I never really watch a made-for-TV movie with high expectations, though I’ve seen a few that are actually pretty good. While I hope that every theatrical movie I watch is great — minus those few that are obvious candidates for the Morbid Curiosity Files — when it comes to their small-screen counterparts, I mostly hope for something that’s just OK. Every so often I get surprised by one that’s better than expected, but especially with older ones, it doesn’t happen very often.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t reasons to check them out, though. Sometimes an older TV movie can be fun to watch just to see who turns up. In the case of Charles Braverman’s 1986 TV movie, The Brotherhood of Justice, the reason to watch is the chance to see a young Keanu Reeves play off a young Kiefer Sutherland.
Lori Laughlin has to choose between the future Neo and Jack Bauer.
The story is loosely inspired by actual events the previous year, and is set at Santa Lucia High School, where all of the younger characters are students. Reeves plays Derek, senior class representative on the student council, star quarterback, and all around popular guy. Sutherland is Victor, soft-spoken rival for the affections of Derek’s girlfriend Christie (Lori Laughlin). The two don’t see eye-to-eye on much beyond a respect for classic cars, but they maintain a polite distance between each other.
But Santa Lucia has a bigger problem than the usual high school love triangles. Vandalism is on the rise, and so are theft and drug abuse. For a high school mostly populated by upper-class suburbanites, it’s not just a concern, it’s almost beyond their comprehension. Not that theft and drug abuse are minor, by any stretch, but these kids are so sheltered some of them are on the cusp of freaking out just from having their lockers spray painted. The town sheriff, played by Jim Haynie, wants to have officers stationed inside the school itself. Principal Bob Grootemat (Joe Spano) has a more moderate idea: he wants the upperclassmen to step up and provide an example to the underclassmen, be role models for them to follow.
When Derek discovers his younger brother Willie (Danny Nucci) doing drugs, however, he and his fellow members of the student council start making an example of others instead. They form “the Brotherhood of Justice”.
In accordance with the universal laws of 1980s gang movies, they meet at an abandoned amusement park.
They start putting together a list of ne’er-do-wells to target, people they haze and harass. Derek leads the group, and sets the rules. Barnwell (Gary Riley) provides the intel, and the muscle is provided by Scottie, “Mule”, Collin, and Les. Scottie (Darren Dalton) is more mild than the others, but is initially enthusiastic. Mule (Evan Mirand) has a chip on his shoulder, and is racist against Hispanics. Collin (Don Michael Paul) is easily led by the group. And Les (Billy Zane) is barely restrained at the best of times. It’s not long before the group starts throwing off their self-imposed rules and starts escalating things.
It’s a plot that has been done elsewhere, and done better. But it’s also been done a lot worse. The story progresses naturally from good kids just trying to restore a sense of order in their lives, to losing control and becoming the kind of gang they initially set out to oppose. The actors who play the Brotherhood don’t get a large amount of characterization to work with, but each manages to give their character some personality. Billy Zane is particularly noteworthy, and not just because he later had some success as an actor; rather, one can see why he had that success, as he does a very good job at portraying the constantly-on-edge Les. Lori Laughlin is comfortable in her role as the All-American girl, and if it’s uncomplicated role, well, at least it’s not hard for her to portray it. Kiefer Sutherland works well in one of his more subdued, non-psychotic roles, and his nervousness around Lori Laughlin’s character and tension around Keanu Reeves’s character both feel very natural. And since this was made before Keanu had his emotion-chip removed, he gives a pretty strong performance as Derek, who is torn and tormented by wanting to do the right thing while not wanting to allow people to do bad things to those he cares about.
It’s not a great movie, but it’s actually pretty enjoyable. It could stand to have a better musical score, but that’s just part of the territory with TV movies. Everything else is at least reasonably good. And it’s a good chance to see some big names before they became quite so big.