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"187" gripping 'til it goes 360

Blast San Francisco Bureau

Many props to the cinematographer who lensed the visually arresting "187," a new urban drama about a teacher who is threatened by his L.A. gangsta students. For the most part, "187" – California penal code for murder and gang lingo usually used as a threat of violence – is a gripping, menacing film. The look of the film is bathed in brown and oranges, like a desert or jungle the violence-laden environment the school is meant to represent.

Unfortunately, three-fourths into "187," director Kevin Reynolds (he gave us the sorry-ass "Waterworld") turns the film in another direction that turns it into a lame, half-baked murder thriller. "187" makes a 360.

Samuel L. Jackson has turned in several fine performances and his portrayal of dedicated science teacher Trevor Garfield is no exception. His iron-clad depiction of a teacher under duress grounds the film.

In the film's beginning, Garfield is stabbed nearly to death in his Brooklyn school. Fifteen months later, we see him back and teaching again, this time as a substitute in a much different but just as menacing school district in L.A. As soon as he steps into class, he's off to a wrong start with some Latino hoods. They're your basic gangsta punks, bad and beyond saving -- there's nothing cartoony about the way they are depicted.

At the school Garfield meets two teachers, one a cynical veteran instructor who packs heat in his desk drawer. Garfield makes a stronger connection with a younger, more idealistic computer science teacher, who is also trying to cope with the threat of violence that pervades the school.

Again, the look of the film cannot be overlooked. This place is menacing. The scenes in Brooklyn are tinted in blue and almost dreamy. Here, Garfield is in his element as a teacher who tries to do his job against all odds and against the apathy of his students. Once the setting moves to L.A., the look is dirty and hot and you can almost feel the sweat build on your forehead. Even the sound of a classroom of teenage voices, layered upon one another, mimics that of a strange and frightening forest. And that fear is seen in the eyes of Garfield, who, as played by Jackson, appears a shell or ghost of his former self.

What I liked most about the bulk of the film is that it's not one of those damn, lame-ass films where the teacher comes into a classroom and uses tough love to get kids hooked into the wonders of algebra. "187" ain't no Disney film. I was immediately taken into the world created by Reynolds. Then, almost out of nowhere, "187" takes on an almost Joe Esterhazian twist into psycho-thriller territory: Someone starts whacking some gangsta thugs off. The audience is left wondering: Is Jackson's character offing the punks or are they the victims of gang violence? The answer finally comes and the final face-off between Garfield and the gangstas is tense and effective, even though it is stolen for cheap from "The Deer Hunter."

The film almost redeems itself narratively during that confrontation. But then the film wimps out in the end with a sappy graduation scene and a few real-life stats. I'd say go see the film just to see the fine performances and the stunning cinematography, but beware of the pussed-out ending that cops to phony moralizing.