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The Substitute: An Underrated 90s Action Gem?

In the 80s and 90s, an interesting cycle of inspirational teacher movies was being made. You know the type – the film where a big star plays a down-and-out teacher who gets posted in some crime-ridden school, and they manage to turn things around? Often, they were based on true stories, like Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, Lean on Me and a few others. Then, there were the more fanciful, tough-guy teacher movies, like Nick Nolte’s Teachers and James Belushi’s underrated The Principal

But of all these movies, the most badass, by far, is a little movie called The Substitute starring Tom Berenger. 

In it, he plays a mercenary who goes undercover as a substitute teacher to avenge a brutal assault on his girlfriend, a crusading teacher played by Heat’s Diane Venora. While initially only planning on staying long enough to find the teens responsible, he finds himself oddly drawn to his new profession, realizing that a lot of his students are pretty good kids and that there’s a massive drug operation going on at the school that he’s going to burn down – all in the name of giving these kids a future! While somewhat obscure nowadays, it was an unexpected box office hit in ’96 and did so well on home video that it spawned three sequels, none of which Berenger returned for.

Tom Berenger is an interesting case of a guy who came very close to becoming a movie star but never quite crossed over. He was a substantial rising star in the eighties thanks to critical roles in two of the most influential films of the decade, The Big Chill and Platoon. If you look at those two movies, you get an interesting look at his range. In The Big Chill, he played a TV heartthrob in the Tom Selleck mode, albeit one finds it challenging to live up to the slick hero he plays on TV and is suffering through a very early mid-life crisis. In Platoon, he plays the battle-scarred Sgt Barnes, who is locked in a kind of spiritual combat with Willem Dafoe’s Sgt Elias for the proverbial souls of his soldiers, with him a nightmarish villain. 

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The Substitute: An Underrated 90s Action Gem?

Sadly, Berenger’s follow-up roles, minus a significant cameo in Born of the Fourth of July, never entirely pushed him onto the A-list, with him doing solid work in films like Ridley Scott’s Someone to Watch Over Me, Costa-Gravas’ Betrayed, and the awesome Shoot to Kill. Yet, in the mid-nineties, perhaps playing on the notoriety of his role in Platoon, he began to carve out a mini-niche in action films, often playing characters similar to the one he played in Oliver Stone’s movies, albeit with a much more heroic nature. Probably the best of the bunch was Sniper, perhaps the best movie you never saw that got nine sequels. 

If Berenger had come along in a different era for action movies, he likely would have been a bigger star, with his more down-to-earth, older heroes not all that different from the kinds of movies guys like Gerard Butler and Liam Neeson make. But, in the nineties, muscle-bound heroes and martial artists were all the rage.

That’s too bad because Berenger rocks in The Substitute. What makes him work in the role is that he has the kind of look where you’d believe him as a world-weary mercenary and a teacher. He could fit in both roles. If this movie had been made with Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme, you would have never bought the character as a teacher. What’s cool about the movie is how you see his character, Shale, find his priorities shifting as the film progresses. In the beginning, he’s a worn-out mercenary who’s just been disavowed by the government with his whole team – who are a who’s who of nineties badasses: Luis Guzman, Raymond Cruz (long before Breaking Bad), Richard Brooks and William Forsythe. The gang is somewhat fractured, as they’re being enticed to enter the drug trade as mercenaries for drug dealers, but Shale’s code of honour prevents them from going in this direction. He’s frustrated with a world that’s been overrun by hoodlums, and when his girlfriend is kneecapped, it pushes him over the edge. 

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The movie kind of toys with going in a more Taxi Driver-style route, with Shale’s introduction to his students being violent, with him sneering with hatred as he writes on the blackboard. You feel like he’s going to snap. But, as the film goes on, Shale finds that he starts to enjoy being a teacher, especially when he realizes how many of the students he teaches are thugs because, as the old song says, it chose them rather than vice versa. He realizes that many of them have children of their own that they don’t want to see go down the same route, with Shale telling them that that’s how he sees them; as children, he doesn’t want to get hurt either. Berenger makes Shale’s moral stance as the film goes on a lot more realistic and three-dimensional.

Yet, The Substitute doesn’t let down action fans, either. It’s directed by Robert Mandel, who also directed the Best Movie You Never Saw favourite – F/X. Even though it’s a low-budget film financed by a company called LIVE Entertainment, which mainly deals in straight-to-video fare, he manages to pepper the film with cool, low-key action sequences. While not a trained martial artist, Berenger’s fight scenes in the movie look realistic, like the fighting a mercenary would do, without any posing. The film also has some great villains. Marc Anthony, before he became better known as a pop star, plays the student drug-dealing kingpin, head of a gang called the KOD. While initially he seems like Shale’s target, you find out that he’s working for the school’s principal, played by Ernie Hudson, who has a deal with a Florida cartel to use his school as a warehouse for coke and a guaranteed client base. 

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tom berenger in the substitute
The Substitute: An Underrated 90s Action Gem?

Hudson is downright satanic as the educator has gone awry. The movie culminates in a massive action battle royale where Shale and his mercenary pals go to war with the bad guys, who’ve hired their own mercenary army. While it goes a little overboard in that amount of cocaine housed in the school seems far-fetched, and there’s so much of it lying around that Berenger and Hudson are literally throwing handfuls of it at each other during the climax, it still kind of rules. 

When it came out in 1996, it was released as a quickie movie that, to everyone’s surprise, actually opened in second place at the box office. It topped out at about $13 million, which certainly didn’t make it a hit, but it picked up a cult following, with the soundtrack being famous and the movie’s eventual VHS release being a smash. 

It spawned a franchise which happened just a shade too early to ever get Berenger on board to reprise his role. In the three sequels, the late Treat Williams, an actor very much in the Berenger mould, took on the role. Oddly, even after Berenger’s Sniper movies became bit DTV hits, they never tried to reignite the franchise with him. It remains a popular catalogue title for Lionsgate, which has the film streaming on Netflix.

While no one will say The Substitute is a top tier action movie of the nineties, as far as B-grade actioneers of the era go, for me, it’s pretty close to the top of the list alongside some of JCVD’s best movies, or those early Seagal flicks. If you haven’t seen it, put it on your Netflix watch list. You’ll have a blast. 

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