In saintly-educator movies like Blackboard Jungle or Stand and Deliver, the surly, black-leather-jacketed, weapon-wielding delinquents were bad apples lurking at the bottom of the barrel. They were the exception, not the rule. But the killers, rapists, drug dealers, and assorted other junior sociopaths who glare their way through 187 represent a new evolutionary strain of secondary-school hoodlum. Unlike the classroom rebels of cinema past, they aren’t just breaking the rules society has laid out for them; they’re writing their own rules. Their criminality, with its echoes in pop culture and fashion (violent thrillers, gangsta rap, prison-tattoo chic), has made them, in effect, an alternate society. All the apples have gone bad now — the entire barrel is rotten.
In 187, the ”students” have no interest in — or hope of — being educated. School is a joke to them, a lie administered by a world they’d never consider joining. When Trevor Garfield (Samuel L. Jackson), a tall, bespectacled substitute science teacher, wanders into his first class at John Quincy Adams High School in Los Angeles, the kids throw him looks of pure homicide. Trevor was once a great teacher, the kind of inspirational role model you remember from…well, from movies like Blackboard Jungle and Stand and Deliver. But in his previous job, at a high school in the bowels of Brooklyn, he was stabbed a dozen times by a thug he was about to fail. Amazingly, Trevor survived — but his idealism didn’t. He has fought one war too many, and now, caught in a web of fear and rage, he has stopped trying to get through to kids who don’t want to be gotten through to.
Samuel L. Jackson has played cops, crack addicts, chess wizards, and philosophical hitmen, but whether he’s appeared in great movies (Pulp Fiction) or big-budget schlock (The Long Kiss Goodnight), he has always made you feel the pulse of his presence. The power of Jackson’s acting has something to do with the tension between his glowering look (the beautiful laser-cat eyes, the sloping forehead) and the sheer mellifluous joy with which he caresses his words. One of the most vibrant actors of the ’90s, he makes ferocity playful — and vice versa. So it seems an act of monumental perversity to cast him as a high school teacher who has become a burned-out shell.
Watching 187, we’re desperate for a taste of Jackson’s wit, his whippersnapper ebullience. His face, though, is frozen in a dread-ridden scowl. For Trevor, teaching has become an act of sheer survival. The director, Kevin Reynolds (Waterworld), lingers over the students’ menacing stares (these teen ruffians aren’t characterized — they’re visualized). The unruly delinquents, sniffing blood, bait Trevor as if he were a rival gangbanger begging to be put out of his misery. The strange thing is that the movie agrees with them: We look at Jackson’s Trevor and see a man becoming a zombie. And where, exactly, is the drama in that? Staged like a Nike commercial for the apocalypse, with the camera circling past images of the graffiti jungle, 187 (the title refers to the California penal code for murder) is To Sir, With Love turned into Midnight Express. It’s the teacher movie as high-gloss pressure cooker.
Grimly, the film delivers the tattered cliches of the genre — Trevor’s run-ins with the school bureaucracy, etc. But its only real interest is in underworld juice. When one of the kids is murdered, and another ends up with his finger mysteriously amputated, we’re invited to ask whether Trevor himself did the grisly deeds. The prospect of a teacher driven to his students’ level of sociopathic vengeance might have packed a ghoulish wallop had the film viewed it as tragic. Reynolds, however, is just grinding out exploitation thrills. The climax may be the most egregious scene of the year, as Trevor and his young enemies replay — yes — the Russian-roulette war-torture sequence from The Deer Hunter, erasing a thin line between the lurid and the ludicrous. Jean Brodie, get out your Uzi. C-