Tuesday 2 February 2021

Movie Review: The Substitute (1996)

A far-fetched crime action movie, The Substitute offers a mishmash of sometimes interesting ideas but defaults to lowest common denominator resolutions.

Professional mercenary Jonathan Shale (Tom Berenger) leads his team of independent soldiers on a botched mission in Cuba and finds himself unemployable. His girlfriend Janet Hetzko (Diane Venora) is a Miami-based inner city high school teacher. Although the principal Claude Rolle (Ernie Hudson) is a former police officer with political ambitions, the school is beset by gang problems. Top thug Juan Lacas (Marc Anthony), a student in Janet's class, is the head of the KoD (Kings of Destruction) gang.

Janet tangles with Lacas and gets knee-capped for her trouble. Shale replaces her by pretending to be substitute teacher "James Smith" and notices signs of big money and possible drug distribution activity centred at the school. His mercenary crew set up surveillance to uncover what Lacas is up to while Shale attempts to disrupt the gangsters and help the students who actually want to learn.

Even before the over-the-top action bursts through the school door, The Substitute demands plenty of leaps of faith. The logic challenges include a noble teacher who accepts a cold-blooded mercenary as her boyfriend, a professional soldier suddenly deciding to care about the quality of education, and a principal overseeing a violent jungle of a school believing he can be elected to city council (but maybe corruption really runs that deep).

Director Robert Mandel rumbles over all the inconsistencies with the admirably oblivious torque of a tank advancing over rough terrain, and seeks the charm of a scarred and stone-faced Tom Berenger donning a necktie and heading into the combat zone of an inner city classroom. His Vietnam War experiences and a few broken bones are all it takes to subdue the unruly kids, The Substitute taking every shortcut it can find on the way to the real business of killing on an industrial scale.

And once Mandel arrives at the final 30 minutes, new characters are introduced or reintroduced in a rush, all to create two well-armed groups of square-jawed men to partake in a grand firefight at the high school. The resultant battle would not have been out of place in Stalingrad circa 1942, but the Miami law authorities see no reason to inquire about all the noise.

In the interludes between incidents of violence Shale helps some of the wayward but salvageable school kids (all are Black or Hispanic) gain perspective on a better path in life, Mandel well-intentioned but not skirting the white saviour trope. The Substitute offers lessons in life while dishing out death, never convincing but certainly cacophonous.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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