1996, R, 110 min. Directed by Robert Mandel. Starring Tom Berenger, Ernie Hudson, Diane Venora, Glenn Plummer, William Forsythe.
REVIEWED By Joey O'Bryan, Fri., April 26, 1996
The Substitute can only hope to capitalize on the inexplicable success of last year's Dangerous Minds, despite being an even sillier white bread fantasy. Like that film, The Substitute features a militarily trained “Great White Hope” who manages to whip a classroom of trouble-making kids, mainly minorities, into shape against the pounding beat of a sure-to-go-top-40 rap soundtrack. However, unlike Dangerous Minds, The Substitute fancies itself an action-adventure, which means that the inevitable scenes of classroom moralizing mingle freely with fisticuffs and bloody shoot-outs as our hero karate-chops students during the middle of class and pitches handfuls of murderous gang members out windows. All the violence is justified by a ludicrous story line that's more than a little hard to swallow. Get this: After his schoolteacher girlfriend (Heat's Diane Venora, totally wasted in a nothing role) is crippled in an assault, her boyfriend, a currently out-of-work mercenary (Berenger, a long way from Platoon), goes undercover as a substitute teacher in her high school to find the young thugs responsible but, instead, uncovers a massive drug-smuggling operation run from the school's basement. Although the film's regressive tone and its clumsily handled racial politics are indeed reprehensible, The Substitute is just too ridiculous to take seriously, and so the movie is not as offensive as it is hilarious. Particularly funny is the rampant miscasting that plagues the project. Berenger looks especially silly as he kicks and punches his way through a seemingly endless string of poorly choreographed fight sequences and tries desperately to keep a straight face, even while muttering supposedly emotionally charged lines like “Yeah… I've lost some homeboys.” Exploitation fans will be disappointed to see that Roy Frumkes, who wrote the incredible cult favorite Street Trash and directed the excellent documentary Document of the Dead, and Alan Ormsby, who collaborated with Bob Clark on his forgotten classics Deathdream, Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things, and Deranged, were partly responsible for The Substitute's abysmal screenplay.