The Substitute (1996)

Director: Robert Mandel
18 | 1h 54min | Action, Crime, Drama

We’ve been here before, many times before, but don’t sell The Substitute short. Of all the heavy-handed, transparently racist, high school vigilante films we’ve been subjected to over the years, Robert Mandel’s Conservative splurge is one of the most blatant, and its sense of pandering, an ingredient slung into the mix to hide the fact that it is indeed all of those things, is so ambivalent and misguided all you can do is laugh, and laugh hard. For those who embrace this film with the knowing derision it deserves, The Substitute is side-splittingly funny, as is the notion there are people out there who buy into its corrupt moral values and unrealistic sociopolitical resolutions on any serious level. If life was as simple as events in The Substitute, or as convoluted and hypocritical, we’d all be confused, dangerously passive and under the thumb of an autocratic system masquerading as democracy.

Wait a minute…

For a mid-90s film destined for the recesses of bargain-basement ignominy, The Substitute is also one of the most star-studded, a fact owing to a combination of past, current and future mainstream players all succumbing to the cold reality of a much-needed payday. The sheer abundance of recognisable, and for the most part respected faces on show is absolutely mind-boggling, but don’t expect anything more than paint by numbers inanity ― unless, of course, that’s exactly what you’re looking for, in which case you’ve hit the jackpot. There is a wealth of talent on display here, but almost all of them are reduced to either phoning it in or simply coming across as poor actors despite their proven talents. The Substitute‘s screenplay treats almost every character as perfunctory, with Tom Berenger’s faux-tactical genius reigning supreme and everyone else assuming various degrees of sycophancy, and those who don’t fall under that category are pure cannon fodder. The screenplay has an uncanny ability to make everyone look terrible. Al Pacino could have starred in this movie and still come across as half an imbecile who has never acted a day in his life.

Before we get into the thick of it, let me make something clear: The Substitute is the kind of movie that not only deserves spoilers, it thrives on them. If you want to go into this movie blind then stop reading now, but I urge you to take on some of the following observations going in. It’s just more fun that way. The plot is hackneyed, predictable, utterly irrelevant. The film is all about its absurd developments and even nuttier situations. It’s one of those movies with so many plot holes, idiotic quirks and lazy contrivances that you find yourself anticipating them as you would a game of ‘I Spy’. Some will fall pleasurably into your lap, others will knock you for six, but plenty of them are worthy of rewinding, and once you get through the first instalment you can always dig out its equally ludicrous sequel, The Substitute 2: School’s Out, a film that stars B-movie stalwart Treat Williams as trash cinema’s newest corporal punishment innovator, and, much more surprisingly, the late, great rapper-with-a-social-conscience Guru from Gang Starr (seriously). The Substitute 3: Winner Takes All and The Substitute 4: Failure Is Not an Option I am unable attest to, but you’ve gotta think there are some giggles to be had. We shall see.

Berenger stars as Shale, a mercenary soldier who returns to his native Miami having just overseen a raid on a Cuban drug depot with his A-Team compadres, and when I write ‘A-Team’ I don’t mean the best of the best because that would be a flat-out lie, I mean the 80s TV show starring Mr T, which The Substitute often feels like an extended episode of, albeit one that relishes in graphic violence and extreme racial stereotyping. Berenger’s gang are made up of two Latinos, a black guy and a white guy who acts as the group’s idiosyncratic wild card, the Murdock of the crew if you will. That particular character, played by Dick Tracy‘s William Forsythe in what has to be his absolute worst performance to date, is the only one with any personality. Berenger obviously takes the Hannibal role, but Luis Guzmán’s Rem and Raymond Cruz’s Joey Six are like years-old action figures on the periphery of a brand new playset, and there’s absolutely no room for a B.A. Baracas-type hero in The Substitute. Black characters are either dumb and aggressive, obsequious accessories to a hard line mentality, or well-meaning but ultimately weak. Even the film’s crime world boss, an exploitative character usually reserved for white actors for the sake of balance, is played by a black actor, and not just any actor, but Ernie Hudson of Ghostbusters fame.

