Sunday, November 28, 2010

"The Substitute" (1996)

Starring Tom Berenger, Ernie Hudson and Marc Anthony
Written by Roy Frumkes and Rocco Simonelli
Directed by Robert Mandel

Everyone remembers 1995's "Dangerous Minds," right?  That movie with Michelle Pfeiffer as a former US Marine who becomes a teacher and whips a bunch of under-privileged minority students into shape?  It was a big box office success, and the soundtrack featured the massively popular single "Gangsta's Paradise" from Coolio.  Yeah, you remember that movie.

So do you remember that a year later there came "The Substitute"?  Probably not.

Jonathan Shale (Tom Berenger) is a mercenary employed by the United States government to do off-the-books black operations.  His latest mission to infiltrate Cuba and destroy a drug manufacturing facility doesn't go well, and three of his teammates are killed and left behind.  As a result of their failure, the government must cut ties with Shale and his team, leaving the men desperate to find employment.

Shale returns home to Miami and finds that his girlfriend, Jane Hetsko (Diane Venora) has been targeted by a local gang known as the Kings of Destruction, or "KOD".  One day while jogging, Jane is knee-capped by one of the gang members, and must stay home from her job as a high school teacher for several weeks with a broken leg.  Shale concocts a plan to get himself hired as a substitute teacher to track down these gang members, and soon enough discovers that there's even more going on than just simple gang violence.  He notices that these gang members all have expensive phones and cars, and begins to suspect that they are involved in the drug trade.


Shale recruits his former teammates in on the job, telling them that where there's drugs, there's money.  Shale finds that the leader of the KOD, a dangerous student named Juan Lacas (Marc Anthony) is just the tip of the iceberg.  It turns out that the school principal, Claude Rolle (Ernie Hudson), an ambitious former cop running for city council, is in on the entire plan, and maybe even calling the shots.  As the student body begins to revere Shale for his tough stance against the gangs, Rolle and Shale become involved in a dangerous back and forth, each time upping the ante against the other.  But just as Rolle's organization is tough to crack, Shale's just as tough to kill.  He survives attack after attack, and finally sets the stage to seize Rolle's major cocaine shipment and take out the KOD and the drug traffickers all at once.

"The Substitute" is not a good movie, but it is totally entertaining from start to finish.  Loaded with silly cliches, terrible dialogue and some truly hilarious action sequences, the case could be made that "The Substitute" might even be a parody of the genre.  There's a scene partway through when Shale leads a totally pandering discussion about the negative impact of gang life on children that's just shockingly stupid.  Not stupid in the sense that the points being made aren't valid, but the scene is so obvious and so heavy-handed that it turns the whole proceeding into a complete farce.

The action sequences are, for the most part, pretty okay.  One of the real problems, however, is that while Tom Berenger does totally fine intimidating young teens in a classroom, he can't really do the same thing to his enemies out in the field.  In his first fight sequence against a large gang member on the beach while trying to protect Jane, he can barely handle himself.  In fact, he looks downright terrified of a single gang member, haphazardly throwing awkward punches and kicks that belie his character's background as a highly-skilled warrior.  One scene has him in bed, tossing ninja throwing stars at a target on the wall and hitting them perfectly.  But then one scene he's totally outmatched and acting like a complete fool.

The film goes to great lengths to try and make Berenger into a total badass, and sometimes it succeeds, but something always comes along to put the entire movie so totally over the top that it can't recover.  Couple that with some bizarre continuity errors, truly horrendous dialogue, and you've got yourself a howler of an action movie.  By the time the final battle erupts - a full-on, running gun battle between teams of mercenaries in the halls of the school - "The Substitute" is long past any place where I could have taken it seriously.

And I never thought that Ernie Hudson, of "Ghostbusters" fame, would be the end boss battle in a movie, but there it is.  Y'know that moment in movie fights where someone inevitably gets dirt thrown in their face?  That happens here.  Except it's not dirt - it's cocaine.  I couldn't stop laughing at the absurdity going on here.  Men with bazookas blowing up school lockers?  A riot.

"The Substitute" can't be taken seriously.  With that in mind, it's a lot of fun.