Looking Back at The Principal (1987)

Plot: After assaulting his ex-wife’s new boyfriend with a baseball bat, a hard-drinking teacher (Belushi), is “promoted” to principal of Brandel High – a high school so bad it makes the one from Dangerous Minds look like Beverly Hills High. He soon learns his unconventional methods may be what his new home needs.  He teams up with the gruff head of security (Gossett Jr.) and sets out to clean up his school. 

Released in 1987, The Principal is a great little character driven film with some hard-hitting action and often funny moments of profane dialog.

Belushi, who is underrated in my opinion, is perfect as Lattimer, the hard-living principal who rides a bike, drinks like a fish and swears like a sailor.  His earthy, naturalistic charm is on show here and it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing this role.  Although he’s been in great Red Heat and Real Men, Belushi shines here.  He’s funny when he needs to be and ruthlessly tough when he has to be.

Belushi gets strong support from the always entertaining Lou Gossett Jr. As Jake, the head of security.  Jake has grown weary of the school system, and the violent, drug dealing students, but Lattimer’s can-do attitude eventually sways him and the pair become good friends.  Belushi and Gossett make a great pair as they face off against a gang of murderous teenagers in the films tense climax.

Rae Dawn Chong, of Commando fame, is one of Belushi’s teachers who unexpectedly captures his heart, but thankfully the screenplay doesn’t force a tacked-on romance between the two on the audience.

Michael Wright is fantastic as the evil Duncan, head of the gang that rules the school.  Wright manages to make Duncan despicable without taking the character over the top – and rendering him a hollow cartoon. I always felt Wright should have gone on to bigger things.   He’s a brilliant actor.

While not an action film, the mayhem on show is well-captured by Young Guns helmer Christopher Cain, who infuses the film with grit and realism.  We get some crunching fisticuffs, a cool sequence where Belushi rides his motorbike through the high school hallways to rescue a fellow teacher and an intense, bare knuckle ending that will have you cheering out loud.

More of a drama than an action film, The Principal was a modest success when it came out, but over the years it’s gained a healthy cult following. And rightly so.  They literally don’t make films like this anymore and I urge everyone who hasn’t seen The Principal to check it out.  You won’t be disappointed.