Light It Up (1999)
Directed by Craig Bolotin
Cast: Usher Raymond, Forest Whitaker, Rosario Dawson, Robert Ri'chard, Sara Gilbert, Fredro Starr, Clifton Collins Jr., Judd Nelson, Glynn Turman, Vanessa L. Williams, Vic Polizos.
1999 98 minutes
Rated: (for violence and profanity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, November 13, 1999.
An attempt at a teen movie, a 'la "The Breakfast Club," mixed with social commentary on inner-city schools, the media, and misunderstood youth, "Light It Up" goes wrong in so many ways that it quickly grows annoying. Swiftly moving from one scene to the next, there is barely any time to get to know the characters (and we don't), and before you know it, the film is over and you're left wondering why the movie didn't go through a few rewrites before filming commenced.
Set almost exclusively over a 24-hour period at Lincoln High School, a broken-down, scummy building in Queens, NY, the day begins disastrously and only gets worse. While teaching one of his classes, the window in his classroom breaks, letting in the unbearably cold winter air, and a well-liked professor, Ken Knowles (Judd Nelson), must find a warm place to teach. The library is taken, as is the gym, auditorium, and cafeteria, and after the frustratingly one-sided Principal Armstrong (Glynn Turman) tells him to take the kids anywhere, Mr. Knowles and the students go out to a nearby restaurant. Upon returning, Principal Armstrong is outraged Mr. Knowles would lead them off campus, and fires him. Outraged at this unfair act since Knowles was one of the few faculty members who cared about them, aspiring doctor Stephanie (Rosario Dawson), the determined Lester (Usher Raymond), and the innocent Ziggy (Robert Ri'chard), protest and are quickly threatened with suspension.
Through a chain of events, Ziggy accidentally shoots NYPD Officer Jackson (Forest Whitaker), Lester grabs the gun, pulls the fire alarm, and instructs everyone to leave the school. Soon, the police and media have surrounded the school, leaving the six students, which also include Lynn (Sara Gilbert), who just found out she was pregnant by a guy who wants nothing to do with her; the subtly rebellious Rivers (Clifton Collins Jr.); and troublesome Rodney (Fredro Starr), alone with Jackson, who is gradually losing a lot of blood. Persistent in taking a stand, the kids decide that in order to cooperate, they want certain demands met, all pertaining to fixing up the school. It soon becomes clear, however, that hostage negotiator Audrey McDonald (Vanessa L. Williams) is doing nothing to meet their requests, and with the police moving in, Lester, Stephanie, and the gang realize their time is running out.
"Light It Up," directed in strict television-drama mode by Craig Bolotin, stumbles within the first five minutes, due to shamefully and blatantly ripping off the opening of 1998's "The Faculty," in which the teen characters were introduced one at a time and their names were flashed upon the screen. The only relation to the two films is the appearance of R&B star Usher Raymond, and without the involvement of "The Faculty" director Robert Rodriguez or screenwriter Kevin Williamson, this is a storytelling device that only acts to uncover the film's utter imitativeness.
Furthermore, films about troubled schools (1995's "Dangerous Minds," 1996's "The Substitute") and hostage negotiations (1975's "Dog Day Afternoon," 1991's "Toy Soldiers") are a dime a dozen, and this one doesn't offer one original or insightful moment in its whole running time. We already knew that the media often distorts the truth, and that the problematic inner-city schools are in great danger; now tell me something I didn't know.
A well-meaning, yet derivative, film of this sort is basically made or broken by the writing and portrayals of the characters, and both aspects are unsatisfactorily handled. The screenplay, also by Bolotin, devotes very little time to the central six characters, or to Jackson, and what is offered is little more than the Cliffs Notes version of who each person is. Compared to 1985's classic "The Breakfast Club" in its press notes, "Light It Up" isn't even in the same ballpark. While "The Breakfast Club" thoughtfully examined each character, and how the high school years really are, "Light It Up" is in too mad of a rush to do anything of the sort. Maybe Bolotin should have been reminded that the viewer will not care about this story if they aren't given the credit of knowing the faces that litter the screen.
Even if the screenplay had been up to speed, the film would had to have been recast, as these lot of young actors are certainly not going to win any acting awards. In his first starring role, Usher Raymond switches from being understated to overacting, and rarely ever hits the right notes. Worse is Fredro Starr, whose character of Rodney is so vexatious and irredeemable that I cringed every time he was on screen. Narrating the picture, Robert Ri'chard, as Ziggy, leaves no impression at all, nor does Clifton Collins Jr.'s role of Rivers. Meanwhile, Rosario Dawson (1998's "He Got Game") is fetching and passionate as A-student Stephanie, and Sara Gilbert (TV's "Roseanne") handles her sparse character-defining moments with reasonable aplomb. The adult roles are all empty-headed and forgettable, from the usually reliable Forest Whitaker, to Vanessa L. Williams' "take-the-paycheck-and-run" cameo, to Judd Nelson's earnest Mr. Knowles.
Following a stringently straight line, "Light It Up" never wanders off its thoroughly cliched path, nor does it even attempt to. Its as if writer-director Bolotin was so enthusiastic about actually making a movie that he forgot to concentrate and make one that was actually rewarding. The film would like to be a meaningful slice-of-life, but it says nothing advantageous at all about the world we live in, and even climaxes with that old, reliable standby, in which a dying character sputters out words of wisdom right before drawing his last breath. How can a film be perceived as realistic when it is rarely ever convincing? Bolotin attempts this amazing trick, and let's just say the rabbit never turns up in his top hat.
©1999 by Dustin Putman