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‘The Principal’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 18, 1987

Metroquiz: Is "The Principal" 1) a James (née Jim) Belushi vehicle, 2) a comedy, 3) vigilante gratification, 4) a second-chance movie, 5) another episode of "Fame" or 6) all of these?

Yup. "Principal" is such an odd beast -- a wallaby with rubber feet -- bouncing crazily among the aforementioned genres, that it's hard to figure out.

First leap, Belushi's playing jokey teacher Rick Latimer -- suddenly principal to a bad (real bad) school. Second leap, he's something between Billy Jack and Joe Don Baker (rides to school on a motorbike, slugs delinquent students, totes a baseball bat). Leap Three, he's having an almost-affair with teacher Rae Dawn Chong (the beautiful, the overrated and the over-employed), and he's tutoring a student on the side. And then -- sproing! -- It's back to good ol' one-liner Jack again.

Yet, despite the "Sybil"-like plot (and questionable Rambo mentality), there's something watchable about it all. Weird it is, flop it ain't. It's volatile, manic and frequently lethal; there's mixture to this madness. Belushi's a troublesome teacher (= drunkard) at Willoughby school, whose wife is also leaving him. He gets "promoted" to Brandel High, a madhouse-cum-stalag with more stilettos than lunch boxes.

Director Christopher Cain ("That Was Then, This is Now") puts such impressive menace behind Brandel High, you really feel the weight of Latimer's task. You can't even boot these kids out because they've been kicked out of every other school. Rape is in. So's shooting and knifing. Hardly anyone gets around to "Finnegan's Wake."

Latimer decides to make a mission of it and enlists veteran security guard Jake Phillips (a memorable Louis Gossett, Jr.). Latimer will have to face one dark prince in particular -- Victor Duncan, the school's Punk Don. He's given to extortion and theatrical hissing.

"This school is mine," he rasps to Belushi. Also: "If you're trying to reach me, I just cut your hand off."

This is Belushi's look-I'm-an-actor film). And he succeeds in delivering a certain brawny empathy -- a sensitive thug in cap and gown. He mixes cola with cocoa powder, drinks beer, and wants nothing more than to pound dissenters' butts into the ground.

Yet he's also tutoring a kid with reading problems and helping a gifted but pregnant student (Kelly Minter, who was a dyslexic in "Summer School"). He's also pushing a slogan of "No More," as in "Just Say No." If the founders of the "Tough Love" school of pop-psychology (a modern version of "Speak softly and carry a big stick" for problem kids) were to make a movie, it might be something like "Principal."

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