Matt Bourjaily is a former video store clerk, a former film critic, and a current high school English teacher. He is also the proud owner of a new velour tracksuit. Find him on twitter @ElBourjito.
North Shore (1987; William Phelps)
If one were to rank the impressiveness of championship wins in sports, “Surfing Champion of Arizona” would most likely reside quite comfortably at the bottom. Yep, young Rick is the best surfer at the wave pool in his hometown, an accomplishment so lame that his own mother doesn’t even attend the championship...match? Performance? Float? I don’t know what the hell you would call it, but it’s amazingly lame. Of course, then Rick gets it in his head that he’s good enough to hang with the surf dudes of Hawaii, and lots of excellent beach-bullying ensues, as the gang of local surfing toughs don’t want amateurs on their surf turf. (I just coined that, btw.) Lots of pro surfers round out the cast, along with Nia Peeples, who’s as boring as you might expect.
The Principal (1987; Christopher Cain)
No list from 1987 would be complete with every educator’s favorite film, The Principal. Jim Belushi plays Rick Latimer, an alcoholic high school teacher who gets sent off to be the principal of Brandel High, which is just like every other inner-city nightmare school that 80’s media and pop culture was afraid of. With the always-outstanding Lou Gossett, Jr. as his head of security, Latimer takes on gangs, drugs, lazy teachers, and a host of other problems until the gang finally decides he needs to go, and the third act transforms into what’s essentially a home invasion (school invasion?) cat-and-mouse game. While most of the gang look like extras from Breakin’, the real standout in this film is Michael Wright as the gang leader. He’s intense, he’s threatening, and he has a quiet menace that can shift the tone of the film from “comedy-drama” to “who wants to get murdered?” in an instant. Oh, and this movie also has Rae Dawn Chong in it, because you know...80s.
White Water Summer (1987; Jeff Bleckner)
1987 was a big year for Matt Adler. Not only did he get to star in North Shore as Arizona’s best surfing nerd, but he then got to see the release of White Water Summer, filmed two years earlier, in which Adler plays a complete minor role that doesn’t really matter too much. However, getting to watch Sean Astin get terrorized by Kevin Bacon for 89 minutes was probably its own reward for Mr. Adler. A sort of outward bound, let’s teach young men to be real men sort of outdoor adventure, White Water Summer follows young Alan (Astin) as a city kid who joins a group of boys heading out in the wilderness to learn survival skills, rock climbing, and pseudo-mystical crap from Vic (Bacon). As Alan and Vic butt heads, Vic gradually become more extreme in his teaching methods, and by the end, he’s basically trying to indirectly murder a group of adolescents. But let’s be fair: he’s just trying to teach them to be men.
Big Shots (1987; Robert Mandel)
Big Shots is a strangely appealing film. Obie, a white kid from suburban Chicago, bikes into the city, immediately gets mugged, then finds Scam, the streetwise black kid who decides to help him get his stuff back, and then at some point, they put on sunglasses and fedoras and become cool, probably while “Bad to the Bone” is playing, if I recall. It’s a story as old as time itself. There’s a plot about Obie’s struggle to deal with his father’s death, a stolen Mercedes with a body in the trunk, and some hitmen, so Big Shots veers a little far from the family comedy vibe the poster seems to give off. While Ricky Busker is a weak lead, Darius McCrary is already showing that savvy smoothness that would land him the Family Matters gig a couple years later. A few reliable pros like Robert Prosky and Paul Winfield help the story gain some legs, and I like to think it was Czech cinematographer Miroslav Ondříček’s crowning achievement in a long and distinguished career.
Nightmaster (1987; Mark Joffe)
When Rupert Pupkin, aka Big Bob Freelander, aka Brian Saur (seriously dude, what are you hiding from?) told me he was doing an Underrated ‘87 list, Nightmaster immediately came to mind. (Well, actually, Three O’Clock High first came to mind, but I felt I had to leave that one for Mr. Saur himself.) Also knows as Watch the Shadows Dance, this Australian import follows a tough war veteran (which war? We’re not quite sure.) who has taken it upon himself to train a group of high school students in martial arts, presumably because discipline or something. The students train in the morning, then at night hang out in bars, and occasionally play a wargame known as kuma, in which they attempt to use ninja-like techniques to evade capture and ring a bell, lest they feel the shame of defeat. The losers get marked and taunted, their teacher gets concerned because they’re always exhausted, and everyone takes everything much too seriously, as is always the case in movies about teens and wargames. Eventually, when the students discover their teacher is also a drug addict and a murderer, things go south, as they tend to do in such situations, and it’s time to...make the shadows dance? I don’t know, both titles still befuddle me.
But here’s the thing: while you might assume the draw of Nightmaster is a young Nicole Kidman, who’s trying to carry around about forty pounds of hair, you would be wrong. The selling point here is the bar band, who are none other than Paul Kelly and the Coloured Girls (who, thankfully, later changed their name to something less uncomfortable for people). I wasn’t familiar with Kelly’s music until I saw Nightmaster; once the band launches into “Darling It Hurts,” I challenge anyone to not be swept up by it. Thankfully, Nightmaster also gives the band a decent amount of screen time, considering they aren’t involved in the plot in any sense, and you get what amounts to a couple full-length music videos from Kelly and his crew. So if you fear the Nightmaster, and can’t bring yourself to watch Australian teen ninja dramas, then do yourself a favor and check out Paul Kelly.