Opened: July 30, 1997 | Rated: R
Ho hum, another gritty urban classroom drama.
That was how I expected to lead my review of "187," a gritty urban classroom drama with Samuel L. Jackson opening today. But this movie surprised me.
For the first 40 minutes it appears to be a retread of "Lean On Me" or "Dangerous Minds," to lull the audience into a false sense of familiarity. Then it kind of goes nuts.
Jackson plays Trevor Garfield, a New York ghetto high school teacher who is nearly killed by a gang-member student he flunks. Stabbed multiple times in the back with a knife fashioned from a long wood screw, it takes him more than a year to recover.
After this establishing sequence Garfield moves to Los Angeles and begins teaching again -- in another ghetto school.
Why he didn't move to, say, Peoria, is unclear. But before long he finds himself facing the same daunting educational hell he was trying to forget. Gangs practically run the school. He's threatened by two students on his first day. The kids who do want to learn are constantly on the defensive and many of the teachers are scared, worn out or too cynical to care.
Director Kevin Reynolds, recovering nicely from "Waterworld," sets the mood with incidental urban details (old tennis shoes hanging from power lines, for instance) and smoggy golden lighting that conveys the hot, stagnant atmosphere of Garfield's dilapidated bungalow classroom.
Jackson adds the perfectly tuned uncertain nervousness of an authority figure who knows he has no authority, and Reynolds accentuates this by deliberately shooting Garfield's class out of focus while he's speaking.
Garfield tutors the good kids and befriends/romances a very out-of-place computer science teacher (Kelly Rowan), a delicate blonde with farm girl looks. But despite his best efforts, his classroom deteriorates into bedlam at the hands of two bad seeds. Every day he finds himself scolding them with a frustrated "Are you done? Are you done?"
But then one of them, a murderous parolee who had threatened Garfield and some kids in the class, just up and disappears.
At first you think nothing of it. He jumped parole and withdrew back into the streets.
But then the second trouble maker, who made a specific threat alluding to his itchy trigger finger, is out one night throwing up graffiti on highway signs when he's hit by a tranquilizer dart.
He wakes up without that trigger finger, which is delivered to the hospital to be re-attached with "R U Dun?" tattooed on the side. Soon after that, the kid that disappeared turns up dead. The teacher has gone psycho vigilante.
Well, I've never seen that before.
Suddenly I don't know what to make of "187." I admire the audacity of a screenplay that has for a protagonist a hopeful, visionary, integrity-driven teacher who turns into a serial avenger. Talk about courting controversy.
But because of it's serious treatment of a broad subject matter -- the decay of education in American cities -- the story shouldn't hinge on this one turn of events. "187" should have something more to say, and it doesn't.
Even with it's dark mood details and some passionate performances, "187" (the title comes from the police code for homicide) falls victim to its tunnel vision. So much energy is focused on balancing Garfield's sympathy with his psychosis that many other characters become completely generic.
Several scenes suffer from cookie-cutter syndrome as well. Example: Garfield romances the computer science teacher over dinner at his house in a scene complete with candle lighting and a camera circling them as she teaches him to dance.
But elsewhere the movie is commendable in its creativity. Some scenes have a surrealistic edge -- the camera, focused on Jackson's face as he boils over, shakes violently to emulate his rage and frustration.
Others take the story in wildly unexpected directions, like late in the film when gang bangers re-create the Russian roulette scene from "The Deer Hunter" with Garfield as their prisoner.
When "187" isn't beating its veneer of tragic poignancy to death, it is a daring and memorable film, thanks in part to Reynolds' urgent, tactile direction. But this headlong detour from convention, which may not sit well with some movie-goers, would simply seem depraved without a strong leading performance.
Jackson is one of Hollywood's finest chameleons. Able to transform himself into anything from comic action sidekick ("The Long Kiss Goodnight") to vengeful martyr ("A Time to Kill"), he lends "187" the credibility it needs to make this leap.