THE SUBSTITUTE (1996) 1/2 *
Shale (Tom Berenger) is a mercenary soldier who's just decided to hang up his Uzi and is visiting in Miami his girlfriend Jane (Diane Venora).She teaches in a high school that's like an armed camp plus a hotbed of big-time drug dealing. Jane, gutsy and outspoken, incurs the wrath of the Numero Uno gang-leader who has another male animal break her leg.
Shale wants to investigate the bad guys, who are legion. As he has done jobs for the CIA, he knows all about fabricating credentials, or so we are to believe. Posing as an Ivy Leaguer, he appears at the school and takes over Jane's class as a substitute.
In the tired old formula, he discerns the humanity in some of the kids, becomes (natch) liked by them. His methods combine strong-arm no-nonsense and the pathetic way of speaking to the students in "their" language, as when he explains the Vietnam War as "the gangs in the North wanted to take over the gangs in the South." In my book this comes under the rubric of the Power of Primitive Thinking.
What Shale's investigations uncover is corruption in high places and low, an industrial-strength drug-ring that extends well beyond the school, murder and other such niceties.
This leads to the film's real "raison d'Ítre," and "piece de resistance," a long, bloody confrontation between the bad guys and the good. The latter are Shale's motley team of disbanded mercenaries, now re-recruited in Wild Bunch or Dirty Dozen fashion. The battle is absurdly unbelievable in its strategies, heroics and high-tech equipment.
The film is an Equal Opportunity production. The huge majority of the students are minorities: black, Cuban, Hispanic, Latino, American Indian -- and since so many of them are gangsters, the portrait of such minorities is neither P.C. nor kind. Of course there are a few people who act with honesty and courage, but this feels like tokenism.
This is a cheap exploitation movie that's far cry from the fine "The Blackboard Jungle" of 1955, the movie whose title became the expression for delinquent and defiant high schoolers. That film was seen by some American authorities here, and especially abroad, as showing a most undesirable slice of US life. I shudder to think what "The Substitute" 's message will be for foreign countries.
While without saving graces, the film has some performers who are better than their material. Venora sends good vibes in her unglamorous but appealing small part. Hudson has presence as the school principal with a not so secret secret. Teacher Plummer contributes some good African-American activism.
As for Berenger, in the early days of his career, he was often referred to as the next Paul Newman. This did not come to pass. He is far from untalented, but he's been in insignificant movies, with just a few exceptions: "The Big Chill," "Platoon" (he was Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actor), "Born on the Fourth of July," and the little-seen "The Field" and "At Play in the Fields of the Lord."
In "Sniper"(1993) , Berenger played a military hitman, a terminator of drug-traffickers in a South American jungle. It was not a good film, but if Berenger has to be cast in more action movies, good scripts and direction could at least make him a hero a la Stallone, minus pectorals, plus brains.