Originally made for network television, this hostage thriller starring Rick Schroder (Silver Spoons, NYPD Blue), Henry Winkler (Happy Days), and Freddie Prinze Jr. (Down to You) is better than you might expect.
Facts of the Case
Jason Copeland (Schroder) has been on a downward spiral since flunking out of high school. Now, with no job, no prospects, and still living at home with a nagging, ailing mother, he has come to blame his former high school teachers for his misery.
Aaron Sullivan (Prinze) is a kid too smart for high school. He is so bored and unchallenged in school that he does not take it seriously, and is in danger of flunking out himself. He is in the middle of another pointless day at school when tragedy strikes.
Full of rage and hatred, Jason bursts into the school one morning with a 12-gauge shotgun, a revolver, and a massive supply of ammunition. He makes his way to a history classroom first, killing a teacher who promised to help him graduate but then gave him the failing grade that sealed his fate. From there he goes on a rampage, killing students and teachers at random. Eventually he finds himself in the band room, where he holes up with sixty-two students that he keeps as hostages. Aaron is among them, as is Samantha (Katie Wright—Idle Hands, The Sculptress), daughter of one of the local deputies.
When it comes time for the police to negotiate with Jason, the job falls to Skip Fine (Winkler), who the department sent to the FBI hostage negotiating seminar as a joke, since someone had to go and no one else wanted to do it. Soon he is in contact with Jason, often talking through Aaron who has fallen into the role of intermediary. The real story of the film is the building relationship between Skip and Jason as the deputy tries to get inside the gunman's head and negotiate a conclusion without any more bloodshed. In the process, we see Skip come into his own as a cop, and we feel the pain that drove Jason to such a violent, terrible act.
I was surprised at the high production values and mostly intelligent script behind Hostage High. The creative forces behind the movie have created a tense, fast-paced look at a hostage situation. The story is based on an actual event that happened in northern California in 1992. This grounding in reality may have been crucial in creating a realistic portrait of cops, gunman, and high school students trapped in such a situation. Sure, there are some stereotypes and clichés, especially in the high school characters and their interactions. On the other hand, clichés and stereotypes become such for a reason, and contain more than a grain of truth. I found the depiction of high school life, both before and during the action, to be surprisingly resonant, with a few exceptions.
Director Michael Watkins does a great job with the material as well, walking that fine line between the violence inherent in the story and the requirements of broadcast television. He cuts very skillfully, letting us see shotgun blasts head-on, but only catching glimpses of the aftermath. It is almost like a return to Hays office Hollywood, where directors had to rely on imagination and suggestion to depict violent acts. For the most part it is quite effective, and reminds us that suggestions and glimpses can create more tension than outright visual depictions. Watkins is able to build an amazing level of tension and intensity, in the process using close-ups and detail shots to great effect.
This is further aided by some very good performances from the leading actors. Rick Schroder (or, "Ricky" for those of us who grew up in the '80s) turns in a surprisingly dark, raw performance. At the time this movie was made he had not yet made his debut on NYPD Blue, and Hostage High is an amazing revelation of what Schroder is capable of as an actor. His biggest accomplishment here is getting the audience to sympathize with Jason Copeland, despite the horrific things he has just done.
Also providing a good performance is Freddie Prinze, Jr. of all people. As Aaron, the kid drawn into the middle of the discussions between Jason and the cops, he is quite effective. He creates a realistic picture of a smarter-than-average high school kid, scared out of his mind but also able to gain Jason's confidence and provide unexpected help to the police in their efforts to resolve the situation. I'm not sure what happened to Prinze after this movie; he shows acting skills here that have been woefully absent from any of his feature films. Maybe he can only act when he's whispering.
