187

Wednesday July 30, 1997

     The most disheartening line in "187" is its last, written in bold type across the screen just before the credits roll: "A teacher wrote this movie." It's enough to make you weep, and not just because it's painful to think that this muddled and manipulative film was penned by someone in a position to mold impressionable minds.
     No, that line is disturbing because it shows that screenwriter Scott Yagemann, director Kevin Reynolds and producers Bruce Davey and Stephen McEveety are suffering from the group delusion that they've made a serious movie about Something Important, that, to quote Davey, everyone involved "shared the vision that this story needs to be told."
     What they've actually made is an unconvincing piece of trash about crime in the schools and one teacher's reaction that has no discernible purpose outside of feeding our paranoia. Making things worse, it's a film that wants to have it both ways. It condemns school violence while providing heroically lit portraits of the perpetrators, and it angles for a "Death Wish"-type vigilante reaction from its audience while being too self-important to actually deliver. What a mess.
     Director Reynolds, who included in the press kit a list of "startling statistics" about school violence and a boast that his film "is going to challenge and unsettle some people," must have slept through a great deal of recent cinema if he thinks no film has previously dared to so much as hint that schools are the most dangerous places on Earth.
     Starting as far back as "Rebel Without a Cause" through "Lean on Me," "Stand and Deliver," "Dangerous Minds" and other films too repetitive to remember, Hollywood has so consistently delivered the message that public schools are sulfurous pits of hell that today's parents may be forgiven if they want to strap on an Uzi before venturing out to Open House Night.
     Trevor Garfield (Samuel L. Jackson) starts the film as a dedicated teacher in one of those snake pits, Roosevelt Whitney High School in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant section. He's unsettled one day to find his name and the numbers "187," apparently gang slang for murder, written on every page of a textbook. He expects an attack, and it almost immediately happens.
     Fifteen months later, Garfield has moved to Los Angeles and is working as a substitute teacher. He is still dedicated, still someone who prays every morning "for strength and serenity," but it's more than a stiffness in the way he walks that marks a change in the man since that incident in Brooklyn. Garfield is more guarded, less spontaneous and more, shall we say, open to the idea that hooligans must be dealt with on their own terms.
     His new assignment certainly does not lack for bad boys, the worst of whom, Cesar (Clifton Gonzalez Gonzalez) and Benny (Lobo Sebastian), practically drool with evil as card-carrying members of a group that calls itself K.O.S., "Kapping Off Suckers."
     Yet though we're supposed to regard these guys as scum of the Earth, "187" cinematographer Ericson Core, whose background, not surprisingly, is in music videos, can't help but visually glorify them, using lighting and camera angles that portray the K.O.S. members as fierce if misguided warriors. Witness its brief use of unnecessary nudity; "187" can't quite swear off the use of exploitative techniques even while insisting that its aims are pure.
     Not much help to Garfield (or the film) are the two cliched teachers he ends up spending the most time with. Dave Childress (John Heard) is a crude slob who's seen too much, and Ellen Henry (Kelly Rowan) is a blond beginner who is overmatched by the system.
     Worse still are the representatives of that system, the principals and other administrators whom the film, in its most interesting and possibly true-to-life touch, presents as careerist bureaucrats who spend more time worrying about lawsuits from coddled students than the safety of the faculty.
     Despite this noticeable lack of support, Garfield still tries to do the right thing, encouraging Rita (Karina Arroyave), the inevitably talented young person trapped in poverty, and trying to convince the gangbangers that macho pride isn't worth dying for. Yet even Garfield, like Charles Bronson in "Death Wish," ultimately finds it hard to resist doing something a little more tangible than offer encouragement.
     Unfortunately, blustery director Reynolds ("Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," "Waterworld," "Rapa Nui"), aside from being someone who thinks "subtlety" is a word best left in the dictionary, is also too conflicted about what kind of film he's worked on to make Garfield's problem and its farfetched resolution creditable or involving. To say that not even Jackson, one of the most convincing of actors, can turn Trevor Garfield into a person worthy of concern is to only hint at how lacking "187" turns out to be.


187, 1997. R for violence, strong language, drug use and brief nudity. An Icon production, released by Warner Bros. Director Kevin Reynolds. Producers Bruce Davey, Stephen McEveety. Screenplay Scott Yagemann. Cinematographer Ericson Core. Editor Stephen Semel. Costumes Darryle Johnson. Music supervisor Chris Douridas. Production design Stephen Storer. Art director Mark Zuelzke. Set decorator Marsha Calosio. Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes. Samuel L. Jackson as Trevor Garfield. John Heard as Dave Childress. Kelly Rowan as Ellen Henry. Clifton Gonzalez Gonzalez as Cesar. Karina Arroyave as Rita. Jonah Rooney as Stevie. Lobo Sebastian as Benny.

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