For a short time in the 1980s the Brat Pack ruled: eight young, good-looking, slightly awkward actors who’s stars burned so brightly, yet so briefly, in Hollywood’s celestial sphere. The term ‘Brat Pack’ was first popularised by writer David Blum in his 1985 article on the actors for the New York magazine.
But who exactly are the Brat Pack? And, more importantly, who aren’t?
Although there has never been a generally accepted list produced on the subject, it could be argued (and indeed will be, for the sake of this article) that there are, in fact, eight official members of the Brat Pack: Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, Demi Moore, Andrew McCarthy and Rob Lowe.
Well, this is where it gets a little complicated. According to varying opinions, there are anything between fifteen to twenty unofficial members: including Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell, Charlie Sheen, Jami Gertz, Mary Stuart Masterson, Mare Winningham, Matthew Broderick, Lea Thompson…to name only a handful.
So, to celebrate the release of the ensemble psychological horror Flatliners (featuring a sprinkling of Brat Packers) on UHD and Blu-ray we take a look at some of the best unofficial Brat Pack films the 1980s had to offer.
At the time of its release, WarGames was both a critical and box-office success. Riding the wave of early-80s nuclear terror (triggered by heightened international tensions over Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan 3 years earlier), British director John Badham’s tale of a young computer genius hacking into NORAD’s supercomputer WOPR is a strange, schizophrenic beast: part Cold War techno-thriller, part coming-of-age teen comedy and part family-friendly action-adventure. Brat Packer Ally Sheedy plays Jennifer Mack, here recreating her trademark awkward and slightly odd not-quite-girlfriend side-kick, this time to shy and socially awkward David Lightman, played by Matthew Broderick. Originally helmed by Beverly Hills Cop (1984) director Martin Brest and planned as a dark political thriller, Brest was fired just 12 days into filming after his relationship with the producers soured, and was replaced by Badham. The new director quickly changed the pace and tone of the film, working closely with actors Sheedy and Broderick on creating more fun, family-friendly characters.
Official = 1 (Ally Sheedy)
Unofficial = 1 (Matthew Broderick)
Red Dawn (1984)
When writer/director John Milius signed on for the war drama Red Dawn, his fee was reportedly $1.25 million and a gun of his choice. The first draft of the script was written by Waterworld (1995) director Kevin Reynolds and set in the near future, but studio execs thought it had potential to be a “tough, taut, art picture” and soon turned the picture over to Milius. Despite the setting being changed to an alternate (then) present day, as Milius began reworking the storyline it was to the past that he looked for inspiration, namely Adolf Hitler’s 1941 abandoned plans to invade the US. Arguably the bleakest, most nihilistic of all the films associated with the Brat Pack actors, its interesting to note that it actually contains no official Brat Packers at all, instead boasting a whopping five unofficial actors. Although Milius saw Red Dawn as an fervent anti-war picture, when it opened in the summer of 1984 it was hated by critics, many feeling that it was dangerously jingoistic, it needlessly glorified war, and for a while had the reputation of being one of the most violent films ever made.
Official = 0
Unofficial = 5 (Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell, Charlie Sheen, Lea Thompson, Jennifer Grey)
Like American Flyers the year before, Youngbloods was director Peter Markle’s attempt to make sports sexy – in this case, ice hockey. And how Hollywood accomplished this in the 1980s was simple: first cast young, buff, good-looking actors, add a little family drama, teen angst, and a romantic entanglement with the coach’s daughter, and then stir together liberally until it becomes a heady, noxious brew that’s difficult to swallow. Although not as charming or as engaging as John Badham’s cycle-centric American Flyers (1985), Markle’s drama still packs a certain amount of emotional whollop, even if it does have a tendency to descend into the wretched and po-faced teenage angst so familiar with Eighties coming-of-age dramas. Brat Pack regulars Rob Lowe and Patrick Swayze are on top of their game as usual (if you’ll excuse the pun), and there’s even a brief appearance by soon-to-be Hollywood A-lister Keanu Reeves, here in his feature film debut.
