The Top 10 Best High School Gang Movies
High School Gangs
There are a lot of movies out there about gangs and high school, but which movies are the best at putting these two together?
I know some people might have one or two movies in mind, but there are a plethora of films that fit the bill. Maybe there are too many. I’ve narrowed down the field and ranked them accordingly.
Top 10 High School Gang Films
Mi Vida Loca
Class of 1999
Band of the Hand
The Nitty Gritty
Did I mention there are a lot of gang movies out there? There are, so this list only has films involving teenagers and involving a high school in one form or another. Having teens is only a part of the equation. All these entries need is one scene in a high school, though it is better if it more prominently featured.
Another criteria is that they must be an actual gang in one form or another. I will note that there are many movies where the kids group up together, like Stand By Me, but aren’t an actual gang. Sure, Keifer Sutherland’s group was a gang, but the movie isn’t about them. Just note that gangs are thugs, commit violence, and aren’t in a sewing circle if you catch my drift. A group of well meaning kids on a journey to grow up a little doesn’t qualify. So, murders, fights, and criminal activity gets the movie higher on the list.
An important factor when considering these high school gang films is the movie itself. Is the movie a classic or a cult classic? What is so special about it? Every good high school gang film has that extra special something about it that lifts it up and makes it stand out. These movies do as well and some are much better at standing out in the crowd than others.
On my quest to find all the best high school gang films, I found that there were a lot of movies that had a similar feel or similar narratives. Instead of leaving out one or the other, I picked my favorite and included the others in their entry.
You might think I picked the wrong one, but consider them all in the same spot. It’s my way of having an expanded top 10 list, because there really are a lot of movies out there that fit the bill and the differences between them may be cultural, regional, or just personal preference. Here are some other films that didn't quite make the list.
City of God (2002, Meirelles and Lund)
This movie tells the story of two friends as youngsters that eventually grow apart. This is a moving film about Buscape and Ze and though it is a gang film about teenagers, it really has nothing to do about high school. Buscape wants to become a photographer while Ze has a nastier streak.
This storyline has been told in many different ways in films like Boyz in the Hood (1991, Singleton), Blood In, Blood Out (1993, Hackford), and others. The basic line is that two friends who are surrounded by violence use the gangster life around them because it’s all they know.
As they grow older, they grow apart with the protagonist wanting to do better in life and his best friend, the antagonist, slipping deeper into gang life. Also, there’s usually a third friend who straddles in between both worlds. This friend usually gets sucked deeper into crime, even though he wants out. He’s the trigger for the protagonist to realize that he must lead a respectable life. Think that’s too specific for three different movies? Check it out!
City of God stands out as a haunting look at the youth of Rio de Janeiro in the 1960s. There is beauty in the way the shots of the film were used to convey the serene beaches, the desperate inner city, and the struggle to exist in a city where it feels even God is working against you. This movie and others mentioned didn’t make the list but are worthy of a mention because the message they tell is worth listening to.
Over the Edge (1979, Kaplan)
What happens when a suburban community pushes the advancement and growth of their community before their children? Over the Edge examines what could happen when a bunch of kids have all of their after school activities removed while their parents are too busy luring big business to their neighborhood. Having a town full of bored kids is just asking for trouble. This is pure late 70s suburban expansion anxiety on celluloid.
The movie has a bunch of kids band together to take over their school, literally blockading their parents and teachers inside their school while they tear the town apart. It is also the first movie Matt Dillon is in. He’s on the cover of the video now, but beware, he’s not the protagonist or the star. He’s just the one big name that makes a splash in the movie. Vincent Spano is also in the movie, as one of Carl's friends/foes.
Over the Edge is a fun watch, it barely misses the list since the movie isn’t quite edgy enough to make it a cult classic, though if you're in the know (which you are now) you'll check it out and see what a good movie it really is. The soundtrack featuring Cheap Trick songs creates the very 70s atmosphere and sure isn’t painful on the ears.
Now that you've been warmed up, it's time to get down to the real nitty gritty. These are the movies who have shown themselves to be the real deal when it comes to high school gang films.
10. Cry Baby (1990, Waters)
This campy take on juvenile delinquency stars Johnny Depp as a drape (a delinquent) who falls in love with a square (a good girl). The two struggle against their own social circles and against the social circles of the one they love.
