Three O’Clock High

Finally, a true clash of the titans!

Can’t you just smell the epicness??

Three O’Clock High is a bit of a forgotten film from the 80s, unknown even to many of the people who tend to like this sort of thing (I hadn’t even heard of it until less than a year of ago). Watching it now, it’s easy to see why, tragic though that might be, it fell to the cultural wayside. It’s an uneven movie, aiming as it does for an odd balance of broad farce, random weirdness, and straightforward drama… but what works about it really does work quite well, and the rest of it is inoffensively silly enough. Not a great movie by any means, but one that’s hard not to like, considering the creativity and effort that’s bursting awkwardly from its seams. (It also didn’t help the movie’s box office that it had no major stars of the time in it. Even the cast members who went on to become famous are largely on the sidelines.) It’s certainly more memorable than at least half of John Hughes’ overrated angst-fests.

Bottom line, the film has personality. That counts for a lot.

Three O’Clock High: Jerry vs Buddy

The Fighters:

  • Jerry Mitchell, a senior at Weaver High School. Jerry is sort of an Everyteen, admirable but relatable, with no defined place in the school ecosystem Hollywood always insists is so rigid. He’s clean-cut, smart and hard-working, well-liked enough by people who know him but not popular, coolly casual most of the time but nervous under pressure. Played by Casey Siemaszko, the bane of spell-check.
  • Buddy Revell, a new transfer student from a school for delinquents. Buddy’s reputation has preceded his arrival, with half the students gossiping about his epic propensity & capacity for violence. Surely the rumors are exaggerated, but he’s clearly dangerous enough. Hulking, surly, and dressed in the torn-jeans-and-leather-jacket look that’s been universally accepted American shorthand for “bad boy” for the better part of a century, Buddy is one mean-looking dude. In one of the more refreshing aspects of Three O’Clock high, Revell does not “suddenly” become a good guy or be revealed as a misunderstood nice guy. While he is more than you might think at first, he is still basically what he appears to be: a violent & cruel bully. Played by Richard Tyson, who you probably recognize as the bad guy from Kindergarten Cop. His mom isn’t here to help him but she’s not so tough without her car anyway.

There’s some small but pivotal intervention by others, and a brief use of brass knuckles.

The Setup: Due to a misunderstanding in the men’s room (er, not what it sounds like), Jerry becomes the target of Buddy’s rage, and the new student informs him that at the end of the school day, the two of them will have a fight.

Given Revell’s reputation, that sounds more like an execution, and word of the upcoming duel spreads, building to a fever pitch amongst the student body. All Jerry’s attempts to get out of the fight fail or backfire until, using money he purloined from his campus job, Jerry bribes Buddy to leave him alone for several hundred dollars. Buddy agrees, but regards Jerry with open and genuine disgust for his cowardice. Fittingly, the blow to his dignity puts our hero through far more turmoil than the threat of physical violence did.

He goes to be sad about it in the bathroom. Lotta bathroom stuff in this movie.

After some soul-searching, Jerry decides it’s time to face the music. He re-confronts Buddy, demanding his money back and telling him the fight’s back on. The bully demurs at first, but finally grants him his wish. As the school day winds to a close, Jerry strides purposefully to their battlefield in the parking lot, soon finding himself surrounded by an almost comically large crowd of frenzied, cheering students. Siemaszko’s body language here is impressive: despite his diminutive size and buttoned-down appearance, he actually comes off like a bit of a badass, charged with a renewed sense of purpose. He carries himself in a subtle way: not cocky and assuming he’s going to win, just determined to face his destiny like a man.

As with the characterization of Buddy, the lack of subversion here is refreshing. There are no “higher lessons” imparted here where the characters learn that violence isn’t the answer or some goofy shit like that; the movie promises you a fight and it GIVES you a fight. It’s a bit of a throwback– fitting, since it’s openly modeled on/a satire of classic Westerns.

The Fight: How does a guy like Jerry beat a guy like Buddy? Well, a straight victory was never going to happen. Our hero displays some canniness & luck, but he also gets by with a little from his friends.

The first punch thrown doesn’t actually hit either of the two combatants. Just as they square off, they’re interrupted by the school’s principal, confident in his ability to put a stop to such shenanigans.

His confidence is… misplaced.

But Buddy doesn’t give a crap for authority, and when he touches Buddy’s arm to pull him away, Buddy decks him, and tells a shocked Jerry it’s his turn. This actually makes Jerry’s newfound confidence waver a bit, which Buddy takes advantage of by pushing him fiercely into the side of a van.

Fortunately, Mitchell gets a breather from the intervention of his not-girlfriend, a goofy hippie named Franny. Unfortunately, she’s little more than an irritation to the huge bully.

