There's an opening scene to this weekend's VMI Worldwide release The Crusades in which Jack (newcomer Ryan Ashton) is set for an after school brawl with, get this, the "handicapped" kid from arch-rival school St. Matthews. Now then, if I were feeling particularly generous I might give a bonus point or two for the fact that this "handicapped" kid essentially kicks Jack's a**, but I'm not feeling particularly generous because, well, the scene isn't particularly well done and it's certainly not, well, funny.
And so it goes for the rest of the abysmal The Crusades, a wannabe classic high school comedy advertised as the latest in a long line of high school comedies like Ferris Bueller's Day Off, The Breakfast Club, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Porky's. Instead, the mean-spirited and toxic masculinity-fueled The Crusades often feels more like Class of 1984. In fact, the only real surprise here is that the constantly ogled hottie Italian teacher (Anna Maiche) manages to escape the film's 94-minute running time relatively unscathed.
Now then, there's a basic rule of filmmaking and film marketing. Know your audience.
While I realize that mass e-mails rule the world of marketing these days, you can imagine my surprise as one of the country's top disabled film journalists when I sit down to watch a film only to have the very first scene involve a brawl against the "handicapped" kid and, as near as I could tell, that "handicapped" kid, he was allegedly deaf, wasn't actually played by a deaf actor. I mean, I'm not sure a deaf actor would have redeemed anything here but I'm grasping at cinematic straws.
Oh, and for the record - "handicapped?" Really? That's the best you can do?
So yeah, my disappointment in this abysmal scene, and I'm going to use abysmal a lot in this review, was amplified by the bizarre intensity of the tone of the brawl set in a film that is marketed as both "romance" and "comedy."
The Crusades centers around three pals - Leo (Rudy Pankow, Outer Banks), Sean (Khalil Everage, Cobra Kai), and the aforementioned Jack (Ryan Ashton) - who attend Our Lady of the Crusades, an all-boys Catholic high school on the cusp of dramatic changes involving a merger with St. Matthews.
To be fair, I had a pretty good idea what I was getting into with The Crusades. I expected its high school anarchic spirit. I expected the naughtiness. I expected sexual situations and awkward confrontations. All of these things existed, much more successfully, in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Porky's and the others mentioned.
Those other films, though, understood their place in culture. They gave us characters we could care about and balanced tones that more realistically reflected actual high school experiences. The Crusades feels like it was created from a place of unresolved PTSD from one too many times being locked in a locker or given a swirlie.
This is not to say that all is bad here. It's just that the good is so overwhelmed by toxic machismo that The Crusades never elicits more than uncomfortable laughter and the occasional triumphant fist slam mostly owing to Kris Dirksen's energized techno-score and a soundtrack from Evan Pinter and Jacob Schweitzer that never lets up. Dillon Schneider's lensing also has its moments to shine amidst visually dizzying brawls and a couple compelling action sequences.
The ensemble, as well, is for the most part sufficient enough for this type of indie flick. Nicholas Turturro, arguably the film's most recognizable face, has a few funny moments as a lunkhead coach passing on his lunkhead ways to the impressionable young lunkheads. Mike Starr, a veteran stunt man, also has some good stuff as a high school prank victim who fights back.
But, I just can't escape the fact that those occasional fine moments are overwhelmed by a film that falls woefully short of being the coming-of-age high school film that it wants to be. Ashton's Jack, for example, isn't some Jeff Spicoli always on the verge of getting booted from school. Instead, he comes off as someone on the fast-track to his local prison. It becomes a lot harder to laugh at. Rudy Pankow, as the slightly more stable Leo, and Khalil Everage's Sean don't fair much better though both have the benefit of occasionally playing opposite female characters who do breathe some life into the film. Indiana Massara, in particular, impresses as Jess and Ashley Nicole Williams, another familiar face, shines as Ryan.
Too little. Too late.
The Crusades, a coming-of-age film for those least likely to make it, arrives in limited theatrical release and on digital/VOD simultaneously on July 7th.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic