Los Angeles Times

The Substitute

Friday April 19, 1996

     "The Substitute," a tense and topical action-thriller, stars Tom Berenger in the title role as a mercenary who takes on his girlfriend's teaching job at a rough Miami high school when she's brutally mugged while jogging.
     This Orion release has the usual quota of violence for urban exploitation pictures, but its people have been drawn with exceptional dimension. Amid the mayhem, wit and emotion develops; "The Substitute," handsomely photographed by Bruce Surtees, actually has more on its mind than just bone-crunching.
     Crisp, in-control director Robert Mandel and his team of writers have tailor-made a terrific role for Berenger, excellent as Shale, a former military man and a Vietnam vet of high principle whose ruggedness is matched by a capacity for mature reflection.
     He and his lover Jane (Diane Venora), an earthy, resilient classroom survivor, suspect strongly that the savage beating she received is connected to her attempt to have a known gang leader (a lean, icy Marc Anthony) sent to another school. Without telling Jane, Shale maneuvers himself into her job while she's recuperating.
     At a vast, once magnificent but now derelict Spanish-style high school, Shale finds himself surrounded by chaos enclosed by chain-link fences and metal detectors. He immediately draws upon his combat skills to impose even a semblance of order in the classroom, and in doing so he commences to experience the thrill of actually being listened to as he lectures on the Vietnam War in ways the kids can understand.
     While some students are beginning to respond to him he becomes increasingly suspicious of the school's slick, politically ambitious principal (Ernie Hudson), who's cultivated an image as a community leader yet seems to have only the most superficial interest in bringing his school under control.
     What's really going on at Columbus High pushes the limits of credibility without quite overstepping them; we do after all live in times when it's hard not to believe that people will do just about anything, no matter how risky or evil, for money and power. Such reflections throw into relief Hudson's scary portrayal of a smart man long eroded by an absolute and total cynicism. In any event, in Hudson's coolly repellent playing, the principal becomes an adversary capable of challenging Shale to the utmost.
     Berenger, Venora and Hudson are able to show us various facets of the characters they play well, and so are the film's many fine supporting actors, among them Glenn Plummer as a dedicated but cruelly deceived teacher and Cliff De Young, who holds the patent on nerdy weaselly types, as a key crook.
     Maria Celedonio and Sharon Corley shine as students who would like to make something of themselves. There's a sense of shrewd observation throughout "The Substitute" that makes it come alive and seem quite a few cuts above such usual genre fare.

The Substitute, 1996. R, for strong violence, language and brief nudity. An Orion Pictures release of a Live Entertainment presentation of a Dinamo/H2 production. Director Robert Mandel. Producers Morrie Eisenman, Jim Steele. Executive producers Steven Bakalar & Devorah Cutler. Screenplay by Roy Frumkes & Rocco Simonelli and Alan Ormsby. Cinematographer Bruce Surtees. Editor Alex Mackie. Costumes Patricia Field. Music Gary Chang. Production designer Ron Foreman. Art director Richard Fojo. Set decorator Barbara Peterson. Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes. Tom Berenger as Shale. Diane Venora as Jane Hetzko. Ernie Hudson as Rolle. Marc Anthony as Juan Lacas.

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