But what an irritation she is.

Revell gives her a relatively chivalrous dismissal in the form of a harsh shove to the face. Franny’s mistreatment stirs Jerry a bit, enough to rise, taunt Buddy and rush back into battle.

Jerry gets a punch to the throat for his trouble, but while he’s down he pays the bully back with SWEEP THE LEG! a nasty-looking kick to the shin. He follows up with the questionable tactic of jumping on Buddy’s back.

After some frantic spinning around, Buddy tosses Jerry overhead and he lands on a car hood. The school’s maniacal security guard (played by a hammy Mitch Pileggi, who would later be better known as Skinner from The X-Files) also tries to break things up, but even he falls to a single blow from Buddy. Meanwhile, Jerry stands again to give some more trash talk, and even gets a straight punch to Buddy’s nose that surprises both of them.

Unfortunately it’s not enough to bring him down, and the villain retaliates with a huuuuuuge roundhouse that leaves Jerry slumped on the ground in a helpless daze. Seeing this as the proper time to deliver the Fatality, Buddy gets out his brass knuckles. As he marches slowly over to Jerry, the director pulls a common but neat trick where the camera focuses first on the brass knuckles themselves, then they go out of focus as we see Jerry’s reaction to them.

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Buddy hoists Jerry up and rears back his other hand. But just before he can deliver the final blow, he’s interrupted by a flying tackle from Vincent, Jerry’s best friend who he’d had a falling out with earlier in the day. While the scrawny Vincent tries to redeem himself by raining mostly ineffective blows down on Buddy, Jerry’s younger sister spies the dropped knuckles and brings them to her tormented sibling.

Digging into his last reserves of strength, the battered Jerry rises yet again and faces off against Buddy, who had just downed Vincent with a knee to the crotch. The crowd senses this will be the final showdown, and their cheering reaches a fever pitch. Individual characters are shown all urging the hero to triumph, with even the principal awakening from his stupor to deliver an uncharacteristic (and hilarious), “Don’t f–k this up, Mitchell!”

Buddy, finally wary of Jerry’s tenacity, lunges in with a punch, which Jerry barely dodges. Then, in super slow-motion, Jerry channels all of his might into one brass-enhanced blow to Buddy’s sneering mug. The bully weebles, wobbles, and finally falls down.

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You’d think after losing to a guy like Jerry, for his next adversary he’d pick somebody besides Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Jerry wins, and the crowd surges around him as the triumphant hero.

Afterward, in order to show their appreciation for Jerry and make up for the “robbery” he’d staged to get the bribe money, the students all show up at Jerry’s campus store and “purchase” standard printer paper at a dollar per sheet, effectively donating a huge sum of money to him. Finally, Buddy himself shoves his way to the store’s counter, and looks Jerry in the eye as he personally returns the wad of money the hero had given him earlier. He regards Jerry with a look that’s not quite a smile, just enough of a softening of his face to indicate his well-earned respect. Again, this isn’t an after-school special; the bully doesn’t suddenly turn good and become Jerry’s pal, but he is man enough to admit defeat.

As silly and uneven as the movie is, this stirring and fairly straightforward fight is oddly fitting for it. The staging actually makes Jerry’s eventual victory seems plausible, and while the actual “fight” fighting is pretty thin, the whole thing unfolds quite thrillingly regardless. Giving this absurd & petty confrontation an un-ironic bombast actually serves to make the story more honest, perfectly conveying the outsized emotional lens through which teenagers live their lives; everything feels so epic and important you’re in high school. In fact, in that way it’s a bit of a precursor to Joss Whedon’s approach to Buffy.

Grade: A

Recommended Links: Comedian and podcasting emperor Chris Hardwick recommends Three O’Clock High as a lost classic.

Coming Attractions: “MORE superheroes? Jeez. Will you at least pick something that everyone likes this time?”

… maaaaaaaybe.

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Spider-Man (fight 1 of 6)

Well look who came crawling back.

I fully admit that the pun makes no sense in this context.

After eleven years that have seen two increasingly bloated sequels, a spectacularly pointless reboot, and a veritable renaissance of other Marvel movies, it’s easy to forget what a breath of fresh air Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was when it came out. After 2000’s X-Men, shaky as it was, first demonstrated that on-screen comic book superheroics could be legitimately cool, Spidey came along to prove that they could be amazing. If it had flopped, we’d quite likely not be having our multiplexes filled with any Avengers, let alone six of them at once.

It’s got its flaws and in many ways it’s almost quaint, but in 2002 this movie was a revelation. I saw it in the theater three times and who knows how many at home. I adore this movie so much I’d make out with it upside down in the rain. Not coincidentally, it’s positively loaded with fights.

