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'Stand and Deliver' (PG)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 15, 1988

"Stand and Deliver" is a rousing, real-life underdog drama -- "Hoosiers" with logarithms. This time the Cinderella story is set at a high school in East Los Angeles; the hero is a driven, Bolivian-born teacher; and the players are remedial mathematicians who triumph over calculus.

Edward James Olmos' dynamic performance as workaholic saint Jaime Escalante drives the movie much as Escalante drives a class of unmotivated Latinos to study math. "What's cal-coo-luz?" asks one young tough who, like the rest, can barely subtract. Escalante, his pate peeping through his plastered-back linguine hair, goads, kids and cajoles the Garfield High seniors into bettering themselves.

Fearless as he is funny, Escalante faces down the resident leather-jacket with a wisecrack: "Tough guys don't do math. Tough guys fry chicken for a living." He loses the thug but wins the respect of his sidekick Angel (Lou Diamond Phillips), a tough in a hairnet. He calls Angel "net head" and threatens, "I'll break your neck like a toothpick." Standing up to bullies still works. His antics become legend when he comes to class with a meat cleaver -- not for self-defense, but to halve an apple, thereby dramatically demonstrating the concept of 50 percent.

Unflappable as a Borsch Belter fending off hecklers, he plays hard to get when the kids start with the smart talk and spitballs. "You think I want to do this? The Japanese pay me to do this. They're tired of making everything." He tempts the dispirited youths, promising them unheard-of powers.

Angel remains a charming reprobate, but a reprobate who is also a calculus whiz. The fat girl, the pretty girl, the brain, the boy who fixes cars, all live up to Escalante's high expectations and beyond. Grueling hours, racial prejudice, bureaucrats and broken hearts do not deter them. Chewing their pencils and crinkling their foreheads, the Garfield seniors enter the Math Super Bowl -- the forbidding National Advanced Placement calculus test. But the score is not yet settled.

This modest, time-tested story line pits the little people against the establishment, like "The Milagro Beanfield War," but not so evocatively. Even though Cuban-born director Ramon Menendez is familiar with barrio culture, there's nothing rich and pervasive in the movie's atmosphere. The language, yes. But you can't sense the salsa. It's all math anxiety, and no milieu.

Perhaps limited by his budget, Menendez has made a rather plain film. He keeps to the classroom instead of the streets, capitalizing on the charm of his modern Don Quixote and the natural dynamics inherent in a clique of students. Blackboard computations can't compare, however, with basketball or bean farmers. "Stand and Deliver," with its small scope, would have made a more perfect television drama emphasizing character over action, dialogue over cinematography. It takes a stand, but not a grandstand.

Olmos is absorbing as Escalante, whose determination is larger than life even though the man isn't. He's almost too human, a pudge whose chest shows through where the buttons gape -- a former computer nerd with the nerve of Zorro. As the chief troublemaker, Phillips lends the stardust. Slouched at his desk, his legs stretched out, he oozes the bravado that adolescents mistake for confidence. But under the machismo, Escalante finds the perennial schoolboy.

Corny, no. "Stand and Deliver" is inspirational, but never sentimental. It resists all too many temptations. It cries out for schmaltz. But this is a drama as honest as its hero, a work that comes from the heart -- the heart of a computer programmer.

Copyright The Washington Post

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