In his unrelentingly grim portrayal of chaos, insanity and violence on an L.A. high school campus, director Kevin Reynolds has created a movie so dark it makes “To Sir, With Love” seem like “Welcome Back, Kotter” by comparison.
“187,” starring Samuel L. Jackson, tells the story of science teacher Trevor Garfield of New York, a man determined to engage disenfranchised urban kids with his enlightening classroom lectures.
But his career in Brooklyn - and his love of teaching - are cut short by a menacing, angry student, whom Garfield is flunking. The boy gets his revenge by stabbing Garfield repeatedly in the back with a homemade shank.
After spending more than a year in a hospital, Garfield emerges in the San Fernando Valley, where he gets a job as a substitute. But instead of rekindling his once-apparent joy of teaching, his new school only sinks him into madness.
Garfield is assigned a classroom in a non-air-conditioned bungalow far from the main school administration building (the gist is that the further from the “A building” the less protection afforded teachers).
Run by Latino gang members, the bungalow area is the essence of the concrete jungle cliche. Students openly smoke pot, spray-paint buildings and engage in sex. Garfield himself faces humiliation after humiliation.
When the baddest of the bad, gang leader Benny Chacon (Lobo Sebastian), mysteriously disappears, students begin rumors that Garfield exacted revenge. Later, gangster Cesar (Clifton Gonzalez Gonzalez) is shot by a drug-dipped arrow and awakes to find a finger cut off. The rumor mill pegs Garfield for the missing-digit caper, too.
Reynolds, whose previous effort was “Waterworld,” takes great strides to blot out any lightness that might take away from the nightmarish quality of the film.
Jackson plays the mentally tortured teacher with a mix of bug-eyed weirdness, religious conviction and steely cool. In his nerdy clothes and ugly tract home by the concrete Los Angeles River, where he listens to jazz and prays to a crucifix, Jackson brings to life a man who is the ultimate outsider in the rough-and-tumble world of today’s urban youth.
Gonzalez Gonzalez, grandson of John Wayne’s cinematic sidekick Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, also works the details to his advantage as the stoned-yet-menacing Cesar. He has the accent and vocabulary and - with his shaved head, dark glasses, baggy khakis and neck tattoo - the look.
But the twists of the plot do not ring true. And that’s the problem.
Written by former San Fernando Valley substitute teacher Scott Yagemann, the script presents a scenario so fanciful that it ultimately undercuts Reynolds’ attempt to tell a believable story.
Once the over-the-top twists of plot are played out, the suspension of disbelief vanishes. What’s left is scene after scene of deadening violence.
xxxx “187” Locations: North Division Cinemas Credits: directed by Kevin Reynolds, starring Samuel L. Jackson, John Heard, Kelly Rowan, Clifton Gonzalez Gonzalez. Running time: 1:57 Rated: R
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