Friday, September 21, 2012

The Substitute (1996)

“The Substitute” is what I like to prefer to as a pitch meeting movie. By that I mean it was an idea conceived by a board of Hollywood producers in a pitch meeting. They were shooting around ideas and somebody mentioned having Tom Berenger play a mercenary posing as a substitute teacher in a dangerous inner-city school. This is all an assumption mind you, but that’s the feeling I got.

I don’t mean for that to be a negative. If anything, it being a pitch meeting movie is a positive thing. The whole reason I was attracted to the film was because it was about Tom Berenger as a mercenary posing as a substitute teacher in a dangerous inner-city school. Throw in a well-rounded cast (with the likes of Ernie Hudson, Luis Guzman, Diane Verona, Glenn Plummer, William Forsythe and Marc Anthony) and I was sold. The only thing I was worried about was how they’d transplant Berenger into the school.

Thankfully, they introduce him into the school fairly well. In shades of “Kindergarten Cop”, Berenger plays Jonathan Shale, a mercenary reeling from a botched mission. He returns home to his beautiful girlfriend, Jane Hetzko (Diane Verona), who works as a teacher at a dangerous inner-city school. She’s been having complications with Juan Lacas (Marc Anthony), a vicious student of hers that is the leader of the Kings of Destruction (which sounds more like a wrestling stable than it does a gang). When a random thug breaks her kneecap, she’s convinced he set the whole attack up.

To avenge her, Shales infiltrates the school as James Smith, a substitute teacher who has more degrees and PhDs than humanly possible. With his band of mercenaries, which includes Luis Guzman as a sniper and William Forsythe as a crazed gun nut (which seems like it was written for Gary Busey), they try to uncover a drug ring. Not only do they do that, but they begin a gang war and even teach some of the students. It’s “Stand and Deliver” meets “Rambo”.

While the film is entertaining, it does have it’s faults. Mainly in the direction of Robert Mandel. He takes the film dead serious, which is admirable. Quite often this tone works and makes not the only the action more exhilarating, but more engaging as well as he develops the characters. However, there are certain scenes that should have been played tongue in cheek that weren’t. This results in unintentional hilarity and a few face palms. A good example would be Berenger’s deadbeat line delivery that he obviously wants to be a tad cheeky, but Mandel doesn’t.

I was going to avoid spoilers, but in order to truly tackle the film’s main fault, I have to reveal information. It’s kind of predictable anyway, so I don’t feel too bad. Ernie Hudson, who plays the principal, is revealed to be behind the drug ring. While there’s nothing wrong with this turn of events (it makes sense in context), Hudson is too likable to hate. He tries his best and Mandel gives him material that’s heelish, but I found it too hard to boo him. He’s like a huge baby face in wrestling that’s turned heel, but nobody boos him. They try their best to make him despicable, but the crowd loves him too much.

It’s easy to brush these qualms to the side and enjoy the film. Despite the serious tone, Mandel does know he’s making an action film and delivers on the goods. The final shootout is exciting and fast paced. It helps that it’s set in a high school, a setting I’m a sucker for (which is strange, considering I hated school). As mentioned earlier, I was especially engaged in them as I grew to like the characters. As tacky as Smith connecting with the children is, Berenger and company made it work with their good performances. Even Forsythe, who goes way over the top, is enjoyable because he knows he’s chewing up scenery.

I’ve heard many people call this film a guilty pleasure. It’s not a guilty pleasure for me. In order for a film to be a guilty pleasure, it has to be bad, but enjoyable in spite of that. The “Leprechaun” films are a good example of that. “The Substitute” isn’t bad. It’s a solid action film set in a high school. Nothing more, nothing less. It may have it’s faults, but it delivers on it’s promise.

MVT: Tom Berenger as Shales. This is his film and commands the screen every time he’s on (which is about ninety-eight percent). He’s extremely likable and actually connects with the young actors posing as his students.

Make or Break: The final shootout. A film like this relies heavily on the finale, as that’s what everything’s built up to. Mandel could have easily dropped the ball, especially with Hudson as the main villain. He pulls it off well and even gets a bit creative with some explosives.

Final Score: 7/10

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