Heard this tale before? Of course you have. William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a story told a million times over in many different ways. There are others like Grease (1978, Kleiser) and West Side Story (1961, Robbins and Wise), but there’s something about this over the top, campy version that puts the cheese on my nachos.
Since this movie is pure camp, it lacks the darkness and overt violence of others on the list. It does do a good job at mocking while questioning some of ideas of what teenage gangs are and what they do. This gang of drapes fight, steal, get tattoos, and wear leather. They also get sent to juvenile hall, get pregnant, and make out just about anywhere.
All of this sounds hardcore, but when you dress it up with John Waters’ glasses and skirt, it looks ridiculous and never takes itself seriously. It doesn’t have the cult fandom that Pink Flamingos (1972) does, but all of Waters’ films seem to make their mark in one way or another.
9. Band of the Hand (1986, Glaser)
This movie is set in the land of Miami Vice. These high schoolers are gang leaders, drug dealers, and vandalizers who are taken from their school and juvenile hall to the Florida swamps to learn how to survive and depend on each other. It’s only after they’re thrown back into the jungle of Miami where they end up balancing their past selves and who they’ve learned to become.
These kids are such nasty pieces of work that you can forget they’re kids. Leon (TV series Oz) shows his tendency for in your face acting and has a young Lauren Holly (1994, Dumb and Dumber) as one of the gang members’ main squeeze. This little known film also has James Remar (1979, The Warriors) as Nestor and Larry Fishbourne aka Laurence Fishbourne (1999, The Matrix) as Cream, a member of an opposing gang.
A nice touch is the soundtrack which has everything a mid 80s moody soundtrack should have. Mr. Mister, Tiger Tiger, Duran Duran…wait, Duran Duran isn’t on the soundtrack, but Bob Dylan is. He sings the title song and really brings the whole movie together with his raspy vocals and edgy guitar. It fits next to the rag tag gang forced to work together to live in the battle zone that is Miami.
8. Blackboard Jungle (1955, Brooks)
I’m going to put this movie right next to another favorite of mine, To Sir, With Love (1967, Clavell.) Not only do both star the wonderful Sidney Poitier, they are similar movies with a similar narrative.
In Blackboard, Poitier is a leader of a gang causing trouble for a new English teacher in a troubled inner city school. The teacher is tasked to teach the gang of kids, but they prove to be cunning in their desire to stay young thugs.
In To Sir, With Love, Poiter transitions from gang leader into the role of the teacher. He tries to educate a gang of high school thugs in London’s East End. They have little desire to grow up and face the upcoming responsibilities of becoming an adult.
Though both films follow the teacher as the main protagonist, the movies’ impact comes from the group of students who cause trouble, yet have something deeper inside of themselves that is better than what they’ve shown.
There isn’t any excessive violence or harsh behavior from the students, but in the time and era the films were made, they made it known that these were supposed to be bad kids. Newer variations of this narrative have taken it further in movies like Dangerous Minds (1995, Smith), Lean On Me (1989, Avildsen) and Stand and Deliver (1988, Menendez.) All of these movies are nice to watch, but there’s something special about Blackboard Jungle and To Sir, With Love.
7. Class of 1999 (1990, Lester)
This movie is a variation of the cult classic Class of 1984, but is instead set in a fire free zone so full of gang violence that no police will enter the area.
Instead of following the new teacher in town, this film follows a former gang leader named Cody (Bradley Greg) who was just released from juvenile hall. He tries to stay out of trouble, only to find his school filled with new militant teachers. He wants to stay out of the gang and start a new life for himself, but his baby brother and the havoc the new teachers create make it difficult to stay on the straight, narrow path.
The principal is played by Malcolm McDowell (1971, A Clockwork Orange) who is convinced by a robotics specialist, played by Stacy Keach (1998, American History X), to use new robotic teachers to keep the highly volatile students in line. One of those teachers is played by the very fabulous Pam Grier (1997, Jackie Brown.) Awesome, am I right?
This movie is every bit as cheesy as Class of 1984 and both should be watched with this in mind. Every gang in the movie pays homage to A Clockwork Orange in one fashion or another, but it never loses sight of its own goals. It has nasty gangs that go to war and a battle scene that pits kids against fully armed robotic soldiers.
Also in the same vein is Battle Royale (2000, Fukasaku) which has the students battling against themselves instead of teachers. If you want a movie that has a similar feel, but has a harder edge, Battle Royale is the way to go. It's a no holds barred look at what society does to an influx of unwanted children.
