Sunday, May 23, 2010

Substitute, The (1996) - 3/5

There's something about a film which has a plot about an ex-soldier turned mercenary going into a gang ridden school as a substitute teacher that appeals to me, especially if that substitute is played by the same actor that played the psychotic Barnes from Platoon. Perhaps it's the promise that I'm going to get some uber violence that is perhaps over-the-top. I was actually surprised as the film is very violent but it doesn't take the over-the-top route like films such as Class of 1984 or Class of 1999. There's nothing wrong with over-the-topness with this subject matter as I liked both those films but people looking for some over-the-top laughs should look somewhere else.

The film opens with a group of Vietnam vets who currently work as mercenaries and are in-between jobs. Looking for work our head mercenary Jonathan Shale (Tom Berenger) decides to visit his old girlfriend (played by Diane Venora) who is a high school history teacher in one of the worst gang and drug filled schools in the Miami. When a student takes a hit on her and breaks her knee caps, Berenger takes it up himself to secretly go into the school as a substitute. While there he gets the aid of his mercenaries to take down a large drug empire that is lead by the principal (played by Ernie Hudson).

The absolute best part of this film is the casting with our two leads Tom Berenger and Ernie Hudson perfectly cast. Tom Berenger looks and acts like a weathered soldier and it's nice to see Ernie for once play a antagonistic role to counteract his good-boy Ghostbuster image. Genre fans will also recognize Raymond Cruz (again with that damn bun thing on the top of his head) and of course William Forsythe. Fans of Forsythe can expect another over-the-top performance but sadly his character is underused and only seems to be thrown in now and again to counteract the stark, good guy image of Tom Berenger. People today will be shocked to see future pop singer sensation and Jaylo husband Marc Anthony cast as the head gang leader. I saw this film before he had pop radio hits so that image didn't tarnish what I thought of him beforehand but I always thought he looked too weak and frail to be cast as the gang leader. Just my opinion and I'm sure more would agree with me.

Like I said the film is also very violent but not extremely bloody so fans of body counts will also be pleased. Along with the violence director Robert Mandal and writer Roy Frumkes also inject some well placed humor to offset the violent tone of the film. It great to see how Berenger reacts to Ernie Hudson after he keeps surviving the gang attacks Hudson orders on him. Perhaps the scene that got me laughing the most is when Berenger is in a meeting for a mercenary job when his potential employer lets out a huge fart after a women leaves proclaiming "he's been holding it for 20 minutes" and that "regularity is the key." Berenger's reaction to that scene is classic. Did I forget to mention Berenger also gets to use ninja stars in a scene? Oh yeah, he's just that badass of a substitute!

Overall I found The Substitute to be a solid action film from the 90's with a great cast. Two of its downfalls is it tends to be a little preachy, especially about how being in a gang is no way to live, and the running time could have easily been trimmed by 15 minutes or so with some tighter editing. Other than those flaws I think action fans will have a good time.

The Substitute proved to be a surprise success for Live Entertainment at the time so when the company was bought out by Artisan Entertainment (now Lionsgate), they quickly produced three direct-to-video sequels all starring Treat Williams.

Written By Eric Reifschneider

1 comment:

  1. "No Talking In The Library.." Ernie and Tom are their best.