The most recent entry in the Guilty Pleasure series had Lisa Marie waxing poetically about the idealistic teacher in the “jungle” film The Principal. I counter and follow this up with a similar-themed film called The Substitute that came and went very quickly in the theaters (I’m not even sure if it did or just went straight to video) in 1996.
The Substitute stars veteran actor Tom Berenger (you may remember him in such films as Platoon, Major League and Sniper) as a Vietnam vet mercenary who ends up substituting as the substitute teacher for his girlfriend’s high school class as she recovers from an attack that has left her unable to teach. The girlfriend was played by one Diane Venora who in the very same year was in another little film called Heat by Michael Mann. These two polar opposite films in terms of their “quality” just shows you that when it comes to acting, unless one was a recognizable name then any role is a good role it seems.
Getting back to the film, Berenger’s character is the titular substitute in one of Miami’s worst inner-city high schools where, as the film’s tagline proudly proclaims, the most dangerous things about it was the students. That is until Berenger’s character shows up to find out who attacked his girlfriend and bring down the wrath of God himself (or at least Berenger’s character and members of his old mercenary team).
The film isn’t what one would call very subtle. We clearly see either two types of teachers in this school. There’s Berenger and his girlfriend who care for the young teens (the former woth tough love and the latter going about it in a more liberal sense) and then there are those who have given up on the school and just cashing in on a paycheck. This goes to the extreme with the school’s principal (played by Ernie Hudson) who begins to suspect that the new substitute might be more than he appears.
It’s the passive-aggressive interaction between the two roles played by Berenger and Hudson that made for some of the more hilarious sequences in the film.
Oh, another thing the film also involves a dangerous high school gang that uses the school as if it’s their own little fiefdom and the local drug kingpin using it as a way station to move heroin into the Miami inner-city school system. Oh, did I happen to mention that Marc Anthony plays the leader of the high school gang, because he sure does.
The Substitute almost plays out like how a teacher fed up with the inattentiveness of his students and the stress of doing a thankless job imagines the perfect scenario to “clean-up” the high school. It’s not through coddling and talking things out with the students. It’s about using military tactics to take out the dangers of gangs and drug dealers and tough love on those who are still worth saving.
Some have called the film as blatantly racist while others have pointed out how it is just an extreme version of the longstanding storyline of the educated and civilized white man saving the “natives” from themselves. What this film has over other school films of similar themes is how it doesn’t try to sugarcoat and hide behind ideals when it comes to it’s story. Plus, it’s such a guilty pleasure to see a typical 80’s action flick dressed up to be a late 90’s film. They really don’t make films like this anymore.