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187

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Samuel L. Jackson, John Heard, Kelly Rowan, Clifton Gonzalez Gonzalez
Director:  Kevin Reynolds
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Warner Bros.
Features:  Audio Commentary, Theatrical Trailer
Length:  119 Minutes
Release Date:  February 15, 2000

Film **1/2

187 is the police code for a homicide, but by the time the film that bears its name ends, you can’t help but wonder what the number for suicide is.  This film starts as powerfully promising as anything I’ve ever seen, vividly recreating for the screen the nightmare that is the lives of teachers in our modern public school system, serving as both a testament and a plea on their behalf.  But it sadly loses faith in itself somewhere closer to the end, taking away not only the movie’s power and momentum, but stripping it of any moral center it might have achieved along the way.

Samuel L. Jackson is brilliant as Trevor Garfield, a good teacher who seems to be struggling to hold onto his ideals as he constantly faces classes of rude, obnoxious kids who don’t want to be bothered, and a school system that  is not interested in protecting their own.  In the opening New York segment, he discovers a student’s textbook with “187” and “Garfield” scribbled all through it.  He immediately takes it to the principal, who dismisses not only the evidence, but Garfield’s notion that “the kids actually pay attention” to him.  On his way back from the meeting, Garfield is attacked by that same student, stabbed repeatedly by a ten penny nail. 

Flash forward 15 months, and Garfield now serves as an on call substitute in Los Angeles.  The climate has changed, but the situations are the same.  Only now, there’s something different about the man.  He’s a little shell shocked.  Gone is his confidence, replaced by fear and rage.  And once the students become threatening again, even stealing his watch, he finds once more that the system itself is also shell shocked…not from dangerous students, but from groups like the ACLU who threaten lawsuits at every turn.  Administrators are afraid to perform even a simple locker search—never mind if someone ends up dead in the process.

The film, and Jackson’s carefully controlled performance, suggest one inevitable outcome.  If teachers are threatened by the students, and the system turns a blind eye, sooner or later, the teacher will start fighting back.  This is no film like The Principal, which took great pleasure in demonstrating that violence could be used to reach the kids.  Violence doesn’t solve anything, and this movie doesn’t pretend that it does.  It merely shows it as a purely reactionary response.  In many ways, I kept thinking this picture represented the dark side of Stand and Deliver.  Here, there’s no false pretense, no hope that sooner or later, Garfield will break through with these kids, and they’ll end their violent gangster ways and start to make something of themselves, redeeming both the students and the teacher alike.  Stand may have optimistically demonstrated what could happen under the right set of circumstances, but today, it sadly seems the results end up more akin to 187.

It is a grim, gripping tale that makes its case powerfully, up until the last stretch of film.  Then, somewhere along the way, it loses confidence, and steers itself towards a cheaply manufactured conclusion that kills the overall message of the film.  It’s a climax that displaces the film’s moral center in such a way, you’re left wondering what exactly you’re supposed to walk away with. 

It’s a shame, because everything about the film up until that point was right.  It was dramatic and potent, and unabashedly real.  It was a real eye-opener, and certainly didn’t need any artificial stimulants in the end.  What the movie sacrificed in order to be more formidable was far too much, and immediately reduced its stature from a great film to a moderate one.

Still, there is much to like about the film, particularly as mentioned, Jackson’s shining work.  He’s one of a handful of performers for whom I’ll watch a movie simply for the pleasure of seeing them act.  John Heard and Kelly Rowan are both good in supporting roles as his colleagues, and newcomer Clifton Gonzalez Gonzalez brings a sharp edginess to his role as Cesar, the kind that lets you know fairly early on that there’s not going to be a moment along the way where you end up liking this kid.

Video ***1/2

This is a terrific anamorphic transfer from Warner (full frame also optional).  Color schemes are well defined and purposeful, as the early New York scenes have a cool, blue look to them, and the later California scenes are saturated with bright, hot colors.  Images are sharp and clear throughout, with only one or two  instances of noticeable grain in the darkest scenes. 

Audio **1/2

The 5.1 soundtrack mostly comes alive with the bits of music, but it will lull you into a false sense of security before coming alive and grabbing your attention again.  Still, apart from a few crowd scenes, there's not much use of the rear channels.

Features **1/2

The disc contains a trailer and a rather good commentary track, featuring director Reynolds, writer Scott Yagemann, and stars Jackson and Gonzalez Gonzalez.

Summary:

187 could have been great…it had all the necessary ingredients going for it…but it opted for something a little less substantial and less thought provoking in the end.  As the film points out in the end credits, roughly one out of every nine teachers in this country has been attacked sometime in their career, and as such, they definitely deserved the bold voice the picture began with, and not the timid one it uses to finish.