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The Substitute

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: The Substitute

Starring: Tom Berenger, Ernie Hudson
Director: Robert Mandel
Rated: R
RunTime: 103 Minutes
Release Date: April 1996
Genres: Action, Drama, Suspense

*Also starring: Diane Venora, Glenn Plummer, Marc Anthony, Luis Guzman, William Forsythe, Raymond Cruz, Sharron Corley, Richard Brooks, Rodney A. Grant

Review by Dragan Antulov
2½ stars out of 4

In mid 1990s Hollywood became favourite target of all those in need of convenient scapegoat for the perceived increase in school violence. Hollywood films were accused for poisoning young minds with images of violence and providing bad role model. Later in the decade Hollywood listened to the critics and began to clean its act, but until that time there were movies that tried to give an alternative and really simple answer to the problem of school violence. One of those films is THE SUBSTITUTE, 1996 action thriller directed by Robert Mandel.

Protagonist of the film is Shale (played by Tom Berenger), Vietnam veteran and top mercenary who used to conduct all sorts of clandestine operations for CIA. After the botched job in Cuba he, together with small band of comrades, is forced into retirement. He goes to Miami where he would like to settle down with his girlfriend, high school history teacher Janet Hetzko (played by Diane Venora). After Janet has her knee broken by assailants, Shale is determined to find the reasons behind it and suspects that they are connected with her job in drug-infested high school. It turns out that Janet tried to have one of her pupils, Juan Lacas (played by Marc Antony) kicked out of school, and that was something Lacas, who led drug-dealing gang "Kings of Destruction" didn't particularly like. In order to get to the bottom of this, Shale falsifies records and enter school posing as Janet's substitute. There he finds Lacas and his gang as nothing more than tiny part in well-oiled drug-dealing machine connected with organised crime and corrupt local government. Realising that his military skills aren't enough to defeat the drug dealers, he calls his comrades to help him, which would result in spectacular and violent confrontation.

Idea of a covert operative infiltrating high school posing as a substitute teacher seemed so far-fetched that few critics took it seriously. This was good thing, because otherwise THE SUBSTITUTE would have been savagely attacked for promoting violence and vigilante justice. Thankfully, people behind this film took their job seriously. The script is, if we disregard the basic idea, well-written and the characters in the film are believable. The diverse cast (that includes Latino pop star Marc Antony), made of reliable character actors, does its job very well. Berenger is also quite effective in the role that gave him rare opportunity to play an action hero. Director Mandel in the end mishandles the final showdown by not lighting it. Yet, that darkness in the end would do little to the generally nice impression of THE SUBSTITUTE, one of those hidden 1990s gems that could be a guilty pleasure for much bigger audience than those nostalgic for the times when Charles Bronson used to solve social problems.

Copyright 2003 Dragan Antulov

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