids, taking after their authoritarian, elitist parents. They hate graffiti, they hate anarchy, they hate non-conformity.

But none of this is played for laughs, nor really for suspense. The only real plot concerns Peck’s recruitment by these fascists to join their crew. Stockwell follows Peck around the offices of the school newspaper, where he serves as editor (and not a very good one; the film’s opening shots track over one of his articles, where he misspells the word “vigilantes”); he follows him to his after-school job as a pool boy. He lures him with promises of–well, I guess acceptance, but Peck’s character doesn’t seem to possess a soul worth holding on to. He’s a brooding blank, and we don’t feel his attachment to his outcast friend nor his sense of manly duty in protecting Lowell from her psycho boyfriend (Lowell’s first words to him are: “Nice jacket. I love that thrift shop stuff but my mom won’t let me wear it.”)

Nor do we feel the sense of power that Stockwell’s group possesses; most of them are growling or cackling idiots who alternately pose, swear and break things. It’s a vacant movie about vacant people, and never as funny as it should be (though sometimes the mannered sulking on display provokes some titters). The last close-up shot, however, is executed so badly (in style, editing, mood, choice of music, etc) that it’s worth it to watch until the end.

The critics trounced all over “Dangerously Close,” as if the vigilantes were stringing them up from the trees. Mike McGrady of Newsday called the film “violent, unbelievable, crude, mechanical, dopey and otherwise somewhat flawed – in a word, trash.” Most searing was the usually gentle Roger Ebert’s zero-star review for Chicago Sun-Times.  “There is no evidence that “Dangerously Close” was intended to communicate anything to anybody,” Ebert wrote. “Its characters would not, if they were combined, add up to a single interesting person.”

Stockwell himself agreed with Ebert’s assertion that the high school characters resemble posing fashionistas rather than real teenagers; naturally, he cast most of the blame on Pyun. “I thought [Pyun] made it too slick,” he told the Atlanta J0urnal and Constitution, in May 1987. “All the guys were male models.” (Stockwell had previously starred in Pyun’s nuclear war fantasy “Radioactive Dreams”; shot in 1985 but not released until four months after “Dangerously Close,” it was trashed by the LA Times as being “all dressed up with nowhere to go.”)

Paul Attanasio’s Washington Post review, however, noted some of the film’s merits, particularly its chilly production design. “This could have been the movie about Reagan-era youth that we’ve been waiting for since ‘Risky Business,'” Attanasio wrote. “But…the script…falls into lockstep as quickly as you can say ‘teen exploitation.'”

The only laudatory review came from the LA Times’ Patrick Goldstein, who touted “Dangerously Close” as “capturing the ugly underside of a new teen-age obsession, forcing us to marvel at its ferocity and shudder at its possible consequences” and praised Stockwell’s performance as “particularly chilling.”

A year later, Stockwell made his directorial debut with the critically savaged anti-drug flop “Under Cover,” also written by him and released by Cannon. In interviews leading up to the film’s release, Stockwell’s attitude could only be described as modest. “I’m starting out small. At least if I fall flat on my face, it won’t be a $15 million fall.”

Stockwell later wrote the David Schwimmer comedy “Breast Men” and the aquatic romp “Blue Crush” (which he also directed). In the past ten years, he has mostly directed other people’s scripts (for two other deep-sea sagas, “Into the Blue” and “Dark Tide,” and “Turistas,” a slasher pic set at a beach resort–he must keep up his suntan!) He occasionally revisits his dark streak in blood-soaked action comedies like “Cat Run,” released in 2011. He’s currently working on a film called “Kid Cannabis,” about marijuana trafficking, featuring Ron Perlman.

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