At first glance, you couldn’t find a better school than Vista Verde High. Its magnet program attracts a host of honor students, the classrooms are stocked with fancy, new word processors, and it even has an exuberant bunch of college-bound good guys who call themselves the Sentinels, the unofficial guardians of the campus. By day, they clean up graffiti and monitor the halls.
It’s what the Sentinels do at night that makes “Dangerously Close” (citywide) a scary, hypnotic thriller--a teen noir-- about a group of elite kids corrupted by intolerance and seduced by power. In the hands of savvy young director Albert Pyun, these upper-crust enforcers seem more than just twisted thrill-seekers, eager to raise a little hell while cruising in their parents’ BMWs. It’s no coincidence that these fresh-scrubbed vigilantes always keep a video camera close at hand to tape their exploits. This is the new video generation in all its dark glory; the kids’ dress code may come from MTV, but their moral vision is straight out of “Rambo” and “The Road Warrior.”
With the secret backing of the school’s steely vice principal (Madison Mason), the Sentinels gather at night in a local forest, dressed in masks and combat fatigues and armed with hunting knives and miniature crossbows. There they play guerrilla-style war games, terrorizing suspected drug dealers and unpopular, disadvantaged kids. Eager for respectability, Sentinel leader Randy McDevitt (John Stockwell) recruits Donny (J. Eddie Peck), the editor of the school paper, a studious transfer student who makes ends meet by cleaning pools.
Donny is intrigued, not only by the Sentinels’ hip veneer, but by Randy’s girlfriend (Carey Lowell), who has become disillusioned with the guys’ thuglike behavior. Equally unimpressed is Donny’s pal Krooger (Bradford Bancroft), a Mohawk-coiffed rebel who baits the Sentinels, blasting the heavy-metal hit parade in the school corridors and contemptuously dismissing his adversaries as “Twinkies.” When real violence erupts--and it appears that Krooger may be next on the Sentinels’ hit-list--Donny finds himself forced to choose sides in a game with deadly results.
Pyun already has a solid reputation as a low-budget director. (His 1982 debut, “The Sword and the Sorcerer,” was crammed with spectacular visual effects.) His keen eye is at work here as well. Pyun films his school scenes in long, steady takes, but when the Sentinels are out on the warpath, the camera comes loose from its mooring, echoing the kids’ repressed fury with abrupt cuts and off-kilter angles. Pyun also impatiently pushes the story along, jolting us by interrupting one scene with flashing images from another yet to come.
Pyun has shrewdly cast young actors previously associated with cherubic roles, heightening our initial identification with their maniacal exploits. Stockwell (who also co-wrote the script) is particularly chilling as the Sentinel leader, always cool and emotionless, his eyes aglow with icy intensity. J. Eddie Peck also turns in a good performance as a working-class kid eager to be a part of a hip clique, while Don Michael Paul is especially unsettling as a volatile member of the Sentinels.
It’s clear that the film makers are playing with fire here, especially considering the jingoist atmosphere that pervades Hollywood today. But “Dangerously Close” (MPAA-rated: R for its violence) is more than just a stylish shocker. It captures the ugly underside of a new teen-age obsession, forcing us to marvel at its ferocity and shudder at its possible consequences.