"Talk Hard!" is the motto of Christian Slater's Hard Harry in "Pump Up the Volume" (citywide). If only it were true.
In the movie, Hard Harry, short for an even hairier stage name, is an amateur pirate-radio deejay, broadcasting off a shortwave ham set from his bedroom--where all his equipment is improbably hidden from his parents. Hunched over his mike, blasting Beastie Boys-Bad Brains rock and rap and scabrously freewheeling chatter into the squeaky-clean Arizona suburban night, Harry is supposed to be the Lenny Bruce of the post-punk teen-age set, a schizo rebel.
By day, he's mild-mannered Mark, son of the local high school commissioner. By night, he's the high-flying Harry, defying high school and FCC alike, attacking the cul-de-sacs into which the '60s generation led their progeny and musingly reading the red-hot epistles of his biggest fan, the pseudonymous "Meet Me-Beat Me" Lady (Samantha Mathis).
The movie mixes a lot of volatile elements--modern rock, Bruce, "Talk Radio"--into a mostly brave, topical double theme. It's about adolescent discontent and the assaults on media free speech by pressure groups and vote-hungry politicians. But there's a catch. This is also a film floating along on teen-movie archetypes and wish-fulfillment. Trying to strike a balance between John Hughes and Oliver Stone, it hits neither.
The time-warped "Pump Up" can't be as shocking as Harry's hero Lenny Bruce, because Bruce already helped tear down bars against vulgar language in the '60s. And the other part of what made Bruce dangerous--his attacks on media and political hypocrisy--are mostly missing here. The FCC gets it in the neck; the rest of modern society gets off easy. In Harry's excoriation of the high school Establishment, "Pump Up" gets right in line with "Animal House."
It's as if the movie were schizoid too: daring on top, mild-mannered below, finally turning Harry into an essentially responsible Voice of Troubled Youth--counseling callers, exuding compassion--instead of the demonic jokester that would have really turned these dulled-out suburban teen-agers on.
There are indications that writer-director Allan Moyle wanted to take Harry further, make him more dangerous, which would have much improved this movie. (One thing does work perfectly: the shockingly abrupt climax and aural montage.)
Instead, the filmmakers keep pulling short. The musical score--keyed around a Concrete Blonde cover of Leonard Cohen's ultra-cynical "Everybody Knows (That the Dice are Loaded)"--becomes the real gadfly, while Harry beats the drums for more conventional rebellion, like self-abuse and acting crazy. Do teen-agers really have be incited to either?
Christian Slater has it in him to play a demonic jokester. Since "Heathers," he's been doing a set of Jack Nicholson turns: the glittering foxy eyes, the voracious smile, the insinuating drawl, everything but the virtuoso tantrums. And though he'll have to get beyond this borrowed persona, just as Richard Pryor had to kill off his early Bill Cosby mannerisms, it gives him a goofball panache.
The secondary parts get overshadowed by this one-man show, including some fine moments by Ellen Greene and Annie Ross (once of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross) in the cliched roles of the understanding English teacher and the tyrant superintendent. It's Slater who gives the movie pizazz and it's his performance, the music and the whole wish-fulfillment angle--becoming Super Shock Jock in your bedroom--that may make "Pump Up" a surprise hit with kids.
But in the end, even in the howling high frequencies and the nihilistic night, this R-rated movie misses its best shot. It doesn't talk hard enough .
'PUMP UP THE VOLUME'
A New Line Cinema/SC Entertainment International presentation. Producers Rupert Harvey, Sandy Stern. Director/script Allan Moyle. Camera Walt Lloyd. Production design Robb Wilson King. Music Cliff Martinez. Editors Janice Hampton, Larry Bock. With Christian Slater, Samantha Mathis, Ellen Greene, Annie Ross, Scott Paulin.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
MPAA rating: R (sex, language).