Shackles” percolates with enough jailhouse energy and sufficient high-def dazzle to make up for many of its character flaws. Mixing music vid values, a literature lesson, a little ’30s Warners prison drama and a soupcon of “To Sir With Love,” helmer Charles Winkler stirs up a ready-to-blow inmate story in which the teacher and teenagers come to terms with themselves and their inner poet. Pic could find a solid aud among those its message is meant to reach: the young, the poor, the hip, the criminally inclined and those who want to save them.
Set largely in a Riker’s Island-style facility (but shot mostly, and all too obviously, in Los Angeles), the film in many ways is a collection of conventions — the teacher seeking redemption, the inmate students finding self-respect, and the whole thing culminating in a near orgy of righteous outrage. But it is the acting that gets Winkler over the hump — that, and the perpetual motion of Roy Wagner’s HD camera work.
D.L. Hughley is Ben Cross, a teacher haunted by his past, on whom the warden (Georg Stanford Brown) takes a chance and hires to teach at a pilot school at maximum security Shackleton Prison. (Actually, this is purely a plot device. None of the inmates has yet been tried or convicted so they should be at a detention center rather than a prison.)
Ben has to wrestles his own demons — sporadic flashbacks slowly provide the details — as well as the ridicule, threats and potential violence of his students, the worst of whom is the very literarily named Gabriel Garcia (Jose Pablo Cantillo). Gabriel, coincidentally, turns out to have the richest gift for both wordplay and the art of the poetry slam. It’s like he’s been doing it for years.
And this is a problem for “Shackles.” Gabriel’s star is born all too brightly and quickly. Likewise, Ben’s bellicose attitude toward the prison staff seems either naive or stupid, and in either case implausible. Both indicate a distinct lack of character and narrative development.
But at the same time, a lot of “Shackles” works well. Daniel Louis Rivas makes Pretty, Gabriel’s chief ally and a possible homicidal maniac, a complex and strangely attractive character. Both Hughley and Castillo, in comparison, suffer from being directed into overly broad, overly righteous performances, made all the more glaring by Cynthia Martell’s performance as the jail guard Loretta. Martell has a one-minute scene of such quivering fury, fear and internal combustion, she steals the movie.