I was tempted to skip at least this early one, since it’s fairly brief and very one-sided. But it’s set up so much like a traditional fight– complete with a crowd of on-lookers chanting “FIGHT, FIGHT, FIGHT!”– and an important building block for the protagonist that I couldn’t help myself.

1) Peter Parker vs Flash Thompson

The Fighters:

  • Peter Parker. He’s Spider-Man. Let’s not waste your time or mine by explaining what that entails. But this is his first day after the big bite, quickly becoming more aware of his new abilities. Played by Tobey Maguire, never better.
  • Eugene “Flash” Thompson, one of the alpha males at Peter’s high school (and dating Peter’s crush, Mary Jane) and a character straight out of the comic, though his appearance is a bit less Aryan here than in the source material. Like many teen bullies he’s not exactly a skilled fighter, just burly and mean enough to be dangerous. Played by Joe Mangianello, a talented actor who’s gone on to find solid success (and even more muscle mass) in recent years.

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The Setup: Stumbling through the discovery of his sticky new spider powers, our hero accidentally nailed Flash in the back of the head with a cafeteria tray, spilling food on him. Peter quietly tries to leave the scene of the crime, but Flash stalks him down the hallway.

In a really cool blend of CGI and live-action footage, Raimi gives us a glimpse of the “spider sense” that alerts Peter to immediate dangers and makes him aware of his surroundings; just as Flash’s fist comes crashing in, everything freezes and we get a panoramic tour of the nearby environment. Parker dodges the blow and Flash’s punch leaves a small dent in Peter’s locker, rather than the back of his head. The hero tries to persuade the bully to stand down, but the fight is on. (“I wouldn’t wanna fight me either” is a pretty good comeback, as dim bulb bullies go.)

The Fight: Flash throws a couple strong, swift punches that Peter dodges with ease, thanks to his newfound speed and reflexes. Raimi pulls off another neat trick to convey the hero’s amazing new senses, taking the movie into slow-motion for one punch. While Flash’s arm is still fully extended, Peter (apparently moving at “normal” speed in contrast) has time to move his head to the side and register his surprise. Such a simple yet effective technique.

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Wonder Boy is wondering

Peter then dodges a lunging punch by bending his torso all the way backwards while keeping his legs fully planted, like some kind of master gymnast. MJ, having failed to talk her boyfriend down, urges Harry (James Franco! A shame nothing ever became of that promising young lad) to help Peter out, but that quickly proves to be unnecessary, as Harry himself notes.

One of Flash’s friends briefly tries to join the fray, rushing at Peter from behind (no honor with these jocks, huh?), but Peter evades by jumping in the air… and flipping end over end an absurd amount. Seriously, he does it like eight times, it’s ridiculous. It comes off stupid and cartoony even for the superhero genre. Much better effect could have been achieved with something simpler but still impressive, much like the punch-dodging picture above.

But it’s impressive enough for Flash’s friend, who bows out. An enraged Thompson charges again with a series of punches that Peter blocks. He stops the last one by grabbing the bully’s wrist and twisting his arm upright with intimidating strength, then knocking him back about 20 feet with a simple blow to the chest.

You just got Ice Storm'd!

You just got Ice Storm’d!

Flash skids into a passing teacher, knocking the man’s tray loose and dumping yet more food over the bully’s face. Ha ha. As a smart epilogue to the tussle, Flash’s friend remarks with genuine disgust that Peter really is a “freak,” which puts a slight damper on what would otherwise be a more jubilant triumph. It’s a clever foreshadowing about how being Spider-Man isn’t all just wish fulfillment and fun.

Except for the miscalculation of the obvious wire work, this is all very good stuff. The hero is of course never in real danger, but it’s always a treat to see a bully get his comeuppance, and this is great character-building for Peter– indeed, the entire day where Peter learns all his new powers really is a marvel of economic storytelling. Raimi just hops from one discovery to the next, covering a range of emotions from confusion to panic to exuberance, and stopping for some nice beats along the way like understated flirting with Mary Jane and, of course, a neat little fight scene. Well done.

[Note that in that reboot from last year, they had their own scene of Peter taking Flash down a peg, but it was this weirdness involving a passive-aggressive game of basketball. Such is the nature of an unnecessary reboot to a series that began within recent memory: the new Spidey film had to zag wherever the original one zigged, hence they had to come up with an alternate approach even though Raimi’s straightforward take on this story beat was just fine.]

Grade: B-

Coming Attractions: HEY FREAK-O

"This is how many boxes of Slim Jims I eat for breakfast!"

That’s how many boxes of Slim Jims he eats for breakfast every morning