At the outset of "Dangerously Close," a gang -- black-clad, black-masked -- chases a young man through a thicket that is, like them, silhouetted against the blue, back-lit fog of movie nighttime. The young man's screams, though, aren't movie screams -- they're panicked, breathless, unearthly, and the music, which sounds like a xylophone set to a bouncy Caribbean beat, is oddly jolly.

The strange, vicious beauty of this tableau leads you to expect great things from this film and its director, Albert Pyun.

Oh, silly you.

The story of "Dangerously Close" involves a group called the Sentinels. They're highfalutin hall monitors, organized to deal with the drugs and vandalism that ensue when their high school is made into a magnet school and invaded by kids less wealthy and decorous than they. Painting over graffiti is kid's stuff for Randy (John Stockwell, who also cowrote); he's got bigger plans. Under his stewardship, the Sentinels become a kind of vigilante group.

Presumably, Randy has read his "Mein Kampf," since he beelines for the editor of the school paper, Donny (J. Eddie Peck), an earnest type from the wrong side of the tracks who cleans pools, including Randy's. As long as "Dangerously Close" sticks with their budding friendship, the movie gets at some intriguing, personal truths: Donny may be the hero, but he falls right in with the Sentinels, seduced by their wealth, their luxurious, grown-up life style; Randy may be the villain, but he's basically well meaning. His is a pep rally extremism.

The movie's Hitler Youth stuff is not altogether fantastic in contemporary America (particularly in the wealthy environs of L.A.), and had "Dangerously Close" been interested in sticking to reality, this could have been the movie about Reagan-era youth that we've been waiting for since "Risky Business." But soon enough, the movie lapses into its "crimestoppers" mode, as Donny sets about discovering who killed someone named Morgan, and we're off into some rather conventional whodunit dramatics. Did Randy kill Morgan? Or was it the Sentinels' faculty adviser? Or an erratic, rowdy fellow named Ripper?

Pyun and cinematographer Walt Lloyd have given "Dangerously Close" a look that is often evocative: You don't just see the rain, you smell it, and the exteriors are rich with supersaturated colors, deep red sunsets and deeper blue skies. It's wasted, though, on a script that, for all its early interest, falls into lockstep as quickly as you can say "teen exploitation."

Dangerously Close, at area theaters, is rated R and contains profanity and violence.