Christian Slater has been frittering away his talent lately in such junk as The Wizard, Tales From the Darkside and Young Guns II. For a while it looked as if the anarchic wit he brought to his starring role as the psycho teen with the Jack Nicholson drawl in Heathers might have been a fluke. His new movie, Pump Up the Volume, is certainly no Heathers — though it also concerns disaffected teens. But Slater gives an electrifying performance.
He plays Mark Hunter, an introverted student at Hubert Humphrey High School, in a suburban community in Arizona. Mark is horrified that his parents have moved from Manhattan to a place he thinks of as nowhere. At night, Mark pads down to the family basement, where he uses a radio console to create a pirate radio station. On his nightly broadcasts, Mark is no longer just another unhappy kid; he’s Hard Harry, the radical host of a local show that speaks to others as frustrated and angry as he is. Hard Harry likes to pretend he’s masturbating on the air. “Here it comes,” he wails to his listeners, “another gusher.”
No one guesses Mark is Hard Harry except the rebellious, poetry-spouting Nora, well played by Samantha Mathis. The two loners feel equally alienated from their parents and a school that expels even average students to artificially raise its academic rating. Mark and Nora seem about to make a personal connection when Mark learns that a depressed caller has killed himself. The suicide precipitates a crisis and the hokey worst in a screenplay that keeps handing out pat answers to questions about sex, drugs and death. Writer-director Allan Moyle (Times Square) is trying to make big statements about the lethargy of youth and what strong music and talk can do to shock youth awake. You can admire Moyle’s ambitions — he’s out to fashion a metaphor for these troubled times the way Eric Bogosian did in Talk Radio — but Moyle doesn’t have a trace of Bogosian’s keen intelligence or abrasive wit. What he does have is Slater. It’s almost enough. Roaring into the microphone with all the passion he can’t put into his life, Slater gives this movie what it otherwise so desperately lacks: a reason for being.