Release Date: April 19, 1996
Genre: Action, Crime, Drama
Director: Robert Mandel
Writers: Roy Frumkes, Rocco Simonelli & Alan Ormsby
Starring: Tom Berenger, Ernie Hudson, Diane Verona, Marc Anthony, William Forsythe, Luis Guzman, Raymond Cruz
WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW
Tom Berenger is an underappreciated actor in this reviewer’s opinion. Throughout his career he has played a diverse range of characters. Everyone will remember him as the sociopath sergeant in Oliver Stone’s Vietnam drama “Platoon,” which earned him an Academy Award Nomination for Best Actor. Others may remember him as Cleveland Indians catcher Jake Taylor in the baseball comedy “Major League.” Most recently he appeared in Christopher Nolan’s surreal blockbuster “Inception” as the adviser to Cillian Murphy’s character. He’s also appeared in movies that would launch into franchises such as “Sniper” and this movie that is about to be talked about, “The Substitute!”
In “The Substitute,” Berenger plays Jonathan Shale, a mercenary for hire. After a botched mission in Cuba, he returns home to Miami and to his fiance Jane Hetzko (Diane Verona) who is a history teacher at Columbus High School. During a walk on the beach Jane is attacked by someone which results in a broken knee. Jane believes he is connected to a street gang called the “Kings of Destruction” or KOD whose leader is Juan Lakas (Marc Anthony) a student in her class. Unbeknownst to Jane, Shale decides to go undercover as her substitute teacher to investigate Lacas. Using forged credentials, Shale heads to the school where he introduced himself to the principal, Claude Rolle (Ernie Hudson). From there he acts like a normal history teacher and a quick disciplinarian over the out of control classroom. As he digs deeper into the school he believes that the school is being used as a front for transporting drugs. He enlists his team which consists of Joey Six (Raymond Cruz), William Forsythe (Hollan), Rem (Luis Guzman) and Wellman (Richard Brooks) to track Lakas and his crew to find out where the drugs are going to and the players involved.
Directed by Robert Mandel whose biggest directorial effort before this was the 1992 college drama “School Ties,” “The Subsitiute” is an action crime drama with some heart. It can be over dramatic at times, but there’s just the right amount of action to keep it from being boring. It’s a movie that is relatable what is going on in our school system. We have so many failing public schools that are run down and taken over by gangs. The kids that are in school have no interest in learning and don’t seem to care about their futures. The movie does a good job depicting the entitled misfits and those that actually want to learn.
Berenger commands the film throughout the run time. He knows the risks he is getting involved in when he goes undercover at the school. It could affect his career as well as his relationship with Jane if she were to find out. His first day on the job is awkward but once he gets the feel for the classroom is when his military expertise kicks.in. He takes no crap from the kids and gets their attention. As he spends time with his students and shares his experiences with them, the students develop a sense of respect for him. In turn, Shale becomes emotionally attached to them and feels a sense of duty to help get them in a positive mindset about their future.
Ernie Hudson is great as the supporting character Rolle. He is the big cheese in the school and feels a little intimidated by Shale’s presence. He tries to fire him at first after an altercation with a couple students, but Shale is one step ahead of him when he tells him the teacher’s union rules. Rolle is used to the incivility of the school and when Shale brings order he is flabbergasted. The more Shale does for the students and the school, the more threatened Rolle feels when it comes to being in power. It’s a Chess match between the two individuals. There’s also a side to Rolle that is revealed in the movie which makes him a more loathsome character.
I was surprisingly impressed by Marc Anthony’s performance as Juan Lakas. This movie was before he became an international singing sensation. Lakas is a kid who is not to be taken lightly and as leader of the KOD, he gives fair warning to those who think they can size him up. After getting humiliated by Shale, he tries to take him out and realizes very quickly that he has met his match.
Perhaps learning from “School Ties” Mandel makes sure in this film not to go too deep into the social matters of the film. He reminds the audience that this is an action film first and foremost. There are plenty of fights, gun battles, explosions and a Rio Bravo like climax that keeps you engaged. The were very few flaws I could find in this movie. The only disappointment about the movie was the abrupt ending. For those that have been following my reviews, you know I’m not a fan of abrupt endings. I felt they could’ve developed some end results of the movie such as an investigation into the school or a further review about the public-school system, gangs in schools or what happens to Shale after his work is completed.
The movie did fairly well at the box office to spawn several sequels (Berenger not being involved in any of them). It’s a cult film that has a much longer lasting impact than it should. As I’ve said, “The Substitute” is a generational movie. It gives you an inside window of one of the biggest educational issues facing the United States. The movie will give you a new outlook on things and perhaps make you feel appreciated for where you have come from and teaches you not to take things for granted.
- The movie was shot during the summer months and kids enrolled in summer classes were extras in the film. Free Papa John’s pizza was served to anyone who would stay after school.
- Tom Berenger’s character explains to the class he is teaching about his services and experiences in Vietnam. Berenger played a Sgt. (Barnes) in the Vietnam movie Platoon 10 years earlier.
Doesn’t Constitute A Direct Threat
My Students Are Trying To Kill Me
Jon Janus Promotion
That Cereal Really Does Work
You’ll Go Drop A Grenade On Him
It’s Going To Get A Lot More Quiet In Here
What’s The KOD?
What’s Your Background?
Not Doing Their Homework
I’m The Warrior Chief
Corporal Punishment Is Not Allowed
Make Me Write I’m Sorry 10 Times On The Board
No Talking In The Library
Kind Of Hard When Your Whole Life Is A Covert Operation
You Are History
Joint Operation Between The CIA and PTA