Smoke Up, Johnny: The Breakfast Club, Still Gloriously Poignant 25 Years Later

M.T. Richards

The Breakfast Club remains a defining moment for a generation 25 years later. What endures is the sheer heart that defines the film, the way that it supplies stark, grave candor and quirky spunk in equal measure.

The Breakfast Club

Director: John Hughes
Cast: Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall, Ally Sheedy, Paul Gleason
Studio: Universal
US Release Date: 1985-02-15

’80s nostalgia grew tired long ago, the result of too many Now That’s What I Call Music compilations and VH1 one-hit-wonder specials. We get it: the Gipper’s presidency was something, a period defined by reform, economic prosperity, sax solos, and Chia Pets. Mellencamp and Springsteen rallied the regular folk. Hall & Oates mastered slick, jazzy pop. Madonna sprinkled the charts with musings on Jesus and Mary and abortion and virginity. Ducky and Spicoli made hilarious light of the rampant brainlessness found in suburban high school hallways. Larry Bird proved that, even if white men can’t jump per se, they could still collect titles and MVP trophies with staggering regularity. And Reagan sent Gorbachev running for the hills: take your communism and shove it up your splotchy ass!

But does that justify the relentless retrospective media coverage we’ve been subjected to? The people who grew up during that era seem to think so -- just watch High School Reunion, where the cast members harp inexorably on the glory of yesteryear, fondly remembering the youthful experiences they had a quarter-century ago. These same people call into soft-rock radio stations requesting Mike & the Mechanics or REO Speedwagon, the soundtrack to their adolescent euphoria. They’ve done a lot to ensure that their generation, and the decade that reared them, will forever be the cornerstone of popular culture, and they’ve succeeded: the 1980s have had a larger impact on current trends than any decade before or after.

Not that our enthrallment with the ’80s is ungrounded. Just like pop music will likely never see another innovator as astounding as peak-era Michael Jackson or Prince, cinema will never yield another virtuoso like John Hughes, someone who chronicled the plight of glum, angsty teenagers with an inherent combination of tenderness and understated humor. He was a beacon of artistry and empathy. And his best-known work -- an unprecedented string of blockbusters (Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Pretty in Pink) made between 1984 and 1986 -- forever changed the way coming-of-age tales were told. A movie like Superbad is more vulgar than the classic Hughes comedy, but the disillusionment and nerdy, undersexed eagerness that underscore every crass joke is grade-A Hughes. Michael Cera’s brand of droll innocence isn’t far removed from Anthony Michael Hall’s; Jonah Hill is a smartass cynic much in the same way that Judd Nelson was.

Hughes was by no means the world’s most versatile filmmaker. He routinely worked with the same mob of Brat Pack whiz kids. He rarely strayed from Chicago, his beloved hometown. And he harped unwaveringly on one theme: teen anguish. Yet Hughes colored within those lines with astounding originality, inundating his works with left-field oddities (Otis Redding covers? Valet parkers stealing Ferraris?) and tons of feeling -- the scene when Ferris’s best friend, the uptight, stoic Cameron, unleashes years of oppressed fury and demolishes his father’s prized sports car remains life affirming. No picture demonstrates that poignancy more than The Breakfast Club, his 1985 juggernaut and the defining youth-sucks movie of all time. These kids, equal parts callous and sensitive, put the insipid horndogs at Ridgemont High to shame.

"They only met once, but it changed their lives forever" -- that was Breakfast Club’s memorable tagline. Lost in the endless shuffle of students at a high school in Chicago’s North Shore suburbs, five depressive children were forced to endure a Saturday detention together in the school library, bonded by nothing but their sheer contempt for everything and everyone. They personified the stereotypes: you had the hyper-masculine wrestler (Andy, played by Emilio Estevez), the lusty homecoming queen (Claire, played by Molly Ringwald, a relic of the ’80s in the same way that Donny Osmond was a relic of the ’70s), the prank-committing stoner (John, played by Judd Nelson), the wholesome honor student (Brian, played Anthony Michael Mall), and the deranged recluse (Alison, played by Ally Sheedy). Andy and Claire chant nonchalantly about popular-kid stuff, but otherwise the group makes no conversation at first. They instead sit in tense silence, punching the clock begrudgingly.

