NEW YORK — High school science teacher Trevor Garfield has a problem at the beginning of "One Eight Seven," the new movie about inner-city education.
His classroom talents have earned respect from his peers and his better-motivated pupils. But the corridors of his Brooklyn school don't exactly ring with civilized values, and failing a hostile student can be as dangerous as dissing a stranger in a dark alley. Trevor learns this the hard way, suffering a near-fatal attack from a "gangbanger" with a chip on his shoulder and a tenpenny nail in his fist.
Trevor recovers from his wounds, moves his life and work to the other side of the country, and dips back into teaching as a substitute in the Los Angeles schools. But adversity recurs. Surly students take a dislike to him on Day 1, and a dispute over a stolen watch makes the toughest troublemaker into his mortal enemy. His only friends are a computer teacher as threatened as he is, and a history teacher whose moral sense was burned out years ago.
Trevor remembers when he was idealistic, optimistic, and ethical to a fault. Can he recapture those days amid the chaos and confusion that a major American city has the audacity to call an educational system? Or does a job in the jungle require an adjustment in one's personal and professional morality?
Those are the big questions raised in "One Eight Seven" - the police code for homicide, written "187" in the movie ads - by director Kevin Reynolds and screenwriter Scott Yagemann, who taught in L.A.'s public schools for seven years before penning this script. They pull no punches in depicting the darkest sides of today's urban and educational environments, and their sympathy with embattled teachers will please many education-minded people.
The picture would be more persuasive if it didn't use over-the-top melodrama to illustrate its points, however. Some scenes pour on so much terror and destructiveness that one suspects the filmmakers are less interested in outlining a social problem than in stirring up our vengeful instincts, so we'll be primed to cheer when the mayhem-filled climax finally arrives.
Worse, the film strongly suggests that vigilante violence - cloaked as "taking personal responsibility" instead of "being a victim" - may have a part to play in returning law and order to the schoolroom. The movie hedges its bets by taking an ambivalent, sometimes murky stance toward the plot's take-charge hero. Still, this aspect of the story will repel viewers who feel the most likely effect of violence is to beget more of the same, simply prolonging a (literally) vicious circle.
Samuel L. Jackson gives a powerful performance as Trevor, lending three-dimensional life to a character who might have seemed schematic and even self-contradictory in less able hands. As a bonus, the nuanced acting of this gifted African-American star helps soften the movie's discomfiting racial undertones, which arise from its harsh portrayal of intolerably decayed ghettos swarming with dysfunctional members of racial and ethnic minorities.
John Heard and Kelly Rowan are also fine as the history and computer teachers. Reynolds keeps the action moving at an energetic pace, although his visual style often sweats and strains surprisingly hard for such a relatively straightforward story; the editing is punchy and the camera is forever turning, craning, revolving, and otherwise knocking itself out.
Ericson Core did the colorful cinematography, and music supervisor Chris Douridas assembled the eclectic soundtrack songs, which range from hip-hop to strains of an Indian sitar that seems to have wandered in from some other movie.
* 'One Eight Seven' has an R rating. It contains menacing suspense and hard-hitting violence as well as foul language and brief nudity.