Asides from Berenger, Hudson is probably the only actor who comes out of The Substitute with his reputation in tact. In fact, he’s a hoot as the high school’s sheep in wolves’ clothing, Principal Rolle, a character so dripping with subterfuge you’ll peg him as the bad guy almost immediately, especially when Shale, masquerading as a supply teacher after his friend and lover, Jane Hetzko, has her leg broken trying to bring peace to the playground, points out his bravery at wearing a gold watch in such a conflicted environment. Shale’s expertise is further highlighted when choosing the alias Mr. Smith as a means for laying low. Apparently, such a bland name is instantly forgettable. As Rolle explains after immediately forgetting his name, “If it was Paderewski, I’d remember.” Really? Personally, I’d remember Smith.

Obviously, I don’t have Shale’s tactical and stealth expertise, the kind that later sees him fling an entire rabble of thugs through a third storey window in broad daylight during school hours with absolutely no repercussions, despite Shale’s role as the muscular fly in the ointment. You’d think this was a sackable offence, especially when the man rooting for your downfall is your boss. Love interest Hetzko, who spends most of the movie at home with her leg in a cast, is played by Diane Verona, who only a year prior starred alongside Al Pacino in Michael Mann’s crime thriller opus Heat, making her yet another past or future A-lister snagged for Mandel’s cheapjack venture. Welcome to the party, pal.

The Substitute is deeply condescending, startlingly so, even for an exploitative picture of its nature. The fact that an authoritative Republican mouthpiece with a history in the armed forces can change the entire outlook of deeply institutionalised gangbangers in a matter of days is not only ludicrous and offensive, but also damaging, providing easy, black and white solutions for deeply complex social problems, the kind that are sustained through a system of enforced financial disparity and gentrification. There’s an utterly oppressive moment when token-black-kid-on-the-right-path, Jerome, later installed as temporary class teacher on the basis of very little whatsoever, poses the extremely valid question, “What we supposed to do [instead of being in a gang]? Work in some fast food joint making some minimum wage?” to which Shale poses the question, “Better than a gang funereal, isn’t it?” Accept mediocrity. Embrace slavery. Struggle in silence. Message received.

One thug who ain’t for turning is ‘Kings of Destruction’ leader and Principal Rolle conspirator Juan Lacas (multi-platinum recording artist Marc Anthony), who doesn’t take too kindly to being forced to write lines on the blackboard in front of the entire class for being late. Here’s an idea: if you don’t like answering to authority, don’t go to school at all. You’re supposed to be the leader of the baddest gang in Miami and yet you still turn up with your lunchbox and pencil case every single day of the week. Not exactly good for your street cred. Since Rolle uses the school basement to stash millions of dollars worth of cocaine, I understand that keeping a low profile is good, but it’s more conspicuous that he shows his face every day without consequence.

Also, you’d think the janitor would have stumbled across Rolle’s little operation at some point during his daily routine, though his lack of sleuth skills probably saved his life. Were he to stick his nose in, Rolle wouldn’t think twice about shooting him dead. I mean, he shoots one employee dead in cold blood in the gym before the school grounds are even vacated, which begs the question: where in the hell are the police? Soon enough the school is transformed into a rocket-fuelled war zone and there’s not a single cop in sight. Rolle supposedly has them on the payroll, but the whole of Miami? There has to be one cop who hasn’t been tainted, who doesn’t know not to set off alarm bells. And where are the concerned parents? The inquisitive citizens? Is this some kind of alternate dimension free from persecution?

The Substitute obviously has its tongue in its cheek to a large degree, but the movie is so ridiculous on so many levels all purposeful humour is almost undetectable. Berneger is given a selection of Arnie-esque one liners to chew on, but the man who put the fear god in us as Platoon‘s treacherous warmonger, Staff Sergeant Bob Barnes, struggles to exhibit the necessary charm ― chiefly, one suspects, because the quips in question are half-assed and not very funny, at least when compared to the unrestrained absurdity existing elsewhere in the film. Berenger is a believable hard ass. He is also able to project the kind of authentic warmth that makes his relationship with class members seem genuine until the the screenplay sabotages it, which it manages to do every other sentence with its spurious ethical insights and oppressive spin on socioeconomics.