Official = 1 (Rob Lowe)
Unofficial = 1 (Patrick Swayze)
Blue City (1986)
Although strictly speaking Blue City is one of the 12 ‘official’ Brat Pack movies, it is arguably the most obscure – forgotten, even – hence its inclusion on this list. Starring Brat Packers Judd Nelson and Ally Sheedy (starring together in their third consecutive film in two years, and now practically a double act), and based on the hardboiled bestseller by Kenneth Millar, the film saw a slight departure from the tried and tested teen angst ‘n’ comedies of the previous three years, opting instead for a darker, edgier action-thriller. By now Nelson was starting to dip his toe in other movie genres, appearing in Transformers: The Movie (1986) and criminally under-rated courtroom comedy From The Hip (1987). Sheedy, as always is as excellent, giving what is arguably her career-best performance (not to mention the epitome of 80s chic, I always felt that she should be playing Joyce Byers in Stranger Things). Ex American Zoetrope production supervisor and producer Michelle Manning steps behind the camera for her one and only feature film directing credit (five years later she would become Senior Vice President of Production at Paramount Pictures).
Official = 2 (Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson)
Unofficial = 0
The Pick Up Artist (1987)
By the end of the decade the Brat Packers were beginning to mature, and so too were their film roles. James Toback’s The Pick Up Artist jettisons the teen angst in favour of some darker, more adult themes, such as sexual promiscuity, gambling addiction and alcoholism. Originally written for Warren Beatty, who liked the script but had reservations regarding the character of womanizer Jack Jericho, ultimately passing on the project. It was then decided that Jericho would be more sympathetic to a cinema audience if a younger actor was cast instead, so Toback approached Robert Downey Jr. The Pick Up Artist is somewhat of a departure for Toback, who’s films up to this point had been low-rent crime capers and semi-erotic dramas, and indeed several strands of DNA from those early films have weaved their way into this late-80s Rom-Com. As a consequence the film often seems to be pulling in two seemingly disparate directions. Molly Ringwald’s performance as tour guide Randy Jensen is arguably more measured and nuanced than in her early teen flicks, giving her character a much keener and troubling edge. For me this is her finest performance yet.
Official = 1 (Molly Ringwald)
Unofficial = 1 (Robert Downey Jr)
Less Than Zero (1987)
Marek Kanievska’s Less Than Zero is, perhaps, the most fascinating of all the films on this list, and without doubt a product of its time. Based on Bret Easton Ellis’s debut novel, it tackles the dark excesses of the late 1980s. Like Bright Lights, Big City (1988), Kanievska’s film was a damning indictment on the culture of wealth and excess, a morbid exploration of the slow inexorable death of a bright, colourful and excessive decade, and of those who were killing it. Already having gained the reputation as a problematic and controversial work since its publication in 1985, when Easton Ellis’s novel was originally optioned the studio execs immediately got nervous and demanded that certain elements of both story and characters be reworked and softened before it could enter production (something that infuriated Easton Ellis so much that he denounced the film). First to go was much of the casual drug use, changing the central character of Clay Easton (played by Andrew McCarthy) from a drug user into an anti-drug crusader, hell bent on saving his decadent friends from the evils of cocaine. Another particular bee in the studio’s bonnet was the matter of Clay’s sexuality, demanding that it be changed from bisexual to heterosexual. Yet, despite all these amendments, the studio still remained cagey, losing faith in the project and ultimately reducing its budget. Troubled history aside, Less Than Zero still remains one of the best and most intriguing entries in the Brat Pack oeuvre.
Official = 0
Unofficial = 4 (Robert Downey Jr, Andrew McCarthy, Jamie Gertz, James Spader)
Young Guns (1988)
At the time of its release, Young Guns was a firm favourite among the girls at my school, most of which had a copy of the theatrical poster pinned lovingly to their bedroom walls. There is, of course, no doubt as to why it was so popular when it was released in 1988 – you only have to glance at its main cast to find out why (not to mention the aforementioned theatrical poster). Featuring four members of the Brat Pack (one official, three unofficial), it could be argued that Young Guns was the last hurrah for the actors as a collective: with many critics and audience members alike already signalling that they’d had quite enough. Essentially Young Guns is a fun movie. Yes, it’s silly, its brash, clumsy at times, and it certainly is noisy, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously, which was exactly what the previous Brat Pack movies were beginning to do.
Two years later the same Brat Packers (minus Sheen) followed up with a sequel (unsurprisingly called Young Guns II), but it failed to set the box office alight. By the beginning of the 1990s cinema had invariably moved on, and its audience had moved on with it.
Official = 1 (Emilio Estevez)
Unofficial = 3 (Charlie Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland, Lou Diamond Philips)