Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 8, 2021)
Though far from his first movie, 1989’s Heathers acted as a breakout for Christian Slater, one that seemed primed to make him a new young star. Slater rode this to his first lead role via 1990’s Pump Up the Volume.
Teen Mark Hunter (Slater) becomes the new kid in town when his family moves to Arizona. A shy sort, Mark finds it difficult to make friends, so his parents give him a short wave radio to stay in touch with his old pals on the East Coast.
Mark uses this communication device for an alternate method, as he launches his own “pirate radio” station under the guise of “Hard Harry”. As his classmates grow to love “Harry”, controversies develop and Mark needs to deal with the ramifications of his actions.
As I mentioned earlier, Pump seemed intended to make then-21-year-old Slater the next big “teen rebel” star. Probably not conventional enough for standard pop idol status, Slater went for the “young Jack Nicholson”/”bad boy” vibe he brought to Heathers.
While Slater enjoyed moderate fame and a good career, he never quite achieved the stardom it appeared he might find, and I suspect Volume acted as one reason for that. While it got pretty good reviews, the film flopped at the box office, as its $11 million US gross left it in 92nd place for 1990, a pretty lousy showing.
Pump falls into that category of movies I think I saw it 30 years ago but can’t remember my reaction if I did. 23 and just out of college when the film hit, teenage angst was in my past, but not in my distant past.
As such, I wish I’d written a review in 1990 since I might have connected better with the material back then. That said, Pump offers such a melodramatic and cliché version of teenage problems that it seems unlikely I would’ve embraced it more then than I do now.
Boy, does Mark’s high school seem to be a mess! Perhaps as an overreaction to the many whitewashed portraits of teen life over the years, movies like Pump veered too far in the other direction.
This means efforts like Pump give us a view of high school that shows nothing but depression and anger. Does that building house a single happy kid?
Apparently not, as we find nothing more than one long roster of miserable students. Of course, the adults all fall along various strains of clueless to malicious – except for the one token “cool teacher”, of course.
Essentially Pump feels like a John Hughes vibe attached to Rebel Without A Cause, with a dash of Network on the side. We get no real creativity here, as the film comes across like a melange of influences without anything new to say.
We don’t get much in terms of character development. We find a bunch of unhappy teens without insight or growth, so the movie leaves the different roles one-dimensional and flat.
There’s nothing wrong with the basic premise of Pump, amply-explored it may be. However, the end result lacks intelligence and creativity, so it feels like little more than a trite stab at melodrama.