The most ridiculous thing about The Substitute is that Shale is the cause of almost every single death that transpires. Before he arrived to sully the waters, the Kings of Destruction were fairly low-key, satisfied with petty theft, playground brawls and minor harassment. Shale, on the other hand, is a one-man wrecking ball who infiltrates the school with his pack of heavily armed mercenaries in tow. If that wasn’t bad enough, after putting Rolle and his cronies down for good, and anyone else who happens to get caught in the crossfire, Shale strolls into the sunset with a Paul Kersey ambivalence, leaving a slew of mangled corpses for someone else to scrape off the floor. “They’ll be okay,” Shale assures when a barely alive Joey Six shows concern for the kids, “At least it’s their school again.”

What’s left of it, yeah, and, more distressingly, what’s left of them.

Wanted Ad

The Substitute is chock-full of unrealistic developments, some arguably even more so than a scene that sees an out-of-work Shale hunting down mercenary work, but the noble kind where murder is justified rather than against the Constitution. When Shale arrives, he is invited to watch a promotional video made by the competition. Not only is the video bargain basement baloney, it openly advertises the subject as a merc for hire. Why an international drug smuggler would have an open house for potential employees is more than a little questionable, especially when the douchebag heading it outright explains that the killing of rival gang members and FBI snoops comes as part of the job description. Shale of course declines, leaving Cliff De Young’s Wolfson with an actual dookie in his pants. Is Wolfson worried that Shale will pull the plug on his operation? Of course not! Don’t be silly. It should come as no surprise that this is the very drug operation that Shale later unravels. Let’s just put it down to coincidence and move on.

Just Like You

Shale is able to find common ground using the only thing he knows: violence. After smacking around an exceedingly young Maurice Compte of Narcos fame (we all gotta start somewhere), our authority figure puts the fear of god in a rabble so unconscionable they spend recess stealing manky old hairdryers out of classroom drawers. Now that’s sticking it to the man! Once Shale establishes his dominance, he lays out the Vietnam War in very dubious terms, relating his time overseas to inner city turf wars. He was even a member of a rough and tumble biker gang before the life-affirming horrors of military combat set him straight (though the amount of damage he does during his time as a substitute teacher suggests otherwise). Not only was Shale in a biker gang, he joined when he was twelve. This guy has a story for everything.

Diamond in the Rough

There’s always one kid, typically ethnic, who wants to do good in spite of everything. Here there are two. The first is a black kid from a rival gang who is so good-natured he wouldn’t last a day on the mean streets of Miami, (the same kid who didn’t want to slave his life away earning minimum wage). Later, he saves Shale’s life by gunning down a rival gang member and is a respected for it. Quite the hypocrite, our Shale. The second kid is a young Latino girl who tepidly raises her hand in class while the animals run amok. Later, she sends a schmaltzy get well letter to the injured Ms. Hetzko in a priceless moment that leaves her in a flood of melodramatic tears. Beyond that, she may as well not exist.

What Goes Up…

Again, there are plenty here that could have qualified, and this one bags it not for its over the top nature or implausibility, but for the character in question’s sheer stupidity. It’s a shame because Menace II Society‘s Glenn Plummer puts in a solid performance as the ethnic-young-teacher-with-heart until a lame escape attempt unravels every last morsel of intelligence previously projected. Set upon by Rolle and his gangbanger cronies in the school gym, Mr. Sherman seems done for until he spies a gym rope and begins climbing it to absolutely nowhere, at which point he is definitely done for.

Choice Dialogue

Confronting Lacas and his gang of thugs in the library, one of whom is about 45 and was obviously there as a result of a lack of suitable extras (Note: The Substitute was shot at a time when kids were enrolling in summer classes and were used as extras in the film, receiving free Papa John’s pizza for their efforts), Lacas looks for a little poetic justice having been forced to write lines in the classroom.

Juan Lacas: When we’re done, I want you to say ‘I’m Sorry’ 100 times.

Shale: Shhh! No talking in the library.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A dubious blend of Death Wish, Dangerous Minds, and The A-Team, pulls no punches with its myopic and deeply patronising moral message, but as an overblown action vehicle fuelled by jaw-dropping absurdity, this one is as explosive as they come. Just don’t pay attention in class.

Edison Smith

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