Then, in comes Vice Principal Vernon, a miserable middle-ager with a stick up his ass. “You’re going to write an essay,” Vernon barks. “No less than 1,000 words.” The essay is supposed to be an exercise in self-examination, but Vernon knows that the kids will blow it off -- just as well, since he takes perverse delight in condemning them anyway. But the only student who protests verbally is John, tartly sarcastic as always.

“Does Barry Manilow know that you raid his wardrobe?” he asks, eyeing Vernon’s questionable leisure suit.

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From drunken masters to rumbles in the Bronx, Jackie Chan's career is chock full of goofs and kicks. These ten films capture what makes Chan so magnetic.

Jackie Chan got his first film role way back in 1976, when a rival producer hired him for his obvious action prowess. Now, nearly 40 years later, he is more than a household name. He's a brand, a signature star with an equally recognizable onscreen persona. For many, he was their introduction into the world of Hong Kong cinema. For others, he's the goofy guy speaking broken English to Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour films.

From his grasp of physical comedy to his fearlessness in the face of certain death (until recently, Chan performed all of his own stunts) he's a one of a kind talent whose taken his abilities in directions both reasonable (charity work, political reform) and ridiculous (have your heard about his singing career?).

Now, Chan is back, bringing the latest installment in the long running Police Story franchise to Western shores (subtitled Lockdown, it's been around since 2013), and with it, a reminder of his multifaceted abilities. He's not just an actor. He's also a stunt coordinator and choreographer, a writer, a director, and most importantly, a ceaseless supporter of his country's cinema. With nearly four decades under his (black) belt, it's time to consider Chan's creative cannon. Below you will find our choices for the ten best pictures Jackie Chan's career, everything from the crazy to the classic. While he stuck to formula most of the time, no one made redundancy seem like original spectacle better than he.

Let's start with an oldie but goodie:

10. Operation Condor (Armour of God 2)

Two years after the final pre-Crystal Skull installment of the Indiana Jones films arrived in theaters, Chan was jumping on the adventurer/explorer bandwagon with this wonderful piece of movie mimicry. At the time, it was one of the most expensive Hong Kong movies ever made ($115 million, which translates to about $15 million American). Taking the character of Asian Hawk and turning him into more of a comedic figure would be the way in which Chan expanded his global reach, realizing that humor could help bring people to his otherwise over the top and carefully choreographed fight films -- and it's obviously worked.

9. Wheels on Meals

They are like the Three Stooges of Hong Kong action comedies, a combination so successful that it's amazing they never caught on around the world. Chan, along with director/writer/fight coordinator/actor Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, all met at the Peking Opera, where they studied martial arts and acrobatics. They then began making movies, including this hilarious romp involving a food truck, a mysterious woman, and lots of physical shtick. While some prefer their other collaborations (Project A, Lucky Stars), this is their most unabashedly silly and fun. Hung remains one of the most underrated directors in all of the genre.

8. Mr. Nice Guy
Sammo Hung is behind the lens again, this time dealing with Chan's genial chef and a missing mob tape. Basically, an investigative journalist films something she shouldn't, the footage gets mixed up with some of our heroes, and a collection of clever cat and mouse chases ensue. Perhaps one of the best sequences in all of Chan's career occurs in a mall, when a bunch of bad guys come calling to interrupt a cooking demonstration. Most fans have never seen the original film. When New Line picked it up for distribution, it made several editorial and creative cuts. A Japanese release contains the only unaltered version of the effort.

7. Who Am I?

Amnesia. An easy comedic concept, right? Well, leave it to our lead and collaborator Benny Chan (no relation) to take this idea and go crazy with it. The title refers to Chan's post-trauma illness, as well as the name given to him by natives who come across his confused persona. Soon, everyone is referring to our hero by the oddball moniker while major league action set pieces fly by. While Chan is clearly capable of dealing with the demands of physical comedy and slapstick, this is one of the rare occasions when the laughs come from character, not just chaos.

6. Rumble in the Bronx

For many, this was the movie that broke Chan into the US mainstream. Sure, before then, he was a favorite of film fans with access to a video store stocking his foreign titles, but this is the effort that got the attention of Joe and Jane Six Pack. Naturally, as they did with almost all his films, New Line reconfigured it for a domestic audience, and found itself with a huge hit on its hands. Chan purists prefer the original cut, including the cast voices sans dubbing. It was thanks to Rumble that Chan would go on to have a lengthy run in Tinseltown, including those annoying Rush Hour films.

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A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

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