There are certain movies that filled my teen years. Some of these, like Sixteen Candles and The Lost Boys, are staples that have been passed on to the next generation. But one seems forever stuck between “forgotten” and “cult classic.” Every two years or so, someone will bring it up and a bunch of people will say, “Yeah, that movie’s great!” but then it slips back into the collective unconsciousness, waiting to be remembered again, forever hoping for a Blu-ray release that doesn’t seem likely to come. This movie was, in many ways, the anti-John Hughes film that teens who liked Dead Kennedys instead of New Kids on the Block needed. This movie wasn’t for the kids who wanted to be normal; this movie was for those of us who got pissed when Allison Reynolds was turned into a carbon copy of Claire Standish at the end of The Breakfast Club. This movie, if you somehow missed the title of the piece, was Three O’Clock High.
If you’ve never seen Three O’Clock High, I’m not here to give you a scene-by-scene breakdown. For one thing, a few paragraphs explaining what happens isn’t going to convince you that this movie is, if I can steal a phrase, pure cinema; you need to watch it to understand that. What I’d like to do is celebrate what makes Three O’Clock High so pure — and if we’re going to do that, we need to start with director Phil Joanou and his team.
Joanou came up through the music video scene, making some classic U2 videos before he landed Three O’Clock High as his first film, and you can feel that music video aesthetic all through the movie. Three O’Clock High is fast — not in the Michael Bay style, where you cut to a different shot every two seconds, but fast in how the story flows — and Joanou lets you know that from frame one. During the first 10 minutes some shots are sped up, and a whole lot of shots pull into the object or person that matters. Jerry Mitchell, the guy we’ll be rooting for, is late for school, and at times he’s moving faster than the camera can keep up with him. This frenetic energy flows through the entire movie.
Joanou is more than ably assisted by his cinematographer, the great Barry Sonnenfeld — who in the credits is listed as lighting consultant, but quite a few sources call him the cinematographer. I’m not willing to stand firm on either side, but watching the movie, it is hard not to see his type of camerawork all over it. The movie feels like a perfect mix of ‘80s music videos, Sam Raimi, and the Coen brothers, and I’m pretty sure Sonnenfeld is a big part of that perfection.
I want to get back to those opening 10 minutes for a second. Three O’Clock High does an amazing job of telling you everything that will happen in those opening scenes. Back to the Future is always held up as a great example of a tight script, but Three O’Clock High pulls off the same feat. We meet our main characters in a way that clearly defines them all: Jerry Mitchell, played by Casey Siemaszko, is our heroic everyman, and we know he is about as bland as can be just by looking at him. His gray sweater, blue corduroys, and dirty white Reeboks could be the uniform of the ordinary American teen of the late 1980s. Nothing about him stands out, and this is on purpose, underscored by every other character in the movie being almost cartoonish. Jerry is a guy who can’t keep up with the world around him because he’s too regular. He’s a real teen living in a hyper-realized world, but he doesn’t seem to know it.
The cartoonish supporting cast, filled with recognizable names and faces like Jeffrey Tambor, Philip Baker Hall, and Mitch Pileggi, all push their characters to the edge of the cliff — one more inch and they would go too far. Pileggi plays the school security guard, and along with a constant lump of chewing tobacco deforming his shit-eating grin, you can instantly tell that this guy wakes up every morning positive that he’s saving the world from these middle-class kids and their dime bags. The principal, named Voytek Dolinski, sits in his dark office, the walls decorated with the heads of dead animals. We later see Dolinski wearing a jacket that has a very close resemblance to the jackets SS officers wore. The romantic lead, given the perfect ‘80s name of Franny Perrins, is a midwestern mall spiritualist, with her bob cut and her spirit guide. There’s one kid who looks like he’s in the Guardian Angels, but the only crimes happening in this town are jaywalking.
Jerry simply exists in this world, not really fitting in with any clique, but not someone who is ostracized by any of them. He isn’t a nerd or a stoner or a jock, he’s just Jerry. Hell, his name screams normal. As the normal, the only thing Jerry needs to worry about is the abnormal, and when Buddy Revell comes to school, he is the epitome of abnormal.
Buddy Revell, whose name is a stroke of genius, is the antithesis of Jerry. The yin to Jerry’s yang. The oil to Jerry’s water. The Reverse Flash to Jerry’s Flash. Buddy looks like a stoner but has the build of a jock. He’s quiet to the point that you wonder whether he can string together a full sentence, but he’s an avid reader. While Jerry doesn’t really fit with any cliques because he is virtually nothing, Buddy doesn’t fit because he is everything.
Along with being everything, Buddy is apparently the most dangerous high schooler of all time. Before we ever see him, we know his history as told by other kids spreading rumors. Buddy punched his football coach at his old school. He pulled a knife on a teacher. He always carries brass knuckles. He doesn’t like people, and most of all he HATES being touched.
The second they meet in the boys’ bathroom, it’s clear that Jerry and Buddy are destined to battle, and that battle will be amazing. It’ll be the kind of fight that kids talk about for generations.
When people talk about fist fights in movies, They Live is sure to come up. Over the years, it has gained this identity as the longest, greatest fist fight in film history. I don’t have the data to argue about length, but I will argue greatest all day long. They Live is maybe #3 for me, with The Quiet Man coming in at a solid #2, and Three O’Clock High undoubtedly #1.
The whole of the movie is leading up to this epic battle between Jerry and Buddy. Carefully, scene by scene, we get to see just how much trouble Jerry is in as he continues to make his situation worse by doing anything he can think of to get out of the fight. Still, being a regular guy trapped in this world of cartoon characters, there’s nothing Jerry can do that will save him. Every step, every minute, takes him to the fated moment, the ringing of the bell and the clock hitting three.
Now, the fight could just focus on Jerry and Buddy, but so many pieces have been introduced throughout the story, so many characters have earned their moment, that they all get involved. We see these figures, these people who would be at home in a Merrie Melodies short, each step up and take Buddy on. Jerry’s sister and Franny are both tossed aside like rags. Mitch Pileggi’s tough-as-balls security guard is taken out with a single punch. Nothing can keep Buddy from destroying Jerry, and the whole school is there to see it.
Each moment of the fight, each blow, each fall, is earned by the 80 minutes that led up to it. You watch knowing that what you’re seeing is the modern-day equivalent of David and Goliath, and the kinetic energy of the movie feeds each shot. Swooping pans over the fighters. Camera pulls as fists make contact with faces. Cuts to random teens cheering the titanic battle before them. And with each moment, something becomes clear: what we’re witnessing isn’t just a fight, it is the birth of a new god.
Jerry, the kid so ordinary he can’t be bothered to wear clothes that don’t blend into the background, has changed. Each step, each minute of the day was his incubation. Every choice he made, everything he had done to get out of this fight turned him into something new, something different. When he accepts his fate, when he comes to the fight, the water has broken and the head has breached. Before the fight ends — hell maybe before it started — Jerry has evolved from his dull existence. He has finally, truly become a part of this world of oddities. In battling the all-encompassing entity of Buddy Revell, Jerry finds his place in the pantheon of high school mythology. Jerry Mitchell is the fighter of all things ordinary.
Derek Faraci fights in Farmington Hills, Mich.