6. Heathers (1988, Lehmann)
There’s been Mean Girls (2004, Waters) and Jawbreakers (1999, Stein), but none can compare to the original, modern day high school girl clique. The movie stars Winona Ryder, Shannon Doherty, and Christian Slater and has become a classic with lines that entered the American lexicon like “What’s your damage, Heather?” and “Lick it up, baby. Lick. It. Up.” But, my all time favorite line from the movie is “My son's a homosexual, and I love him. I love my dead gay son.” It makes me laugh every single time.
A clique isn’t the exact same as a gang, but they are as deadly, if not deadlier. They’re like crime lords over the masses in the general public, stepping on the insignificant and destroying anyone getting in their way. They manipulate and demean others just for fun. They overrun their school and maintain a hierarchy that keeps their own well coiffed group in check.
It isn’t until Veronica, the only non-Heather, meets JD when the group goes into a whole new level where murder becomes just another way to stay popular in high school politics. These ladies are a nasty gang of girls that will do anything to stay on top.
5. Mi Vida Loca (1993, Anders)
Mi Vida Loca focuses on two gang members who were once best friends but become enemies when Sad Girl gets pregnant by Mousie’s boyfriend. Set in the barrio of Los Angeles, the movie starts with the two friends at odds while flashing back to past, happier times in high school.
The movie does a great job interweaving the storylines of several other female gang members, including a girl in love with a prisoner and another just coming out of prison. Though the main storyline follows Sad Girl and Mousie, it really is the story about the lives and loves of women who choose to gang bang. It’s nothing glamorous or pretty. Instead, the movie shows the ugliness, pettiness, and harsh realities women have to face within their own culture and society and as well as the opposition of their male gang counterparts.
This film is right there next to Stand and Deliver and American Me (1992, Olmos) when exploring the complexities of being a Mexican American while existing in an impoverished community. Like these other two films, Mi Vida Loca doesn’t try to sugarcoat the actualities of people who live these lives, instead focusing on the harsh realities and consequences of growing up in the barrio.
4. Volcano High or WaSanGo (2001, Tae-gyun Kim)
This South Korean film packs quite a punch. The students and teachers possess martial arts powers that any superhero would envy. It isn’t until Kyang-Soo Kim enters the school, after being expelled from 8 others, that all hell breaks loose.
In Volcano High, the principal has a manuscript that every student and teacher wants. The students are divided into different gangs or school clubs, like the weightlifting team, the kendo team, and the rugby team. Don’t let the high school sports team names confuse you, every student is a martial arts expert and aren’t afraid to fight to find the manuscript.
Kyang-Soo Kim finds himself right in the middle of this chaos. He’s an outcast and not inclined to fight any battles unless he has to. He soon sets his eyes on Icy Jade, the leader of the kendo team, while The Dark Oxen and his bullies in the weight lifting team set their eyes on him as a new punching bag.
This is a great movie to watch in its original form, which has subtitles and loads of rock music to accompany it. There is also the MTV version which has hip hop music and the vocal dubbing of Snoop Dog, Big Boi, Andre 3000, Method Man, Lil’ Jon, Mya, Pat Morita, Kelis, and Tracy Morgan. I first saw the movie dubbed, but the original is even better since the dubbed version has around 40 minutes cut. This underground favorite is a highly stylized movie with lots of action, special effects, and laughs for everyone to enjoy.
3. The Outsiders (1983, Coppola)
Not only is the book a classic, but the movie is as well. Packed full of names that would reach the pinnacle of Hollywood stardom, The Outsiders tells the old story of rich versus poor and the struggles of growing up.
So, let’s start with that star packed cast. C. Thomas Howell (1986, The Hitcher), Matt Dillon (2004, Crash), Ralph Macchio (1984, Karate Kid), Patrick Swayze (1990, Ghost), Rob Lowe (1992, Wayne’s World), Emilio Estevez (2006, Bobby), Tom Cruise (2011, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol) and Diane Lane (2002, Unfaithful). This cast is insane. Really, most of them are still big names and if they aren’t, they were at one point sometime after this movie was made. Coppola is right there next to Rob Reiner when it comes to spotting acting brilliance in younger, untested actors and using them effectively.
