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L.A. Jungle

Samuel L. Jackson
Substitute This: Samuel L. Jackson plays a beleaguered teacher in '187.'

'187' doesn't make the grade

By Richard von Busack

THE TITLE refers to the police code for homicide--or, possibly, the 187th time the plot of Blackboard Jungle has been reused. After a vicious assault, Brooklyn teacher Trevor Garfield (Samuel L. Jackson) relocates to the San Fernando Valley to substitute teach in a school even worse than the one he left behind. Garfield ends up in direct conflict with several bald-headed young thugs whom he is helpless to resist, thanks to the liberal courts that prevent teachers from disciplining the students. The weird turn into Jim Thompson territory that 187 takes in its final third is explained by the ad campaign: "When schools become war zones, and both sides start taking casualties--what then?" What indeed?

Scriptwriter Scott Yagemann, apparently stuck for a third act, decided to raid both Taxi Driver and the money scene from The Deer Hunter for a finale. Director Kevin Reynolds works like a frenzied beaver to overcome the reputation of his last film, Waterworld, trying manfully to make this film look different from its 186 predecessors. At least Reynolds commissioned an innovative music score (assembled by Chris Douridas, host of the public radio station KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic, one of the solaces of living in L.A.). Photographer Ericson Core displays numerous avant-garde camera techniques to make this subexploitation script look like something more. He shakes the camera, puts the film deliberately out of focus and views L.A. through thick brown filters that make 187 look as if the negative had been developed in walnut stain. When the most authentic aspect of a movie is its authentic gloom, it's almost impossible to recommend.

Despite its artiness, 187 is the worst kind of vigilante movie: the pious kind. The end title card is, at least, worth a laugh: "The man who wrote this movie was a teacher." Which reminds me of a title card in one of Tex Avery's cartoons: "We know this story is true--because it was told to us by a Texan."

187 (R; 187 min.), directed by Kevin Reynolds, written by Scott Yagemann, photographed by Ericson Core and starring Samuel L. Jackson.

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From the July 31-Aug. 6, 1997 issue of Metro.

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