The Movie Archive

Nightmaster

Movie Poster of Nightmaster

Directed by: Mark Joffe
Screenwriter(s): Michael McGennan
Starring: Tom Jennings, Nicole Kidman, Joanne Samuel, Vince Martin, Craig Pearce
Genre: Action / Teen
Country: AUS / CAN
Year released: 1987
Running time: 1h 27m
Rating: 2 out of 10

We open at night on the sort of industrial urban wasteland you always see in cheap action flicks, with a cheesy soundtrack featuring 1980s synth music of the variety made popular by Tangerine Dream and their ilk. People dressed as ninjas swing from the rafters and shoot each other with paint guns before one of them pulls their hood off to reveal Nicole Kidman, back when she was a redhead with curly hair. Yes! We’re dealing with a 1980s staple: the Australian teen movie.

Australian teen movies were great because they always involved a current fad or craze, like martial arts or skateboarding or even BMX, which of course gave us the best Australian Teen Movie, BMX Bandits, which also starred Kidman. Sometimes you get the added thrill of spotting future stars of Neighbours, Home and Away or other Aussie filler you can find on UK TV. They were usually blessed with the sort of plotting that even the smallest kid could follow and contained a very basic message (Drugs are bad! Kids rule! Crime is for suckers!).

In the late 1960s and into the 1970s, the British Children’s Film Foundation also produced similar movies, although they were more like Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books, with small kids (including Phil Collins and the great Dennis Waterman) foiling criminals. And the world could use more movies like this because now all teen flicks are built around the message that ‘It’s the person inside that counts’. And that, in and of itself, is a fine message, all about the personal development, but without the kiddie crime flick, how will children learn that drugs are bad or that smuggling opals is not an appropriate career choice (see: Aussie kid flick Fire in the Stone)?

Anyway, it soon becomes apparent that these are the top students of the school martial arts squad and that they’re playing a war game devised by their gym teacher, Steve Beck (Martin), a crazed ex-soldier. It’s not hard to join the dots from there about where the game is going to go. Someone is definitely going to die and we’re going to see a struggle for the soul of our supposed hero, Robby Mason (Jennings), who is blessed with the nickname ‘Karate Killer’, even though he’s not a killer and his martial arts style is more MMA-lite with a bit of artistic gymnastics than anything else.

We’re clearly in some sort of militaristic dystopian near-future or an alternate present day, because the school has ominous “security” messages broadcast over the tannoy and everyone in the cast is dressed in black and white, except Miss Spane (Samuel), the ‘good’ teacher who is trying to protect her young charges. She makes up for the lack of colour elsewhere by sporting all your favourite 80s colours all at once: for example, layers of purple, turquoise and cerise. Miss Spane is also, rather queasily, more than a little touchy-feely with her young male charge, but the less said about that the better.

A lot of the early action (I use that term very loosely) takes place in a pub, again set in a derelict warehouse, where the house band play music appropriate to the tone of the interaction. At one point, the lead singer seems to be almost narrating a wordless exchange between two drug dealers and I hoped for a few brief moments that this would turn out to be a martial arts techno musical, but, sadly, it was not to be. I can only hope that someone will one day remake the Corey Haim-Patricia Arquette classic Prayer of the Rollerboys one day and make that dream a reality for me.

Unfortunately, for an action movie, it’s all a bit dull. There’s the odd invigourating bit of kung-fu fighting, but not enough to please martial arts fans. Mostly, it’s just a bunch of people staring off into the middle distance in deep thought interspersed with some running about in pyjamas. Kidman’s already starting to show the potential which would burst through that same year in the Australian TV mini-series, Vietnam, but the others aren’t even of daytime TV acting standards.

I’m sure the occasional flashes of red—a bed cover here, a ribbon there—are meant to be important, but I couldn’t be bothered working out the symbolism. Maybe there wasn’t any. Maybe I’m reading too deeply into a movie which has low expectations and doesn’t even meet them.

Watch BMX Bandits instead.