Quick, name a classic '80s comedy.
“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” “Ghostbusters.” “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” “Coming to America.” “Sixteen Candles.”
We can list them all by heart. Heck, just about anything from creator John Hughes counts.
What about “Three O’Clock High?”
Twenty nine years after its debut, the story a kid dreading an after school pummeling deserves some respect. In the annals of pop culture injustices, this ranks near the top.
Casey Siemaszko stars as Jerry Mitchell, an ordinary teen scrambling for a semi-clean shirt to wear to school. Once on campus, he’s asked to interview a new student, Buddy Revell (Richard Tyson), for the school newspaper.
Seems Buddy comes with a frightening reputation. And he has the killer stare to go along with it. He also doesn’t like to be touched, which Jerry doesn’t realize until it’s too late.
“You and me … are gonna fight … at 3 o’clock.”
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The great Roger Ebert slammed “Three O’Clock High” with a one-star review. No one’s perfect. Not even criticism’s unofficial deity. Ebert got this one flat-out wrong, including some lazy hand-wringing about solving problems with violence.
Ebert also packs a spoiler in the review’s opening paragraphs.
Jerry Mitchell is cool in his own way, though. He sports a ’50s style hair style, one of countless touches that set this movie apart. Jerry looks bemused whenever his sorta girlfriend (Anne Ryan) flirts with him. He’s decent to the core but in a wholly unapologetic way.
All he wants is to emerge from senior year unscathed. That’s not gonna happen. Not on this day.
Director Phil Joanou would shoot the triumphant “U2: Rattle and Hum” concert film the following year. For “Three O’Clock High,” he indulges in every camera trick conceivable. And darn if each one doesn’t connect.
Joanou treats his leading man like one more visual stunt. Siemaszko delivers a rock-solid performance, but on more than a few occasions he becomes Joanou’s personal prop. His smile grows crooked in an unnatural way. He looks more stunned than circumstances suggest. He makes scene after scene special simply by ignoring his instincts.
It gives the film, which packs a predictable arc, some sorely needed tension. What could have been an exhausting treatise on style renders the comedy deeply original.
It’s hard not to think Joanou and Siemaszko huddled to make all those choices possible.
The supporting players manage to upend high school cliches. Who can figure out the beautiful girl who keeps crossing Jerry’s path? What about the obnoxious filmmakers who want to capture Jerry’s certain doom?
The film’s biggest sin is a character twist that sets the finale in motion. It simply doesn’t work as is. You’ll swallow hard to buy it, but the 3 o’clock rumble is worth the trouble.
The comedy depicts high school as a cruel place, but not in the shopworn style. The school has both a principal and a head disciplinarian, sneering souls who suggest taskmasters from the Third Reich.
No wonder Jerry keeps his head down at all times.
FAST FACT: The film’s original title was “After School,” and early scripts were closer in comic style to the John Hughes movies from the era.
We may have never stared down our own Buddy Revell, but who hasn’t feared high school at some point? The surprise quizzes. The mean girls. The standard-issue bullying. The lofty expectations.
“Three O’Clock High” tapes into that unease by exaggerating it to grand comic effect. And this ’80s romp is consistently funny down to the best F-bomb dropped during the decade.
We won’t spoil it here.
So let’s salute one of the decade’s most under-valued comedies. It sure looks like an ’80s film, but its crackerjack comic beats and droll hero make it timeless.