Samuel L. Jackson stars as science teacher Trevor Garfield. A brief prologue set in his classroom in New York sets up two facts: Trevor is a gifted teacher, but schools are a dangerous place. After threatening to flunk a violent student, he is stabbed repeatedly and barely survives.
Fifteen months later in Los Angeles, Trevor is starting a new life. He is a substitute teacher, but is soon signed on for the rest of the year at a high school in the San Fernando valley. His class (why is it that movie high schools never have more than one period?) is just as unruly as before. However, Trevor is a changed man: in some ways the attack made him weaker, but it also stiffened his resolve and hardened his heart. Samuel L. Jackson is good in the role, but isn't given much range by the script. You know he's slowly breaking down throughout the film, yet he's never given the opportunity to show it.
Trevor's class is full of trouble. The most unruly of the lot is Benny (Lobo Sebastian), a gangbanger on parole. His second is Cesar (Clifton Gonzales Gonzales), who wants the chance to prove he's a tough as Benny. The disruptions they cause frighten the faculty, and make it impossible for other students who might want to learn (such as Rita (Karina Arroyave).
The faculty at the school is spineless. The administrative staff, fearful of lawsuits, don't want to get involved. One teacher, Dave Childress (John Heard), talks tough, but doesn't have the courage to follow through on his convictions, and has lost faith in the willingness of his pupils to learn. Another, Ellen Henry (Kelly Rowan), has been terrorized by Benny, and is fearful for her very life.
Director Kevin Reynolds generates a truly frightening tone with the film. This isn't like other high school flicks (like Dangerous Minds or Stand and Deliver) in which the students are tough on the outside, but nice guys on the inside. This is a much harsher reality, in which killers and hardened criminals are mixed in with frightened students, too busy trying to survive to learn. This bleak outlook builds as the movie progresses, giving rise to a mixture of anger and sympathy.
The look of 187 helps to enhance its tone. Much of the film is shot in dirty brownish tones, and you can almost see the school decay before your eyes. Many of the shots from Trevor's point of view are of varying focus, showing his internal struggles to maintain control. Some of the film's visual tricks don't quite work (for example, the video camera which inexplicably changes camera angles), but most do.
However, as the film moves along, it gets lost. Several scenes suddenly deviate from the intended mood by turning abruptly humorous (either intentionally or unintentionally...what's the deal with that arrow?), and toward the end, the film completely breaks down. Screenwriter Scott Yagemann wrote himself into a corner. He wants the film to end in a certain way to convey his message, but in order for that to happen several characters inexplicably make rather uncharacteristic, and some would say idiotic, decisions. The result is an ending which borders on the preposterous, made all the more evident when the film shifts tones with its heavy-handed and serious-minded end text. Leaving the theater, you can't help but think how ludicrous the whole film became.
It's somewhat sad. 187 has good intentions, and creates an eerily effective tone early on. Unfortunately, the film never figures out a coherent path to follow from its setup to the conclusion. The end result is laughably bad, and it just shows that a potentially good movie can be utterly ruined by a horrible ending.