Dangerously Close (1986): Albert Pyun and the School of Hard Knocks

Matty knuckles down with a solid if flawed teen thriller that effectively saved its maker’s career. 

The original script was more of a slasher film. Then, during development at Cannon, director Albert Pyun clocked an interesting article by David Breskin in the pages of Rolling Stone. Published in the 26th September 1985 issue of the rock n’ roll bible, ‘High School Vigilantes’ detailed the exploits of The Legion of Doom. A group of nine honour roll students enamoured with Nazism, The Legion of Doom spent five months of the ‘84/‘85 term terrorising their peers at Paschal High in Fort Worth, Texas.

They began with the usual jock-thug hijinks.

Formed to patrol Paschal’s halls and thwart the school’s escalating drug and theft problems, The Legion of Doom targeted those they deemed ‘undesirable’ whether they were guilty of any actual — quote, unquote — ‘offences’. And with The Legion of Doom’s members being at the white, male and privileged end of Paschal’s populace, it’d typically be the poor kids and minorities on the receiving end of their bully-boy hounding.

Soon, however, The Legion of Doom had transformed into a full-blown cell of domestic terrorists. Their antics evolved from verbal abuse and beatdowns, to pipe-bombings, attempted shootings, arson and an assortment of hate crimes. Most shocking of all, though, was that when its members were eventually arrested, the exposés, court cases and civil suits that followed all seemed to suggest that a lot of The Legion of Doom’s, erm, ‘extracurricular activities’ were sanctioned by at least one higher-up within Paschal’s faculty.

Pyun was hooked, and DANGEROUSLY CLOSE (1986) as it exists today was born. 

Albert Pyun had entered the Cannon fold as he was editing his third feature, Vicious Lips (1986), for Charles Band’s Empire Pictures. His career had already hit the skids. Despite making a shedload of money and becoming the most profitable independent movie of 1982, Pyun’s debut, The Sword and the Sorcerer, had been prized from him by its conniving producer, Brandon Chase, and Chase was making damn sure that it was his and his name alone referenced in any conversation pertaining to the film’s success. His various comments to the press did Pyun no favours. Largely ignoring the fact that Pyun had written, rewritten, and meticulously planned almost every aspect of The Sword and the Sorcerer in the preceding five years, Chase painted Pyun as a mere hired grunt — and one who needed a lot of mentoring and guidance at that. Pyun’s reputation received a further knock when his sophomore offering, Radioactive Dreams (1985), was taken over by the bond company, drastically reducing the chances of him being seen as bankable or dependable. And with Vicious Lips shaping up to be a weird, wild, and wholly experimental cheapie, Pyun was ruled a bust as far as anything ‘commercial’ or ‘mainstream’ was concerned.

Suffice to say, Pyun had a point to prove — and for much of Dangerously Close, he does so with aplomb. 

As a purely directorial exercise the film is a triumph of style, attitude, and populist opportunism. Aided by a greater array of tools than he’d previously had at his disposal (a Steadicam, a dolly track, etc.), Pyun twists the suspense screws and fosters a palpable, venomous tension between Dangerously Close’s Legion of Doom analogues — a secondary school mafia called The Sentinels — and their victims. Kind of prefiguring the likes of Rian Jonson’s Brick (2005) and, even, controversial Netflix show 13 Reasons Why in his presentation of a teen world that’s at once gritty and familiar in its footing yet mannered, artificial and histrionic in its proclivities, Pyun eschews any sort of prominent adult input or influence upon the story for much of its duration (save for a few parents and, of course, the shady teacher supposedly responsible for overseeing The Sentinels). Instead, the difficulties that those enrolled at Vista Verde High are forced to face are theirs and theirs alone which lends the ultra-slick Dangerously Close a convincing and frightening sense of relatability. We’ve all been to school, we’ve all been teenagers, and we all know how isolating and scary it was back in the day, when the façade of pretending you’re a grown-up who knows what they’re doing slips and you’re revealed to be just a kid in way over their head. The idea that Dangerously Close is based on true events infuses it with an extra disturbing edge; a feeling of bubbling incredulity that Pyun — who, in the years since, has gone on to become one of, if not THE preeminent practitioner of aesthetic and aural kineticism (witness: Nemesis (1992), Brainsmasher… A Love Story (1993), Adrenalin: Fear the Rush (1996), Mean Guns (1997)) — builds to a fever pitch with Walt Lloyd’s hyper-real photography, and a relentlessly hip New Wave/punk soundtrack featuring such then-popular alternative acts as The Smithereens, Robert Palmer, Depeche Mode, TSOL, and supergroup The Lords of the New Church.      

Coaxing a trio of solid performances from his Radioactive Dreams star/Dangerously Close co-scripter John Stockwell as The Sentinels’ creepy-charismatic leader, Randy; future regular Thom Mathews as Randy’s increasingly conflicted right-hand man, Brian [1]; and J. Eddie Peck as Danny Lennox — Randy’s pool boy, the editor of the school paper, and the lad who gets wise to what The Sentinels are up to — Pyun shows himself to be quite the dramatist. His flair for casting well and his knack for fashion compelling characters are scarcely acknowledged traits. Sadly, the good that Pyun and his Dangerously Close troupe (which also includes Cary Lowell) conjure is frequently undercut by the film’s shaky screenplay. Recruited by Pyun to retool Marty Ross’ aforementioned original draft, the script as delivered by Stockwell and Scott Fields — the latter being a Cannon office assistant that Pyun was keen to help break into the industry — suffers from bursts of tin-eared dialogue, a curiously slack pace at its back end, and several glaring lapses in logic that rely on contrivance in order to keep the narrative’s wheels spinning.   

Naturally, these flaws were pounced upon by critics when Dangerously Close landed in U.S. theatres in May 1986. It sank at the U.S. box office, clawing in $2million against a $1.5million budget, and promptly vanished into VHS oblivion where it joined such similarly themed potboilers as Class of 1984 (1982), Tuff Turf (1985), The New Kids (1985), and the Keanu Reeves and Kiefer Sutherland-starring Brotherhood of Justice (1986) — an ABC TV movie that features several of Dangerously Close’s players among its own ensemble, and one that also took its cues from The Legion of Doom case. Still, drubbing aside, the experience for Pyun was ultimately beneficial. Impressed that he brought in Dangerously Close on a quick turnaround and with minimal fuss, Cannon bigwigs Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus snapped him up on contract. Their deal effectively kept Pyun in the game and directly led to Down Twisted (1987), Alien From L.A. (1988) and Cyborg (1989), and Journey to the Center of the Earth (1988), Deceit (1990) and the infamous Captain America (1990) by proxy. 

[1] Dangerously Close marks the first of twelve Pyun-Mathews pairings. The rest, in order: Down Twisted; Alien From L.A.; Bloodmatch (1991); Nemesis; Pyun’s episode of short-lived NBC series The Fifth Corner; Kickboxer 4: The Aggressor (1994): Heatseeker (1995); Ravenhawk (1995); Blast (1997); Mean Guns; Crazy Six (1997); and the incomplete Sorceress (1998)

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