He's an extremely eccentric teacher in a Bedford-Stuyvesant high school. He not only rides to work on a bicycle, he rides it right through the high school corridors and down staircases to his homeroom. And despite everything, he loves his work. Deeply.
Then, one day, he sees a little love note from a student he had flunked. "187," it says -- the police code for murder. When class is over, he's attacked in the hall and left for dead.
He doesn't die. Fifteen months later and fully recovered, he's a substitute teacher in Los Angeles -- called in to duty at the toughest high school in town. It's his first teaching gig since the attack that almost killed him.
He prays before work.
He finds himself teaching a bunch of deadheads and delinquents in a sweatbox of a bungalow that might have held POWs in World War II. He tries -- once again -- to light a fire in young brains.
It doesn't take a genius to figure out that Scott Yagemann, the scriptwriter of "187," did a long stretch teaching school in L.A. Self-righteousness, self-aggrandizement and remorseful confession are the very stuff of autobiography and this movie exudes them all. (The quote from Thomas Wolfe is the dead tip-off. An ancient rule of thumb: "Beware of writers quoting Thomas Wolfe. They're lost.")
It seems, at first, like pretty good cable TV fodder upgraded to movie theaters.
The "High School as Hell" genre has been an honorable one since "Blackboard Jungle," however formulized, stereotypical and predictable they usually are. (The trouble with young, unformed people is that it's easier for them to be stereotypes than hard-bitten, older types. For most of us, experience brings individuality.)
By now we know the drill -- urban youth as a killer guerrilla army, neglected kids sorely in need of pedagogical love and order, female teachers harassed and assaulted by toughs, soul-seared male teachers who say: "We're in a continuing state of defiance and disorder. . . . New and drastic rules are in order."
Later, when "187" turns into a dedicated teacher's revenge tale, it's even more obvious that you're watching a fable wrung out of real dedication, frustration and rage. All of that should give "187" the grit and heat of authenticity.
What it does instead is meld "Blackboard Jungle" with "Death Wish" (or, in more current terms, "Dangerous Minds" with "Unforgiven"). Our dedicated and beset and assaulted teacher turns into a vigilante on behalf of teachers everywhere. Typical of modern movies, violence is the "new twist" to a very old story.
What had its origins, no doubt, in the very real revenge fantasies of an angry, disillusioned teacher, turns, on screen, into three-for-a-quarter audience-manipulating demagoguery.
I wish I could pretend that very real talent didn't go into this. It did. As the teacher, Samuel L. Jackson is, as always, superb. And director Kevin Reynolds, who kept himself out of trouble directing Kevin Costner in "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" and then went full-fathom five with Costner in "Waterworld," proves, here, that there's a decent, lean and hungry filmmaker somewhere inside Kevin Costner's caterer.
On the other hand, it's a movie about learning the wrong life lessons from some people who seem to have done just that.
Rating:** 1/2 Samuel L. Jackson as a substi tute teacher in a hellish L.A. high school. With John Heard and Kelly Row an. Directed by Kevin Reynolds. Rated R, opening today in area theaters.