MOVIE REVIEW – The archetypal hero with a heart of gold and an iron fist takes on the school’s invading drug mafia single-handedly in this Polish action thriller full of ironclad clichés.
From the first five minutes you know you’re going to love or hate Lesson Plan, it’s that kind of film. The action thriller, called Plan Lekcji in the original Polish version, starts with a completely traditional B-movie action sequence where a mafia undercover cop (starring Piotr Witkowski – think of him as a Polish Jean-Claude Van Damme) single-handedly beats up a dozen bad guys. In the film, he is nicknamed Jiu Jitsu to underline his retro action hero image, and quotes Bruce Lee to define his warrior philosophy. The fight scene, which is a little reminiscent of the opening scenes of James Bond films (and is not organically linked to the rest of the film), is merely there to ‘set the tone’: from this point on, we know that we are in for a macho action thriller reminiscent of the 1990s, which unfolds over the course of more than 100 minutes.
Dangerous minds, spiced up with fights
Director Daniel Markowicz and screenwriter Daniel Bernardi craft a workable story that regularly keeps the kicks and punches flowing. In keeping with classic B-movie norms, a death at the beginning of the film spurs the hero’s action sequence for the rest of the film. In most cases, the hero’s actions are always motivated by either revenge or duty. Lesson Plan adheres to this formula.
Bernardi’s script sets the drama in a high school, where the drug threat is at the center of the narrative, and uses the tried-and-tested coming-of-age template of an inept teacher in a classroom full of unruly students as a backdrop. However, this thematic backdrop has been developed in other films with a similar theme (e.g. Dangerous Kids) with a more sophisticated story. Still, this film willingly forgoes the more subtle sensibilities of such classics in favor of an over-the-top stunt-fest of events. In fact, we can’t really ‘be angry’ with the makers, as it is clear from the start that this is going to be such an action movie, but we somehow regret that although there was more potential in the story, the makers ended up deliberately stuck at the level of a B-grade action movie.
This lacks the usual Polish realism
Polish crime dramas are often characterized by harsh realism and intense violence, but Lesson Plan, unfortunately, avoids an “excessive” dose of both. The film uses a relevant topic – the infiltration of drugs into high schools – to build the plot, but bypasses the relevant storyline and dialogue related to the topic. The makers obviously had the film’s 16+ rating in mind when they came up with the violent content. The adaptation aims to set up a high school drama aimed at a teenage audience. Because of this, although the action star Witkowski gives his all in the fight mode, the screenwriters decided not to give him enough space for the bloodier fights or shooting scenes that are usually characteristic of Poles.
Witkowski plays Damian Nowicki, a classic tortured macho cop. As the film opens, Damian’s wife has been murdered in cold blood by the mob after discovering that Damian is a trained cop who infiltrated their ranks by posing as a thug. Damian’s response, which includes a heavy opening action fight, is to take out the mob boss and his cronies on his own, but according to the template, he becomes a broken man and an alcoholic because he can’t save his wife.
Reluctant hero, chunky clichés
But this initial stage of the action drama only introduces the hero’s character before drawing the viewer into the film’s plot. A teacher friend asks Damian to look into drug threats at the high school where he works. At first, the constantly hungover cop doesn’t want to take on the case, but after his friend’s death, he changes his mind.
Damian finally gives in and applies to the school as a history teacher. Since we are dealing with a rather run-down school, there are not many other applicants for the position, so Damian is easily hired.
So, Damian gets the job, only to find himself among a bunch of uncooperative students. He impresses the good guys among them, and soon Damian spends more time teaching them self-defense jiu-jitsu tricks than history. Bernardi’s writing adheres to every imaginable cliché that such a prequel might entail, including the reveal of the real villain at the end. The story’s primary intention is to establish Damian as an archetypal hero with a heart of gold and an iron fist.
There is also the obligatory love thread
Perhaps by now it has become clear that the film’s biggest weakness is the unimaginative script. The chain of events that happened to the hero is drawn mechanically. There’s loss, despair, anger, heartache, romance and revenge – all nicely arranged to fill the playing time. Of course, some moments are meant to play on the bond that a teacher can develop with his students. Yet you find no emotional connection to the protagonist, even when he goes through the full range of emotions. But the screenplay is not interested in developing the other characters either. Although at first it seems that we get more complex characters in the case of the students, it soon becomes clear that they are only in the film to give Damian’s story the necessary props at the right moment.
And of course, the script cannot miss the obligatory love thread either. As soon as Damian takes on the job of history teacher, there is the pretty colleague, Agata (Antonina Jarnuszkiewicz), who, according to the story, falls in love with our hero almost immediately. Still, there is not much chemistry between the actors, so the whole love part seems unnecessary. At one point, the script tries to build melodrama through the subplot of a misunderstanding between the two, but it didn’t manage to carry it through convincingly either.
As for Piotr Witkowski’s performance, he is more focused on delivering as an action hero than as an actor. He fights well, but in terms of action, the film somehow underperforms during the predictable and sometimes boring fight scenes, so some of these scenes seem rather funny. As for the other actors, they don’t play well-developed or believable characters either, so understandably no one comes up with a performance worth mentioning. Overall, we can find Polish thrillers of much higher quality in terms of action, story and characters, such as the movie Furioza.
From the eighties and nineties, B-movies based on action found a huge fan base worldwide, some works even became cult films. However, the genre’s success requires a memorable action hero and unforgettable moments. Lesson Plan offers none of these, and the harsh realism characteristic of Polish crime novels is not to be found in it.