Welcome Back Kotter - a review by Dave Fischer
Well, you knew it had to come eventually. As Hollywood combs the archives of film & television from the 60s and 70s looking for something to remake, they'll eventually hit upon all the important classics. Finally they made it to one of the defining shows of my generation: Welcome Back Kotter. Launching-pad for numerous important careers - inspiration for rebelious brats everywhere, and occasionally touching on serious issues, Welcome Back Kotter brought the Sweathogs into every home of 1970s America, and we all felt as if Vinnie, Arnold, Juan, and Freddy were our personal friends.
Thankfully Hollywood didn't try to rewrite this scenario into the year 2002. They left the characters intact, in their original cultural environment. It is still the 70s, and the Sweathogs are still the coolest of the cool.
The casting is all-star, and the main characters are all beautifully protrayed. Five minutes into the movie, and I had completely forgotten that anyone else ever portrayed those four retro-hipsters.
Freddy "Boom Boom" Washington is played brilliantly by Will Smith. Of the four main characters, this was the most faithfull to the original. The rest are accurate to the spirit and reasonably good on the details, but Will Smith nailed Freddy one hundred percent. Juan Epstein is played, cultural dichotomy to the max, by John Leguziamo. Chris Elliot is a wonderfully spastic Arnold Horshack, and Vinnie Barbarino's idiotic charisma is reanimated from the archives by none other than Andrew Dice Clay.
Rounding out the classroom, Mr. Kotter himself is portrayed surprisingly well by a very subdued and convincing Patrick Swayze.
Once we've had a chance to reaccustom ourselves to our old friends, played by new actors, the story actually begins. A new student has transfered into their school, and Mr. Kotter's classroom, mid-semester. His family has just moved to the United States from Saudi Arabia, and the Sweathogs do whatever they can to help make him feel at home, friendly ribbing and hazing aside.
The new student refuses to give his name, or show his face, so Horshack humorously gives him the nickname, "Abdallah b.Maimun", to the obvious horror of Juan & Freddy! Luckily, the new student takes an academic view of the history of Isma'ilism, and is not offended.
(Vinnie characteristicly doesn't get the b.Maimun reference, although this begs belief. Could a high school student in America in the 1970s actually be that ignorant of post-twelfth Imam Shi'a factionalism? Even for Vinnie, the class idiot, that's really pushing it.)
The sweathogs try to return to life-as-usual with their new member, but something isn't right. The new Sweathog is still very aloof, and refuses to answer any questions about his past or his personal life. He disappears mysteriously from time to time, and always seems to have his mind on something else.
Eventually the new student seems to break through into friendship with his classmates. He invites the Sweathogs on a trip to Manhatten during spring break! Everyone is excited, and Mr. Kotter even lends a hand, attempting (and failing) to show Vinnie where New York is on a map of the US.
Innumerable predictable antics later, the group is in New York when Freddy accidently opens his roommate's suitcase and makes a terrible discovery!
Their new friend turns out to be a terrorist, and the vacation they're on is just a cover for his plan to blow up the Statue of Liberty, thereby releasing a giant cloud of radioactive fallout from the reactor core that illuminates Liberty's torch, universal symbol of American nuclear freedom!
I don't want to give any spoilers away, so I won't reveal how the Sweathogs responded to this surprise from their new friend. All I can say is that you'll never expect this ending! All is well that ends well, and friendship can overcome any obstacle.
A must see. The blockbuster of the summer!