Director Jackie Kong’s filmography makes for interesting viewing for all fellow cult enthusiasts; she dabbled in schlocky monster horror with The Being and then moved towards Police Academy territory with the enjoyably off the wall Night Patrol. The Underachievers, made the same year as Kong’s brilliant Blood Diner, brings her own unique brand of oddball directing to the goldmine of 80s comedies; the High School/College sub-genre.
USA, 1987, Jackie Kong
Things start up fast, in fact the plot doesn’t so much begin as stumble drunkenly outside and crash into a whole slew of plot points then fall down some the stairs, tumbling forward at a dizzying pace.
I’ll try my best to explain; Danny Masters (Edward Albert) finds himself arrested for gang fighting a rival team at a baseball game. His dad who runs the team refuses to bail him out, because rather randomly he suddenly thinks Danny is a total loser and disowns him. Danny is then forced by the police to wear a wire and get close to his old high school buddy; now current mob boss Joey Rizzoli. Danny then in turn is forced by Joey to spy on his whorish wife and make sure she stays faithful when she goes to night school.
Coincidentally, the night school she’s going to has been forced to provide lessons for free, so a whole slew of lowlifes and criminals arrive at the joint to get educated. Oh and of course this being an 80s comedy, all authority figures (namely the teachers) are portrayed as snobbish, repulsive bigots who then begin conspiring to sabotage the whole shebang.
So… that was the first ten minutes of the film. Were you able to follow? If not, don’t worry, you shouldn’t care and neither does Kong, its all an excuse for her to speed through an extensive checklist of high school/college comedy clichés in a lean 90 minute running time.
Amazingly she’s pretty much able to hit all necessary marks. Random boobies in the first 15 minutes? Check. Food fight? Check. A last chance to save the school in a random sports stand-off? Check. Unnecessary car chase? Check. A third act turnaround where the underdogs go from zero to heroes? Of course! Even down to the cheesy pop tune booming over the training montage.
Everything is present but unlike most movies in the sub-genre (or in fact, movie media in general) instead of these scenes being presented in a standard structure, the filmmakers are more content to throw them all in your face at once, making for a disjointed experience, but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t entertaining.
Cast wise it’s pretty low tier, to call leading man Albert miscast would be an understatement; the man looks like he’d be more at home in a episode of a Dudley Do Right than be the supposed hip, streetwise anti-hero he’s meant to come off as. The film’s best attempt to convince us otherwise is by playing cool factor/street credit by decking him out in some of the worst fashion this side of a Duran Duran video, you can look for yourself and guess if it works or not.
Filling out the other roles we’ve got one of my childhood lust figures Barbara Carrera as the protagonists love interest. Sadly she’s hidden behind an uptight school marm’s outfit for majority of the running time until the final scene where she’s decked out like Crusty the Clown (the 80s were strange times for clothing indeed).
The only supporting cast that really stood out for me is cult stock player Susan Tyrell at her manic best as the irredeemable and suitably vicious member of the school board. Her fistfight with Carrera is one the films highlights; fast, funny and with one of those obligatory shots were two people dive through a window in slow-mo.
There is a lot to enjoy about The Underachievers even though it has a major flaw; it’s a comedy where its jokes fall flat 95 percent of the time. Kong’s earlier effort Night Patrol is stronger in terms of laughs and performances. Regardless the film has its heart in the right place, like a mangy dog happy to see you and eager to play, you can’t help but warm to it regardless of its bad breath as it tries to lick your face. Not to mention everything moves at such a breakneck pace you have little time to mind since its over before you know it with one of the most bewildering endings I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing.
I’m still perplexed if the final scene (I won’t spoil it) was meant as a political statement or was just more random zaniness, it’s worth your while to check for yourself.
Sadly, The Underachievers is yet to see a DVD release. However, the VHS is easy to come by and doesn’t fetch more than a few bucks.