released in 2002, bang bang you’re dead is the first fictional feature length movie about school shooting post-columbine. the fact that it premiered on showtime and nickelodeon movies is credited as the production studio leads one to think that it’s just another made-for-tv based-on-real-tragedy movie of the week, or a message heavy after school special, two categories that no one should feel bad ignoring. the movie thankfully belongs in neither of those categories.
it’s also not a sensational exploitation of real life event to cash in on columbine. it’s actually based on a play of the same name. written by william mastrosimone (who also adapted his play for the movie), the original play is actually inspired by the school shootings before columbine, mostly the 1998 thurston high school shooting in springfield, oregon (where the simpsons takes place, as we learn recently). mastrosimone also wrote tv’s into the west, with honors, the tv movie sinatra, and most interestingly, the revenge movie extremities in which farrah fawcett turns the table on an attempt rapist. the play premiered on stage on april 2nd, 1999, eighteen days before the columbine massacre.
it’s directed by guy ferland, who also directed plenty of tv shows, the dirty dancing sequel, and 1995’s the babysitter, which is about men wanting to have sex with alicia stone. kind of a die hard with alicia stone instead of the nakotomi plaza.
considering the subject of the movie, the opening scenes feels especially jarring. it shows camcorder footage of someone entering a school, shaky cam and all, set to a crystal method-ish techno score. it would simply be annoying and cliched in an action movie but it feels rather inappropriate and annoying here. thankfully, it’s not a whole movie composed from found footage. like that kid in american beauty, it’s from the point of view of a kid who’s shooting with his camera all the time, except the kid is less of an annoying emo douchebag. also, no plastic bag in the wind.
the kid is trevor adams, played by ben foster from alpha dog, the tom jane punisher, the jason statham mechanic, and the guy with the wings from x-men 3. one smart thing about the movie is that we meet trevor the year after he called in a (fake) bomb threat at the school. when the movie begins, he had already went through anger management consoling and retook his classes the previous school year during summer school. though it’s never made clear, the school has installed metal detectors and security guards, and adopted the zero tolerance policy after trevor’s bomb threat last year.
the other main character is the theatre/video production teacher val duncan, played by tom cavanagh from tv’s ed, and tv’s love monkey (an american high fidelity ripoff based on the novel of the same name by the armond white-ish new york post critic kyle smith). he’s one of those young idealistic teacher that we’ve seen many times before. he wants to put on a play called bang bang you’re dead and cast trevor in the lead role of the school shooter. as cliched as the character is, the teacher is still more likable than his cinematic predecessor. he doesn’t stand on the desk and do poetry or use bob dylan lyrics as an inspiration. he also seems surprisingly upbeat throughout the movie. he carries a coffee mug throughout the movie, it doesn’t have to do with anything other than coffee seems to be popular at the time, and it gives him an opportunity later on in the movie when he finds out something surprising just so the movie can have a coffee mug/cup drops on the floor in slow motion scene.
for a while there doesn’t seem to be a plot. there are way more montages in the first half of the movie than necessary, especially since one of such sequences has a creed song in the background. there’s also the expected explanation of high school hierarchy and different cliques, only not as interestingly done as slc punk.
but the first half is merely setup for the second half of the film. things get more interesting when the movie expands its scope to just the school. we see a community meeting where the teacher has to defend himself for picking this particular play for school while most in the community would prefer to ignore and forget about the bomb threat. the cops and other parents think that their kids and neighborhood would be safer if trevor was expelled from school. it may have been done many times before but there is truth to the fact that it’s hard to be an individual in high school. it has always baffled me that sports and teamanship is such a priority in high school, especially in a country where nascar and golf are considered sport. but then maybe i’m not the best example considering i wore mostly black clothings, leather jacket/long trenchcoats, boots throughout most of my high school and college years. and considering my musical taste and interest in video games, if i was born a few years later, i would probably be one of the first people they question anytime any kind of threats occur.
and seriously, why would i give a shit about some high school football team in texas, in movie or on tv, regardless of how critically acclaimed they are?
but enough about me and my rant. as mentioned, the movie is based on the play of the same name. while the play focuses solely on a school shooter and its aftermath, mastrosimone had to expand the play to a full length feature, and this is where the film kind of fails. i like the addition of the community scenes and the teacher character, but most of the additions prevents it from being a great movie. there is the unnecessary addition of a love interest for the teacher (played by aaron sorkin veteran janel moloney from sports night and the west wing). there is a great (but too optimistic) scene with all the principal characters sitting in a room watching the video trevor made about killing a jock, but it’s laughable that the school principle and pretty much everyone except the theatre teacher who doesn’t realize that bullying is taking place right under their nose.
there are also quite a few logical lapses in the movie that are probably not in the original play. i can’t say for sure though since i can’t seem to find the original play online. in fact, the addition of the teacher character, with his insistence on putting on the play, seems more like therapy catered soley for trevor than any kind of grand ideals from the teacher. there is a running joke that no one in the community can accurately name the play yet they want to ban it from happening. it’s a understandable point, but i don’t know if i want a running joke in a movie about school shootings.
it may have been intended as a tribute to the play but the last ten minutes of the movie shows us scenes from the actual play, starring the students from the school in the movie. it’s well intentioned but it doesn’t do the movie as a whole any favor. it seems to merely pad out the movie to feature length. it could have ended without this sequence. the end credit shows real students doing the play with real footages, and that would have been more efficient.
though bullying is the major issue in the movie, i like the fact that the movie admits that there is not a single reason why these shootings happen. unlike bowling for columbine, which focuses on guns, bang bang you’re dead concentrates mostly on bullying but also declares that there is not one single reason that these tragedies happen nor one way to prevent them. as disturbing as that is, it is perhaps the closest to the truth. it’s not as artful as gus van sant’s elephant but it does manage to create its own universe as a way to explore the situation. i also love the fact that no pop culture, be it german industrial music, marilyn manson, or fps like doom or castle wolfenstein are mentioned. beware of mainstream media and cable news channels and their artificial effort to narrow things down to a single culprit.
the geniuses at the mpaa rated this r, which in a way made it unwatchable to anyone actually in high school. it was released unrated. i guess to them, the whole fast and furious series is better for high-schoolers than this. it’s acceptable to streetrace and do heist with your bros as long as you don’t bring it to school.
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