Robert Mandel’s action thriller is one part “Rambo,” one part “Blackboard Jungle,” and one part “Lethal Weapon” that really never quite comes together in to anything impressive. When the dust has settled it’s merely a mediocre shoot em up with a gimmick that director Mandel only rolls with until mid-way in to the narrative. “The Substitute” really only presses the idea of a mercenary posing as a substitute teacher until it runs out of steam. Then it becomes a monotonous movie about mercenaries battling a drug cartel.
To show how utterly unfocused the film can be, the big speech about how character Shale performed his operation for the students to go to school without crime only occurs in the final moments, as he walks in to the sunset, while the credits close. The writers have a real opportunity to show how Shale transforms from a money hungry mercenary in to someone who actually begins to care for the people around him, thus redeeming his own violent past. But the opportunity is completely side stepped, since Mandel is more concerned with a final bullet ridden showdown than emphasizing Shale’s altruistic intentions. Tom Berenger plays an ex Marine named John Shale who returns to Miami to visit his girlfriend Jane. She’s a devoted teacher for a terrible inner city high school where her peaceful appeal to a local gang leader is rewarded with a broken knee cap and an attempt on her life.
Anxious to find out who attacked her, Shale uses his resources to help him go undercover in Jane’s school as a substitute teacher. While there, he learns of a massive drug operation taking place within the belly of the building, and recruits his team to infiltrate the operation and take the money. But when Shale discovers the operation goes deeper than he realized, he has to decide between the pay off or the welfare of the students. The best scenes of the film are when Shale is either keeping his cover as a substitute, or thwarting thugs within the confines of the school. Before Mandel becomes too dependent on shoot outs, Berenger has a lot of fun material to work with. There are some interesting moments when Shale involves his class in a discussion about war and gang warfare, as well as an entertaining confrontation in the library when Shale halts an attempt on his life.
Berenger really keeps the film afloat as most of the supporting players are either cannon fodder or just glorified plot devices. Marc Anthony is barely convincing as a gang leader, while Diane Verona as Shale’s girlfriend is like nails on a chalkboard. William Forsythe is also incredibly over the top as one of Shale’s unbalanced ex-military comrades. For all intents and purposes, at least Ernie Hudson is an intimidating villain who holds his own against Berenger. “The Substitute” loses me once it becomes just another stock shoot em up, with a massive overlong showdown with guns, bazookes, and grenades. Director Mandel obliterates any attempt at substance the film once held, and all sense of the narrative’s purpose is gone in a hail of dumb gunplay. That said, “The Substitute” is a solid actioner worth the time for its occasional nuggets of interesting action, and the performance by Berenger.