Film and TV

Flunking Out

187, a number favored by adolescent thugs, is the California state penal code for homicide--and a harsh sentence for all involved in this hopeless, hapless movie. The gifted Samuel L. Jackson stars as a high-school teacher who cracks under the constant threat of rabid teen machismo--and retaliates with his own baroque murder and torture schemes. The script dubs Jackson's character Mr. Garfield, like one of our murdered presidents; in the beginning, as a top teacher at a tough school in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, he nearly gets assassinated when a shiv-wielding "F" student punctures him repeatedly. He survives to take a substitute-teaching job in a gang-dominated L.A. high school a mere fifteen months later. (This film has fanciful notions of medical recovery time and the ease of acquiring California teaching credentials.)

187 starts out like an unofficial sequel to The Substitute, a sassier teacher-revenge flick about a seasoned mercenary (Tom Berenger) masquerading as an Ivy League-trained pedagogue to bring down Miami gangbangers; at the fadeout of that take-back-the-hallways extravaganza, the merc said he, too, was going to Los Angeles. But 187 turns into a pompous critique of that movie, combining the bogus inspirationalism of such tough-love teacher sagas as Dangerous Minds with the doomsday ambience of such horror films as Class of 1999. Of course, The Substitute was wildly impure, out-of-control escapism, but it generated a lively atmosphere and some rooting interest (thanks to actors such as Diane Venora and Richard Brooks), and it presented a more porous view of schoolhouse good and evil than the high-minded 187. This turgid cautionary tale sets the story of a tarnished teacher against an almost monolithic backdrop of depraved kids, depressed instructors and cynical administrators. It's To Sir, With Hate.

Mercifully, the filmmakers save for the end the kind of emotion-extorting facts that usually precede TV message movies: One out of nine teachers have been attacked in school, 95 percent of the time by students. The final crawl also states that a teacher wrote this movie. I hope he didn't teach writing.

At the spine of Scott Yagemann's script for 187 is a pitifully threadbare parable about a deluded would-be Christ. Garfield rises from the dead and tries to rid his classroom--which he calls his "sanctuary"--of fear and corruption. After his moral and professional downfall, he sacrifices himself in a Hail Mary effort to redeem wayward children. Garfield's colleagues do double duty as stock figures from imperiled-educator movies and the Gospels. Tony Plana plays a Pontius Pilate principal who values legality over morality and washes his hands of Garfield; John Heard is a satanic faculty member, an award-winning teacher who fell from grace and fantasizes about killing male students and sleeping with the females. He says he has slept with one: the Mary Magdalene of the piece, a Hispanic student named Rita who becomes Garfield's prize pupil and, for a time, helps keep his faith alive. In general, the movie's view of youth is as relentlessly grotesque as that of any exploitation film. The most fully developed student characters are a sociopath and a psychopath.

Because Rita (Karina Arroyave) wants to become a writer, Garfield tutors her in composition, even though he's really her science teacher. With the irrelevant words that misguided writing teachers have given students for generations, he tells her that she has "good ideas"; it's only her punctuation and grammar that are lacking. When are teachers going to realize that lucidity of mind can't be judged without clarity of expression? Yagemann has "good ideas," too: Administrators should alert teachers about potentially dangerous students; street machismo has become a cult of brutality; communities should acknowledge the total breakdown of the public-school system and make drastic plans to fix it. But he's too dramaturgically inept to be persuasive. He simply has Garfield and company mumble or blurt out their thoughts between faceoffs and bloodlettings.

The closest Garfield comes to having a cogent conversation is with a female computer-science teacher (Kelly Rowan) who's also his potential lover. But Yagemann dooms their relationship. She reacts fearfully and clumsily to Garfield's past wounding, not once, but twice--first when she recognizes that he's the guy whose case she saw on 60 Minutes, next when she catches a glimpse of his scars. Every key moment in this film comes in twos, including the human and animal murders. Resist bonding with Snowball the mouse or Jack the dog; you'll only get hurt.

For nine-tenths of the movie, all Jackson can do is give Garfield's actions a moment-to-moment credibility. Like too many teacher films, 187 barely allows the lead character a whole sequence to show his chops where it counts--in the classroom. Garfield's one lab-science coup is more sociological than biological: He injects poor Snowball with a minute amount of Demerol to demonstrate the destructiveness of drugs. Jackson sweats, cries and simmers credibly, yet he comes to life only when Garfield admits he's been a zombie since his stabbing. Jackson's dynamism at that point nearly redeems the ludicrousness of his climactic scene--a game of Russian roulette in which Garfield saves his best lines for the moments right before he clicks a loaded chamber.

The Russian roulette comes about because the student psycho gunning for Garfield has been watching Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter on TV. At first Yagemann and the director, Kevin Reynolds, appear to be attacking meretricious violence in the media. As the scene grinds on, though, they seem to be paying homage. Reynolds, the director of Waterworld, uses "expressive" techniques as heavily and self-consciously as Cimino, who also directed Heaven's Gate. The visual contrasts and flourishes are melodramatic and obvious. The ominous dirty blues of Bed-Stuy give way to the oppressive off-white heat of Los Angeles. Upon his return to teaching, Garfield sees a fully occupied classroom as a literal blur.

Throughout, Reynolds's staging and camera choices tend to alienate viewers from the students, putting us behind Garfield's spectacles despite his crazed partial view. The result is to demonize youth and obfuscate the issues. This movie panders to the popular belief that vicious kids rather than cost-cutting state and federal governments are to blame for educational catastrophes. A truly daring movie about today's schools wouldn't merely attack young thugs' adoption of California's state penal code 187 as a tag of honor; it would also attack their parents' love for Proposition 13.

Written by Scott Yagemann. Directed by Kevin Reynolds. With Samuel L. Jackson, John Heard, Kelly Rowan and Karina Arroyave.

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Michael Sragow