Substitute, The (1996)
Release Date: April 19th, 1996 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Robert Mandel Actors: Tom Berenger, Raymond Cruz, William Forsythe, Luis Guzman, Richard Brooks, Diane Venora, Glenn Plummer, Vincent Laresca, Marc Anthony, Ernie Hudson, Cliff De Young
aving previously served as the leader of “Operation Gauntlet” in Cuba – involving eight mercenaries (including William Forsythe, doing his best to play a whacko) tasked with taking down an illegal drug processing plant – Jonathan Shale (Tom Berenger) is undoubtedly cool under fire. Even though the mission was successful, three members were killed, allowing Havana’s Castro to put pressure on the U.S. authorities to disown the survivors and shred all files related to the endeavor. Shortly thereafter, Shale returns to Miami, where his girlfriend Jane (Diane Venora) works as a schoolteacher.
Although life as a “retired” soldier of fortune sounds dull for Shale, he’s determined to seek out opportunities to utilize his particular set of skills. But when his pal Joey (Raymond Cruz) tries to set him up as protection for a drug smuggling group posing as a South American import company, Shale realizes he’s running out of options. Fortunately, however, Jane’s school, Columbus High, provides a new type of battleground – rife with violently rebellious teens in need of tough teachers. When Jane is attacked by a six-foot Seminole, likely hired by Juan Lacas (Marc Anthony) – the leader of one of the more disruptive gangs on the campus (dubbed KOD or Kings of Destruction) – it’s up to Shale, going undercover as substitute James Smith, to straighten out a very unruly class.
Unruly, actually, doesn’t even begin to describe Shale’s students. The simple act of taking roll earns him a ruthless barrage of expletive-laden insults. Each session at the front of the classroom involves no real learning – just dancing, boom-box-blasting, making out, and trading stories of street warfare. But the transition from absolute chaos to some semblance of educational instruction isn’t meant to resemble “Dead Poets Society” or “The Great Debaters” or “Dangerous Minds” or even “School of Rock.” Instead, “The Substitute” is designed to be an action-oriented thriller (coincidentally quite similar to “Only the Strong”).
Unlike “Kindergarten Cop,” this school zone has quite an edge to it. The kids carry ice picks, handguns, verbal cheap shots, and numerous parallels to Vietnam, which just so happens to be part of the new curriculum. And Shale wears a bulletproof vest. Plus, both sides are unafraid to commit homicides if the situation calls for it. Although there is a brief mention of the pride experienced when an instructor gets through to his difficult students, and a hint of the sticky complications of racial inequality in politics, the focus is mostly on humor-tinged comeuppance and revenge – allowing for fistfights, shootouts, drive-bys, and an onslaught of one-liners.
Additionally, there’s a rather satisfying “Commando”/”Predator”-styled, explosive finale right in the hallways of the school itself. While the basic concept may be thoroughly amusing, and many of Berenger’s tough-guy routines are affectively cinematic, the pacing is just off enough that the action becomes noticeably sparse and the tension alleviated a bit too often. Nevertheless, that didn’t stop this little B-picture from spawning three feature-length sequels (“The Substitute 2: School’s Out,” “The Substitute 3: Winner Takes All,” and “The Substitute 4: Failure is Not an Option”), which did not reuse the characters but maintained the themes.
– Mike Massie