A cautionary high school fable borrowing more from traditional Hollywood than hip-hop sensibilities, “Light It Up” never quite catches fire in its too-deliberate attempt to appeal to all ages and all tastes. Writer-director Craig Bolotin’s second feature, six years after his teen-oriented debut “That Night,” can be classified as a middle-brow item among ’90s urban-set movies — not nearly as thoughtful as “Fresh,” not as harshly obvious and emphatic as “Boyz N the Hood” or “187.” This drama of teen angst driven by the formula of a hostage actioner should receive a strong response in urban markets thanks to its tendency not to talk down to its young target aud, as well as for the presence of major hip-hop stars like Usher Raymond and Fredro Starr. Good grades also await down the line in video.
Story unfolds in a continuous sequence of incidents as popular teacher Ken Knowles (Judd Nelson, now grown up enough from “Breakfast Club” days to be the mentor) tries to teach his media class in budget-starved Lincoln High School in Queens while the harsh winter winds blow a hole in the classroom window. Unable to find suitable space on the overcrowded campus, Knowles takes his class to the local diner, which is promptly held up by a hooded gunman whom the teacher recognizes as a former student.
Knowles knocks out the gunman, but what his pupils see as an act of bravery is viewed by pugnacious principal Armstrong (Glynn Turman) as grounds for probationary leave.
This is final straw for everyone from potential valedictorian Stephanie (Rosario Dawson) to alienated ex-hoops star Lester (Raymond) and his baby-faced artist sidekick Ziggy (Robert Ri’chard). Lester rapidly ends up in an accidental shooting confrontation with NYPD officer Jackson (Forest Whitaker), who’s been on leave from the street beat to serve as hall monitor.
Things spin out of control as Lester takes Jackson hostage, with his dizzied classmates holing up with him in the school library while the remaining students flee the school.
Once “Light It Up” shifts gears into hostage pic mode 30 minutes in, usual problems of this genre appear. As much as Bolotin tries to avoid cliches, he can’t, setting up Jackson as a mind-playing hostage who tries to manipulate gullible kids, while aggressive Rodney (Starr) presses his gang-banging tactics against Lester’s more patient approach.
Whitaker’s role here recalls his British soldier held hostage in “The Crying Game,” and it’s this thesp’s presence that keeps the schoolhouse antics from collapsing into preachy nonsense.
Potentially stagy situation is broken up by several factors, including entry of hostage negotiator Audrey McDonald (Vanessa L. Williams), followed by revelation of Ziggy’s wounds at the hands of his abusive father, TV reports depicting the kids as thugs and Stephanie directing peers to list their demands for school improvements over the Internet.
Sentiments soon shift toward the hostage-takers as a crowd forms calling to “Free the Lincoln Six.” Still, the event’s media impact on the general public is barely explored, thus depriving pic of considerable impact as a broader social drama. Belated background story details play crudely and melodramatically, as does an overly operatic denouement fulfilling Ziggy’s role as the tragically martyred artist.
Young ensemble may be enacting a demographically and politically correct assemblage of high school types, but seldom overplay their hand. Tyro thesp Raymond keeps it together as Lester, ably projecting the young man’s internal conflicts. While Starr is stuck with having to play the bad dude, he doesn’t embarrass himself, though the usually reliable Gilbert nearly does as lonely and pregnant Lynn.
Importantly, we can see a brain working inside the calmly effective Dawson, and Ri’chard is all boyish innocence. As Rivers, the school’s wheeler-dealer, Clifton Collins Jr., suffers from not having enough to play with. Whitaker’s hostage is the only interesting adult.
While avoiding the pitfalls of exploitative inner-city thrillers, “Light It Up” tries too hard to appeal to both kids who know and grown-ups who don’t get it, deliberately softening potential violence while striving for some obvious messages about need for public schools to be upgraded and students to be heard from. Even the hip-hop angle is curiously subdued, given presence of co-producer Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, presumably to attract a broader crowd. These manipulations become more conspicuous as pic’s tension lags and cliches rise to the foreground, making “Light It Up” feel more like an entertainment package than an authentic story from the streets.
Wintry atmospherics highlight production elements, which are especially good in designer Lawrence G. Paull’s creation of a beaten-down, decaying school. Lensing is fair, while mainstream Hollywood’s penchant for excessive amount of soundtrack music continues with Harry Gregson-Williams’ score.