What a gloriously stupid movie. From director Robert Mandel, The Substitute tells the story of Jonathan Shale (Tom Berenger), a black ops soldier who leads a team sent abroad to fight the scourge of illegal drugs. But, we viewers never get to see one of these missions. As the film starts, we meet Berenger and his team at the back end of an incursion into Cuba that has left three team members dead. The government disavows any knowledge of the operation or its participants, and throws Shale and company out on their asses.
That’s not much of a problem, though. After all, these men, a cheapened pastiche of what viewers would find in something like Predator, have marketable skills as mercenaries. But Shale has one rule. They’ve spent their careers fighting against drug dealers. Therefore, they will not start working for one. Shale wants the team to continue to use their skills on the righteous side of the drug war. Fortunately for us, Shale’s girlfriend, Jane (Diane Venora) is a teacher at the worst high school in Miami. She pisses off the leader of the resident gang, Lacas (Marc Anthony), and suffers a beating for her trouble. She can’t teach while she recovers. But, rather than the school just finding a substitute, Shale wrangles himself into the position, unbeknownst to his lady.
At this point, the film could have veered into being one of those patronizing flicks where the white savior shows up at the poor and underprivileged school and expands student horizons. This type of film has been done way too many times, and makes me cringe every time I see it. But, while The Substitute flirts with this idea, at heart it’s a stupid action flick.
And I do mean stupid. Berenger was 47 years old when this movie was released, and he was very much showing his age. His special forces operative has been trained in myriad ways to kill, but his looping kicks and windmill punches could probably be dodged by any reasonably aware five year old out here in the real world. And that went for just about every fight in the movie. The choreography was so unbelievable that it could have been purposefully absurd. But, alas, I don’t think that’s the case. Everything about this film, from beginning to end, is inept. Hilariously so.
My favorite instances were scenes where Shale has his team following the bad guys as they drive around and do drug dealer things. It’s a common trope, used in film ever since there’s been cars. There’s the target, blissfully unaware that he’s being tailed as he goes about his business. Next comes a shot of the follower, intent and steely-gazed as he minds his task. Then in the next shot we see that Shale’s guy is following the dealer at less than half a car length. He’ll never be able to spot that tail! Seriously, it was a gag straight out of the Naked Gun films, only this isn’t supposed to be a comedy.
Even the shootouts are a joke, with feats of marksmanship that are a wonder to behold, considering how much the barrels of the good guys’ weapons were flailing about.
Another favorite scene, and a bit of a missed opportunity, comes at the film’s climax. Shale finally confronts the school’s evil Principal Rolle (Ernie Hudson), in a room absolutely coated with cocaine. That’s not an exaggeration. The secret stash was blown up and flung about like a burst bag of flour. There the two are, punching the shit out of each other, and all I thought was, if that was really cocaine, this fight could go on for a while. There was an opportunity for some real drug-fueled raging that Mandel and company missed out on. But, oh well.
The pièce de résistance, however, was Shale’s history class. He didn’t just show up at the school to kick ass, after all. There was a class to teach. It draws heavily from such films as Dangerous Minds, The Principal, and Lean on Me. The students are loud and raucous, extreme caricatures of the real students that inhabit inner city schools. They’re foul-mouthed and care little for any restrictions on schoolhouse behavior. But, all they need is someone tough to show up and make them learn. Oh, if only things were that simple in real life.
I started watching this film as a lark, something to keep on in the background while I did other things. But it didn’t take long before it sucked me in. It’s a masterful work of silly cinema, pure in its intention to be anything but. And that is what makes it a fantastic shitty movie. The Substitute is more fun than Alien: Resurrection, which is still way in the black with a Shitty Movie Sundays record of 63-36-1.
Wait a minute...is this the 100th movie I’ve tagged with the Shitty Movie Sundays moniker? Huh, how about that. I suppose I should mark the occasion somehow. How about this? I’ll leave my Loyal Seven readers with five shitty movies I’ve reviewed that I think everyone should see, if only for the schadenfreude. Let’s call them the Shitty Five. In no particular order, they are: Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone; Maximum Overdrive; Reign of Fire; Road House; and Anaconda. Go forth and enjoy!