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"LIGHT IT UP"
(1999) (Usher Raymond, Forest Whitaker) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama/Suspense: Some students learn about each other after taking over their rundown school and holding a security guard hostage while trying to have their demands met.
PLOT:
Lincoln High School in Queens in literally falling apart. With no money to fix the myriad of problems facing it, the students are forced to attend freezing cold classes in leaky rooms. When Ken Knowles (JUDD NELSON) takes his class "off campus" to find a suitable place for learning, Principal Armstrong (GLYNN TURMAN) decides to suspend him despite being the one who told the teacher to find any place to hold the class.

Knowles' students, including Stephanie Williams (ROSARIO DAWSON), the brightest one who can't wait to get a better education, and Lester Dewitt (USHER RAYMOND), whose academic and athletic prowess has suffered ever since police shot his father several weeks earlier, protest the decision. When things begin to get out of control, Armstrong calls new security guard and current city cop, Officer Dante Jackson (FOREST WHITAKER), to handle the situation.

When Armstrong announces that Stephanie, Lester and his good friend and talented artist, Zacharias "Ziggy" Malone (ROBERT RI'CHARD), will be suspended and sent home for their actions, Ziggy freaks out, prompting Jackson to attempt to restrain both him and Lester. As a result, Jackson's firearm is accidentally shot, hitting the officer in the leg.

Realizing things will only get worse if they give in, Lester grabs Jackson's gun and takes the officer hostage, ordering most everyone else out of the school. Those staying include Ziggy and Stephanie, who decides she has to attend to Jackson's wound, as well as Robert "Rivers" Tremont (CLIFTON COLLINS, JR.), the school hustler who witnessed what transpired.

Joining them is Rodney J. Templeton (FREDRO STARR) the tough school thug who's trying to avoid some gangsters waiting outside for him, and Lynn Sabitini (SARA GILBERT), an angry and caustic teen who's just learned that she's pregnant.

As the police and SWAT teams arrive and surround the school, Lester and the others try to figure out what to do while Jackson tries to convince them to stop their insanity lest they face far more serious problems. With police negotiator Audrey McDonald (VANESSA L. WILLIAMS) racing against time to prevent the gung ho police from storming the barricaded library, the small group of students hopes that they and their demands for a better school are taken seriously.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
If car manufacturers can release new versions of essentially the same product year after year and software companies can do the same with the latest and hopefully more powerful and improved installments of their operating systems or programs, why can't movies? After all, TV shows usually retread the same basic premise week after week and many recording artists release albums that sound just about like the ones they previously created.

The answer, of course, it that movies do, and whether in the form of progressive sequels to an original film or others that remake and/or otherwise update older ones, many films are guilty of recycling old stories into what the filmmakers hope will be better and improved films.

Case in point is "Light It Up." Although not an exact remake or a sequel, there's little doubt that its origins stem from John Hughes' 1985 film, "Breakfast Club." While that brat-pack infested flick wasn't about students taking over their school, it was about a disparate group of them serving time in detention.

They included the thug, the jock, the smart girl, the withdrawn teen and the nerd -- deemed delinquents by the adults for one reason or the other -- who are all stuck in a library where they slowly revealed their inner thoughts, domestic problems and other troubles to the group due to being trapped together in close quarters. To further add to the connection, Judd Nelson, who appears in this film as a caring teacher, played one of the key troublemakers in that film who similarly had deep-seated reasons for his delinquent behavior.

Where this film differs from its predecessor is in degree. While the earlier one featured some rebellion during the detention, this one adds a layer of complexity by including a volatile hostage element and school takeover. As such, it's "Breakfast Club" as filtered through "Dog Day Afternoon" and "The Negotiator," and includes the obligatory but obviously less satisfactory element of the negotiator racing against the clock to diffuse the situation before the rest of the police use force to do so.

The results, while hardly spectacular, or for that matter, original, are compelling enough and when coupled with some decent performances and some star performers, make the film relatively easy to watch. Writer/director Craig Bolotin (director of "That Night," writer of "Black Rain")may not offer a great deal of surprises, but does manage to hold one's interest due to welcomed character development and the fact that while the ending is pretty much predictable, the path to it isn't quite as much.

Although this film -- like "Breakfast Club" -- offers a stereotypical cross section of the school's population and their eventual, personal revelations don't come as any earthshaking development, Bolotin ably and, for the most part, believably handles the characters and their personal disclosure.

Put any group of people in close quarters -- especially in a movie -- and they're bound to open up. Throw in a volatile environment to prevent things from getting too talky and stale and provide some conflict and tension, and such a premise consequently offers plenty of potential, some of which this film nicely exploits.

Some of that credit goes to the performances, mostly from the young actors and actresses playing the students who manage to transcend some of their initial character stereotyping. Usher Raymond (a hip-hop singer turned TV and film actor) and Robert Ri'chard (making his motion picture debut) are good as the two friends whose actions serve as a catalyst for what follows, while Rosario Dawson ("He Got Game," "Kids") and Fredro Starr ("Sunset Park," TV's "Moehsa") are believable as the brain and gang thug respectively.

While Judd Nelson ("St. Elmo's Fire," TV's "Suddenly Susan" ) is decent as the school's seemingly lone caring educator, Vanessa L. Williams ("Dance With Me," "Eraser") can't do much with her underdeveloped and randomly used negotiator character. The best one, though, belongs to Forest Whitaker ("Phenomenon," "Bird") as the wounded hostage. Although he's been down a similar abduction road before (in "The Crying Game") Whitaker does a decent job portraying a rough around the edges character who softens up as the story progresses.

As it does so, however, the film starts to unravel as it displays some illogical and stereotypical material. That includes the gung ho cop who wants to storm the school and eventually shuts down the negotiator's efforts without any good reason, the hostage who becomes sympathetic to his captors, and the students using an Internet-equipped computer to send out their message despite the school not having money to pay for books or window repairs, etc…

The film also gets rather sloppy toward the end, such as when the characters act like they're in a submarine movie one moment while hiding from the cops -- who can't manage to find their lair despite an obvious stairwell ladder leading directly to it -- but then making enough noise to raise the dead moments later and not carrying about it.

Although such problems, and there are more including an overdramatized conclusion, don't completely derail what previously occurred, they do detract somewhat from the overall experience. Decent, but hardly original, the film has enough moments and decent performances to keep things interesting, but probably won't be as well remembered as its obvious predecessor, "Breakfast Club." As such, "Light It Up" rates as a 5.5 out of 10.




Reviewed November 3, 1999 / November 10, 1999


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