The Substitute (1996)

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Tom Berenger goes back to school in this exciting action thriller that would become the start of a successful four-film franchise.

Shale is a former military officer turned mercenary who after a failed mission decides to return home to Miami, Florida. Retired from service, he has found love with high school teacher Jane Hetzko and things seem to be looking up for him. That is, until Jane draws the ire of some of her students, who are members of a gang known as the Kings of Destruction, led by student Juan Lacas. When Jane is attacked by KOD member Bull, she ends up in the hospital with a broken kneecap. She tells Shale that Juan may be responsible. Unbeknownst to Jane, Shale decides to find out by posing as a substitute teacher.

As Shale begins his undercover work, he learns that Juan is in fact of Jane’s students and along the way, he befriends Darrell Sherman, the school’s English and drama teacher. Along the way, Shale discovers that the KOD are responsible for running drugs in the school. Convinced there is a mole within the school’s authority, Shale, with help from both Sherman and his old mercenary crew, decides to find out who is responsible and take out both the mole and the Kings of Destruction to make school a safe place once again.

In the age of 90’s action films, there began a trend that heroes with a background in the military would use their skills in the most interesting of places. For instance, Steven Seagal’s Casey Ryback was a cook who was ex-military in Under Siege. Mark Dacascos’ Louis Stevens is an ex-Green Beret who uses his training in Capoeira to tame the worst high school students in Only the Strong. Now, it’s Tom Berenger’s turn as he plays ex-military officer Shale in this action-packed film as he uses those skills as a substitute teacher.

Berenger is great as Shale, a no-nonsense ex-mercenary who only is happy when it comes to his relationship with his fiancée Jane, played by Diane Verona. It is when she is seriously injured that he decides to infiltrate the school she works in and unlike say Andrew Norris in Class of 1984, he doesn’t intend to get to the students as much, it is more about who attacked his fiancée and who is running the drugs in the school. What is great is that when he finds himself victimized by the gang in question, the Kings of Destruction, he does use the environment and fights back due to his military background from the get-go.

Ernie Hudson brings a sense of authority as principal Rollie while is a surprise casting, singer Marc Anthony brings a bad side to his performance as Juan Lacas, the Spanish equivalent of Peter Stegman, but amped up to a thousand. Here’s a character where you can definitely judge the book by the cover. The mastermind leader who has his cronies mostly do the dirty work, his character doesn’t play a cat-and-mouse game with Shale because Shale always seems to get the upper hand. William Forsythe brings a sense of old school comic relief as a member of Shale’s old crew while Glenn Plummer does a great job supporting Shale as fellow teacher Sherman.

The film would be the start of a franchise with Treat Williams taking over for the sequels as Karl Thomasson, who is revealed to be a former associate of Shale’s.  The original Substitute is a action-packed wild ride driven by Tom Berenger’s performance and his hands-on approach both in and out of the classroom.

WFG RATING: B+

A Live Entertainment production in association with Dinamo Entertainment, H2 Productions, and Mediaworks. Director: Robert Mandel. Producers: Morris Eisenman and Jim Steele. Writers: Roy Frumkes, Rocco Simonelli, and Alan Ormsby. Cinematography: Bruce Surtees. Editing: Alex Mackie.

Cast: Tom Berenger, Raymond Cruz, William Forsythe, Diane Verona, Marc Anthony, Cliff De Young, Ernie Hudson, Glenn Plummer, Luis Guzman, Richard Brooks, Vincent Laresca, Jim Warne, Maria Celedonio, David Spates, David Hayes.

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