Thinking of becoming a school teacher? Then we suggest you rent out Dangerous Minds and steer clear of 187. In terms of pure, chirpy entertainment, it's akin to listening to your anaemic ginger maths teacher drag her scaggy nails down a blackboard. But, to be fair, its raison d'être isn't the giving of fun: this is supposed to be a thought-provoking lesson in the suckiness of life.
The title is a reference to the state penal code in California for murder, so no prizes for guessing where the storyline is heading. Watching Jackson become embroiled in gang warfare, which spirals into a scary version of Deer Hunter-inspired Russian roulette, makes for tense watching, and, even if the script does falter towards the end, 187's finale is the most unpredictably shocking since Se7en.
Jackson, minus Pulp Fiction attitude and Afro, gives a solid turn as Trevor Garfield, an embattled teacher who spends a year recovering from a knife attack before he accepts a new posting in LA. Instead of choosing a small town with picket fences and Neighbourhood Watch, he dumbly pitches himself into another hotbed full of racial hatred and violence. Again, he is pushed closer and closer to the limit by the taunts of his students and spineless inaction of school administrators, who cower in fear of lawsuits. Just how far can they push him before he cracks?
When Jackson first read the script (penned by real-life schoolmaster Scott Yagerman), he argued that the Garfield character, originally written as a white part, would benefit from being played by a black man; - well he would, wouldn't he? The producers agreed that pitting a black teacher against a mob made up mostly of predominantly Hispanic and black students would give the drama more of an edge, and director Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, Waterworld) certainly conveys the terror harboured by teach in an environment where skin colour offers no protection from pupils or staff.
Though 187 is essentially the polar opposite of Waterworld, with its soaring budget and sprawling flabbiness, it's plenty self-indulgent in its own way. Certainly, the tale is presented with too much self-consciously applied style - a truly dizzying concoction of slo-mo and soft focus that blurs and shimmers like heat haze, yoked with trip-hop music and odd sound effects, the camera swirling round Jackson and co-star Rowan for no reason other than that it looks great.
The tightly edited plot slackens in act two, but while 187 becomes a little aimless as a result, it redeems itself with a vicious confrontation between the mad-as-hell students and an equally enraged teacher - - one that will leave you shaken.
Grease with knives, guns and little singing, 187 is a hard-punching study of school violence. It may lose its momentum in the second half, but rallies to end on a quite memorable note.
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