Some actors are lucky enough to create a character that will follow them for the rest of their lives. This winds up being a mixed blessing; it confers a sort of immortality, but it also makes it very hard for that actor to be seen in any other role. Matthew Broderick will always be Ferris Bueller. Mark Hamill will always be Luke Skywalker. William Shatner will always be Captain Kirk. Henry Winkler will always be known to the world as Arthur Fonzarelli, even though he has spent the better part of the past two decades trying to break out of that mold. In fact, in much of Winkler's recent work he has tended to play characters that are the anti-Fonz. For example, in a recent guest appearance on TV's The Practice, he appeared as a dentist with a bug fetish. Here too, Winkler plays a man who is anything but cool and in control. As Skip Fine, he starts out as bumbling and unsure of himself, the oddball in the sheriff's department who has never been accepted by his colleagues. Through the course of the movie, we see a lot of growth in Fine as a character, transforming before our eyes into a skilled, masterful hostage negotiator. Winkler does a good job of showing us the character's insecurity and vulnerability. Still, I hope that some day he plays at least one more cool, collected, smooth character; I think all of us who were born between about 1970 and 1980 secretly desire that from Winkler when he is on the screen, regardless of the part he is currently playing.
Hostage High is an Artisan DVD release. It is presented full frame, which is only natural due to its origins on network television. Picture quality is above average for this kind of material, with solid blacks and faithful colors. There is quite a bit of grain evident, and some very bad aliasing in almost any curved edges. I also spotted some moiré problems in textures such as Venetian blinds. Solid surfaces do exhibit some digital defects and false motion at times, but nothing extreme. On the plus side, I detected little if any edge enhancement. Overall, the transfer is acceptable but not great.
The audio mix is adequate but nothing special. Sound effects and dialogue come through clearly and are well mixed. However, many of the sound effects, notably shotgun blasts, lack the desired punch and sound a bit weak. Overall, the dynamic range seems a bit pinched, without a lot of action in either the high or low registers. And, as is so common these days, the background music is overmixed, leading to the dreaded "used car commercial" effect whenever a song plays on the soundtrack.
Extra content on a disc like this is an unexpected pleasure. There are the usual biographies and filmographies of actors and filmmakers, a limited stills gallery with twelve pictures, and an inexplicably red-banded trailer. I have no idea why there would be a theatrical trailer for this movie, since it was a made-for-TV affair, and I can certainly not fathom why the trailer would be an R-Rated, red-band trailer.
The true gem amidst the extra content is a commentary track featuring producer Steve Natt and Henry Winkler. It is an interesting and informative track. Winkler has spent his share of time in the director's chair, and clearly knows his stuff. His experience and insights are quite valuable as the pair discusses this movie. They also interact well with each other, bouncing questions and challenging each other's memories of the production. Perhaps one won't learn a lot about filmmaking from this track, but I found it quite interesting. My one complaint with the commentary track would be that it does have some extended gaps in the conversation.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There were a few elements about Hostage High that did not sit well with me. First, there is a recurring "stay in school" message throughout the film. Don't get me wrong; that is a worthy message and one that kids should hear and obey. However, trying to work that message into the story of this particular tragedy seemed forced and trite, and at times reduced Hostage High to an after-school special with guns.
Still, that is a fairly forgivable problem compared to Artisan's choices in the packaging and marketing of this DVD. The tagline, "School's out…FOREVER!" and the DVD packaging showing a school bursting into flames seem purely exploitative. [Editor's Note: I wonder if Alice Cooper gets a kickback every time that phrase is used…] I assume that re-submitting this movie to the MPAA just to get the all-important R rating was another ploy along these lines. Hostage High is a relatively well-done small film with good characters and story; this sort of sensationalism just to sell a few DVD's seems cheap.
One other small complaint arises from the characterizations of the teachers. As is typical in movies and television, the teachers are all depicted as energetic young standup comedians. None of the teachers I had in high school made game show buzzer sound effects or spoke as though they were announcing a boxing match. I dare say they were much more effective as teachers than the caricatures depicted here could ever be.
While Hostage High is a respectable effort, it is clearly a product of a different time, even if it is only four years old. Its realistic depictions of chaos and panic are well done, but seem much less appropriate fodder for entertainment now that we have been through such events as the Columbine massacre. Even the ending, carefully constructed to be happy yet tinged with loss, rings hollow after the very unhappy endings we have seen more recently in real world events.
Hostage High is acquitted despite a few flaws. It may be a TV movie, but if everything on TV were up to a comparable standard we'd all be a lot better off.
We stand adjourned.
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