USA - 1997

Movie Review By Andrea Chase

"One Eight Seven" is a riveting, violent character study of a decent broken by the profession he loves. It's a morality tale laced with nihilism that will challenge your definitions of right and wrong.

Samuel L. Jackson gives an electrifying performance as an inner-city high school teacher with both a passion and a flair for his job. This guy can get his science class to break up their poker game and get excited about centrifugal force. That changes when he's stabbed by student who didn't like getting an "F." He leaves the mean streets of New York for the sunnier but just as mean streets of L.A. Trying to bounce back as a substitute teacher, he finds himself in a high school even more dangerous than the one back east. What's more, the rules in L.A. are a little different. Students are sacrosanct and the teachers' effectiveness, even their safety is sacrificed to the school district's overriding fear of lawsuits.

I know what you're thinking. Dedicated teacher turns kids from hell into future model citizens. Haven't we seen this before? Not quite. For one thing, the intensity is searing. This school makes Michelle Pfeiffer's gig in "Dangerous Minds" look like Disneyland. The feeling of menace never lets up due in no small measure to the dizzying tracking shots and the deliberate use of both soft focus and looming shadows to illustrate the dangerous environment in which Jackson works and lives. For another, what begins as the standard teacher-as-savior flick eventually takes a psychological twist that you won't see coming, but that will make perfect, creepy sense.

The film asks tough questions. As when one of Jackson's fellow teachers confides that even though everyone at the school knows that a student has threatened her life, there's nothing she, or anyone else, can do about it. These super-predators disguised as juvies know they can get away with anything and, being kids, that's just what they do. If they don't recognize law and order, why should we?

Don't expect "One Eight Seven" to hand you an uplifting answer to that question. The word here is that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

© 1997 Andrea Chase Air Date: 7/30/97

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