Certain films from the olden days (well, the 1980s) only get brought up in modern conversation because of an A-lister slumming it in an early role. We’ve covered “Private Resort”, with a very young Johnny Depp; and today it’s the turn of “Combat Academy”, which I’m guessing has a recent-ish DVD re-release with third-billed George Clooney’s face plastered over the cover. Clooney had the good fortune to be in a few pretty good low-budget movies before fame took him – meta-shocker “Return To Horror High” and the classic “Return Of The Killer Tomatoes” – so will this join them?
While this is billed as a comedy, a much more sensible reading of it is a horribly dark drama, a cry for help from a psychotic. Keith Gordon is better known as a director these days, but he started off as an actor (you may remember him from “Back To School”), and in this he’s Max, the prank-pulling class clown. But there’s pranks and there’s pranks, if you get my meaning, and his go over the line from mild fun to feeling desperate. Max wires up the school the wrong way, changes the names on the doors, and releases pigs in classrooms, among many other things, and while he laughs he seems to gain no joy from any of it. His sidekick is Perry (Wallace Langham, a series regular on “CSI” for the last decade), and they both act like scum who’ve never had to deal with a problem a day in their lives. Max’s dad is a frustrated wannabe prankster and loves his son’s shenanigans, so there’s at least a mild reason for it all, I suppose.
Anyway, they’re kicked out of school by Principal Dick Van Patten, the first of a number of moderately big name stars who pop up – also, Robert Culp, Jamie Farr, Sherman Hemsley, Dana Hill and Richard Moll. On their way home from their suspension, they trick a group of workers into drilling the wrong side of a road, causing a huge traffic snarlup and puncturing a water line, get arrested and then end up in military school. Y’know, like normal pranksters do!
If you were particularly cruel, you could probably enjoy that first section. We’re clearly supposed to sympathise with / support Max and Perry, even if they come across as scum (imagine being one of those commuters, trapped in your car thanks to them just randomly deciding to mess with some working people?) but it’s when they get to military school that you start wanting to punch Max in the face, over and over. This is absolutely the end of the line for both of them – it’s this or prison, but Max just views this as an opportunity to be horrible to everyone he meets, snark after snark after snark, including the school head’s son Cadet Major Biff Woods (Clooney). There’s a scene where, after taking more than his fair share of crap from Max, Biff snaps and sets up a fight between the two. I, like everyone watching, was screaming at him to murder the obnoxious little prick…but he doesn’t, due to his conflicted relationship with his father and his lack of desire to be a real soldier, blah blah blah. You had your shot, Biff!
So, Max keeps on playing pranks, some extraordinarily elaborate for a person trapped in military school, and befriends a few of the school’s other misfits – Andrea (Dana Hill, far too short at 5’ to be in the military, one would have thought) and Jai (Danny Nucci). Perry decides he likes military school and starts a relationship with beautiful wholesome Mary Beth, and during one of their punishments, the two of them have a big falling out.
Even though it’s not been terribly funny to this point, the movie basically switches gears and becomes a drama at about halfway, and also improves, a bit. A Russian military school turns up for a war-game exercise, and it’s screamingly obvious that the last 20 minutes or so of the movie will be the game, where Max has to do something or other in order to win the day (in this instance, getting Biff to snap out of his funk and lead the US to glory). There’s a tacked-on bit of romance for Max, and Richard Moll as one of the teachers seemingly got to write his own lines as he’s doing what amounts to a very poor bit of standup every time he’s on screen. As he was in the middle of his run on NBC sitcom “Night Court” at the time, it’s entirely possible he was viewed as the biggest star in the movie by some idiot producer and given the leeway to do whatever he wanted.
It’s an extremely standard plot, and if you knew nothing but the title and the first five minutes, you could work out everything major that happens. The only thing that really stands out is the beyond-obnoxious central performance, and I can’t think of a leading character in a movie I’ve wanted to punch more (and bear in mind, the last movie we reviewed was “Getting Lucky” – Max has that soggy douchebag knocked into a cocked hat). I’m as big a pacifist as exists, and I was firmly of the opinion that thrashing some sense into him was the only option.
It’s…tolerable. Clooney, while fine, gives zero indication he’s soon to be one of the biggest movie stars in the world, and he definitely grew into his looks, as my wife said. It was made as a TV movie, apparently, and I can imagine happening upon it on a lazy evening on TV and not being terribly upset at having watched it. So…eh?
Rating: thumbs in the middle