If you haven’t seen this movie, shame on you. Go right now and rent it, stream it, download it, or buy it. In so many ways, Cry Baby satirizes this movie, but instead of drapes, they’re called greasers and instead of squares, they’re called socs (or soashers.) There is a love story in The Outsiders, but the main focus is between the gang of greasers, especially that of Pony Boy (Howell) and Johnny (Macchio) who go on the run for killing a socs. Like many high school gang films, this is a movie about growing up and finding out who you are in the midst of violence and an uncertain future.
In the same vein is Rumble Fish (1993), which was also directed by Francis Ford Coppola and stars Matt Dillion, Diane Lane, Mickey Rourke, Laurence Fishbourne, Chris Penn, Dennis Hopper and Vincent Spano. See what I mean about Coppola’s choice in actors? Superb.
2. Crows Zero or Kurôzu zero (2007, Miike)
The number two spot is for high school gang warfare done Takashi Miike style. This entry has 3 movies with a similar storyline, though they are approached very differently. The basic narrative is that a son of a yakuza boss wants to take over his dad’s business.
In Crows Zero and Crows Zero II (2009), the movies are prequels to a popular manga. Genji wants his father’s respect and to rule his father’s underworld crime syndicate. His father agrees to give over his gang, but Genji must attend and then rule every class at his father’s old school, Susuzan, a school so filled with gangs that it seems like an impossible task for a 3rd year student.
This seems especially true when, currently, the school is being run (though not entirely) by Serizawa who is played brilliantly by Takayuki Yamada (2010, 13 Assasins). This movie is a mix of action, comedy, and rock and roll that also takes the time to look at itself and reflect on its own insanity.
The other Miike film is Fudoh, The New Generation (1996, or Gokudô sengokushi: Fudô). Riki Fudoh wants to take over his father’s yakuza clan, but not for his respect. As a young boy he watched his father brutally kill his older brother. Since that day, Riki finds himself in high school where he has assembled his own gang of underaged hoods in control of a theft ring, assassins, and bodyguard prostitutes whose main attack is shooting darts from their vajayjay. Yeah, that’s right folks. Their vajayjay.
Fudoh isn’t as fantastic or amusing as either Crows film, but has an edge that is reminiscent of Visitor Q (2001) or Ichi the Killer (2001.) All three are filled with gang fights, huge battles, and other things that can’t even be described without sounding cruel or crazy. Takashi Miike goes there and he bows down to no one.
1. A Clockwork Orange (1971, Kubrick)
This film is just one of Kubrick’s many masterpieces. It is a teenage gang film to its core and has become a blue plate for bad deeds, imagery, and costuming when other movies decide to make a high school gang film. You’ll also never listen to Singing In the Rain the same way again after watching it.
Set in a futuristic England and sprinkled with Russian dialogue, it is the imagery that takes A Clockwork Orange into a whole new dimension. The movie stars Malcolm McDowell as the infamous Alex de Large. He leads his band of droogs on a terrorizing rampage of auto theft, fighting, rape, and murder.
Not nice for a bunch of 17 year old hooligans who still live with mum and dad. Though the movie isn’t specifically set in a high school, there is a vicious scene set in a gymnasium. Kubrick is known to be many things, but he was never one to make things clear. I’ll give this classic and game changing movie the benefit of the doubt, because it really did inspire many other similar films in their look, feel, and level of viciousness. I would name them all, but that would take too much time. Let’s just say that even Bart Simpson dressed as Alex de Large on a Halloween episode.
There were a lot of movies that came close to making the list, but for one reason or another didn’t make the cut. Some have been honorably mentioned above. There is another movie that must be mentioned, but couldn’t make the list at all.
The Warriors (1979, Hill)
Before you come at me with pitchforks in hand, enraged that this classic gang film didn’t make the list, let me explain. The Warriors, the gang who get framed for the death of a powerful gang leader, is not a high school gang film. These are 20 somethings fully expecting to go to jail, not to juvenile hall.
Their journey back to Coney Island and their cult status should be enough to steal the number one status from A Clockwork Orange, but in the end they’re just not high school aged guys…or teenagers for that matter.
Don’t get me wrong. This movie is a classic where others have used it as a template for their films. To be fair, this movie also refers back to A Clockwork Orange. Man, this is tough. I will note that if you have enjoyed any of these movies, you should watch The Warriors because it is one of the best. I wish it gave me something to allow it to be on the list but alas, no.