A despairing, almost entirely downbeat look at urban schools and the state of contempo teacher-student relations, “187” aestheticizes its realistic subject matter in a way that makes one reject the film even while accepting some of its truths. Artistically pretentious, thematically fuzzy and almost sinister in its deterministic view of the human condition, this unusually ambitious and serious-minded major studio release is simply too negative in every possible way to find a receptive audience. B.O. prospects look grim.
After the colossal logistical and production headaches of “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” “Rapa Nui” and “Waterworld,” Kevin Reynolds here takes on a smaller, character-oriented piece for the first time since his debut with “Fandango” 12 years ago. His impulse to connect with some aspect of modern reality is understandable, but the mixture of social observation, lecturing, fear-mongering, religious referencing and concocted melodrama proves quite unpalatable.Penned by debuting screenwriter Scott Yagemann, who taught in L.A. public schools for more than seven years, pic begins with a dynamic, 10-minute, Gotham-set prologue that builds up to Bed-Stuy high school teacher Trevor Garfield (Samuel L. Jackson) being stabbed by a vengeful bad-boy student.
Fifteen months later, Garfield has moved to L.A., where he has found work as a substitute science teacher in an unruly, predominantly Latino high school. A dignified, reserved man with no visible family or emotional links, Garfield always wears a tie, believes in such old-fashioned notions as respect for teachers and academic excellence and, happily, stands apart from other recent screen academicians in not choosing to use song lyrics as a means of relating to today’s kids; he’s a modern black man who hates rap music.
Garfield is also presented as a religious man who lives in almost monklike fashion. But the film unfortunately seems afraid of this intriguing dimension, refusing to explore the nature or depth of his convictions, to investigate any possible conflict with his scientific orientation, or even to clarify whether his beliefs existed prior to his assault or were embraced only afterward.
In all events, Garfield is thrown directly to the wolves in his new job, dealing with teenagers who are insolent at best and brazenly threatening at worst. Baddest of the lot is outright gangsta Benny Chacon (Lobo Sebastian), who mysteriously disappears after murdering an affable graffiti artist he finds defacing the emblem of his own crew.
Easily taking up the slack in his absence is Cesar (Clifton Gonzalez Gonzalez), another kid who increasingly defies and challenges Garfield, by now a permanent teacher. The escalating war between the two is played out in moves — a watch is stolen, pet animals are killed, Garfield’s home is ransacked, while Cesar is shot in the chest with a syringe-tipped arrow by an unseen assailant — in which the identity of the perpetrator is coyly withheld from the viewer.
Approach contributes to an atmosphere of pervasive uncertainty and menace that is furthered by the nerve-jangling song score and direction that seems to fetishize obsessively, in a thoroughly disapproving way, the stylistic and behavioral traits of the kids. By the same token, however, it also removes any identification with the film’s leading character, and when it finally becomes clear that Garfield is heading toward a “Death Wish” approach to cleaning up the mess at school, the film loses all dramatic credibility as well as sympathy.
Presented at the outset as a well-balanced man dedicated to his calling and committed to improving students, Garfield slides further from viewer comprehension the more unhinged he becomes, especially since one is never truly permitted inside his head. At moments, he opens himself to sympathetic fellow teacher Ellen (Kelly Rowan), with whom there seems to be the promise of a romance, but the problems at school, and particularly with Cesar, pervade their lives, making normalcy even in private life impossible.
Pic makes good on its intention of exposing the hideous conditions at lower-end schools, and notes how teachers are often caught in a squeeze between belligerent students and unsupportive administrators, who frequently fail to back up teachers for fear of lawsuits and other reprisals.
But the film comes off more as a catalogue of horrors and an attack on prevailing values, and lack of same, than as a convincing drama. Story might have been improved significantly by some leavening humor and other textures that would have contributed varied human qualities. When it becomes clear that a clip from “The Deer Hunter” has been included specifically to set up a climactic re-creation of the Russian roulette scene, one gives up on the film having anything significant to contribute to a dialogue about current conditions; filmmakers seem to be even more hopeless and nihilistic than the kids depicted here.
Jackson appears more than ready to give a full-bodied performance as the tortured teacher, and possesses the necessary force of personality to hold his own with, and even win over, the students. But the script’s refusal to delve into psychology and personal details that would help flesh out the character ultimately defeat the actor’s game effort to present a rounded portrait.
Rowan’s character seems too weak and naive to cut it in such an environment, while John Heard’s alcoholic, seen-it-all teacher gives voice to the cynical approach to modern education. Kids are mostly convincing, notably Gonzalez Gonzalez (grandson of character actor Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez) as the hardest case on campus.
Director Reynolds would have benefited from taking a simpler, less overwrought, more realistic approach. Technically, pic is too elaborate, with its frequent crane shots and cutting more appropriate to a crime suspenser.
Title refers to the California state penal code for murder, which has been taken up as shorthand by gangs.