Before Lean on Me and The Substitute there was The Principal. This movie just makes it onto the radar as a guilty pleasure. It's just so cheesy, corny, and clichéd you can't help but like the good old-fashioned story of the underdog overcoming the odds. And, if nothing else, James Belushi looks really cool in his motorcycle duds.
Facts of the Case
Rick Latimer (James Belushi, Red Heat, Jingle All the Way, Mr. Destiny) has a bad temper. One night while boozing up with his buddies at his favorite watering hole, his recently divorced ex-wife makes an appearance. Rick is excited because he immediately thinks that she wants to get back together with him; he should have realized it was the alcohol that was talking. That little fantasy is quickly popped when her divorce lawyer shows up for their date. This infuriates Rick, who grabs a baseball bat from on display behind the bar and goes after the lawyer. Mayhem ensues at the bar, and it ends up in the parking lot where Rick smashes the lawyer's car. (Of course, nobody in this crowded establishment made any attempt to stop him nor is he banned from the bar for his behavior—even after he trashes the bar on his return visit!)
News of Rick's breakdown makes it to his bosses, and that yields both good and bad news. As Rick is a high school teacher, it doesn't bode well for someone in his position to go postal. However, because of this same mean streak, the school board believes they've found an excellent solution to two of their problems. Brandel High School's principal has just quit, and Rick has been given a promotion to fill the vacancy. Brandel is the worst high school in the district, where the dregs of the district end up. As a result, the school is replete with every imaginable problem: vandalism, low morale, low-test scores, delinquency, drugs, running in the halls, and a host of other crimes. Rick has only the smallest fraction of an idea of how much trouble he's about to walk into.
Riding his motorcycle to the campus on his first day, the crap hits the fan the very second he comes within eyesight of the school. He finds a white student being chased by a car filled with black youths. They just about run the boy down, and then attack him on the campus. Rick comes riding to the rescue and breaks up the fight (not to mention almost breaking a vending machine). He then drags the two kids to his office, much to the surprise of the staff, and begins expulsion proceedings. It's at this point where he finds out the many layers of trouble plaguing Brandel, and he learns that the faculty and staff are not in control of the school.
Teenage mafioso Victor Duncan (Michael Wright, Point Break, Oz, V) is heavy into the local drug trade and is practically untouchable—he has power and people to protect him. No matter what crime he commits, no one will come forward against him. Thus, with impunity, he has taken over the school and everyone fears him, except the new principal. Rick realizes that there is very little to be proud of in his life, and he thus makes it his mission to clean up the school and rid the students of the crime and mayhem around them. His one and only ally in this massive endeavor is Jake (Louis Gossett Jr., An Officer and A Gentleman, Iron Eagle), head of school security.
Slowly, Rick begins to clean up the corruption at Brandel—first on his staff, then with the students. It's a dangerous task, as Duncan has absolutely no intention of surrendering his control to the new principal. If necessary, Duncan will send Rick home in a body bag! Will Rick survive? Will Duncan maintain control?
This is neither groundbreaking nor award winning cinema, but it is fun in it's own way. It's always enjoyable to watch a story where an underdog has to fight incredible odds to win. While the story is told in a "serious fashion" and everyone acts accordingly, the movie doesn't completely play out as a serious drama—there's just a bit too much camp that makes the movie unintentionally humorous. I have a feeling that just about everyone has seen all or some part of this film in its numerous airings on TV, and you all thus know what I'm talking about. Don't get me wrong, this is good camp. You've got to smile when you see Belushi in that leather jacket riding his bike. You can remember the double take you made when you heard Gossett Jr. speak his first line because you couldn't believe the ridiculous accent he uses. You remember seeing Rae Dawn Chong's (Soul Man, Commando, The Color Purple) name so prominently listed on the film, and then wonder why her part was so lame—obviously her name was billed higher because she was at the peak of her popularity. And, you remember how trite and contrived some of the scenes were written—oh how convenient that Rick was strolling around the school just in time to see "that" happen!
As hokey as this movie may come off, it isn't all that bad. It does border on being a guilty pleasure, and everyone did an admirable job of putting the film together: nice direction, decent cinematography (for being stuck inside a school most of the time), and nice acting performances (except for Rae) from the stars. It's a shame that TriStar didn't take its cue from the film and do more of an admirable job in making this DVD. First and foremost is the abominable full screen transfer of the film. Taking a cue from another judge, if it's not presented (or at least available) in its original aspect ratio, then the video score is automatically halved. On top of being pan and scan, the transfer itself is quite weak and shows the movie's age. The transfer is soft, grainy, a tad dirty, and dull. What is good about it is that the color palette is accurate, there's no pixelization, artifacting, moiré patterns, or edge enhancement to further distract you. The audio transfer is also disappointing but good enough for the film. A Dolby Digital 2.0 track gives you clear and clean dialogue and not much else. I did find that this track was quite uneven, as I had to turn the volume up far beyond my "normal" range to hear the dialogue, and then had to quickly turn it down when there was no dialogue but only music. The only special features on the '80s gem are a handful of trailers.
By the way, I wonder where the genesis of this idea came from? Let's see, this movie was released in 1987, which is obviously before Lean on Me in 1989. But, it is certainly after the story of Joe Clark began to leak into newspapers. Joe Clark became principal of Eastside High in 1983, giving Hollywood writers several years of material to work with. Do you think it's a coincidence that Joe Clark and Rick Latimer are both fond of wielding a baseball bat?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This film is a true classic that inspired many others to try and imitate the successful formula of this original. Who doesn't enjoy seeing someone attempt to rise above the huge odds around him to save the day? Everyone turns in a fine acting performance—especially James who finally began to drift away from purely comedic roles. An excellent and inspiring tale that proves that one person can make a difference.
The principal is your pal!
As much as I might enjoy this movie and its cheesy fun, I simply cannot recommend this disc. The transfers are relatively weak, and TriStar has offered us only a hack and scan version. Top that with no special features (but are there really any to offer?) and this disc is a huge disappointment. Save your money for other educationally relevant titles.
Guilty. TriStar is fined one million dollars, to be paid personally by the CEO, for trying to peddle a hack and scan version of the film. They normally do a better job and need to be taught a lesson, before they think this is the right curriculum to follow. Case adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Trailers for The Principal and Race the Sun
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