I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

The Substitute 4: Failure Is Not An Option

tn_substitute4By part 4 the SUBSTITUTE series is almost entirely divorced from the theatrical original. It’s the only one not written by Rocco Simonelli and Roy Frumkes – this time it’s Dan Gurskis, who apparently did an uncredited rewrite on part 3. It’s Treat Williams as Karl Thomasson again, but he’s not even really an undercover substitute. He discusses it that way, but really he’s given the job of history teacher at a military academy under slightly sneaky but not really clandestine circumstances. He’s not THE SUBSTITUTE anymore, he’s THE NEW TEACHER.

For once he’s not on a mission on behalf of a teacher – this time an old general friend is worried about his nephew at this academy, and is sending in a team to check things out. He was right to be worried because the head of the academy, Colonel Brack (Patrick Kilpatrick), is an open white supremacist maniac who’s training an elite corp of neo-nazis called “The Werewolves” and sending them on terrorist bombings of minority owned power plants (?).

mp_substitute4The bad guys are of course the neo-nazis, including a prick who denies the Holocaust during class. It reflects poorly on the military that this was able to go on for a while, because they’re not very subtle about it. In fact, their symbol is a slightly altered swastika. Real subtle, fellas.

Once again Thomasson partners with one of his loyal military buddies. He also picks up Radio Raheem himself, Bill Nunn, who’s a more capable version of the crazy Vietnam vet janitor from part 2. He’s supposedly the handyman on campus but he’s actually undercover and has a stash of weapons buried in the woods. And a weird thing about digging up bodies.

A few of you said this was your favorite of the series because of the neo-nazi bad guys, and I’m guessing maybe you also enjoy it because it’s more sloppily put together than the other ones, causing a bunch of weird moments that I can’t really explain. Like the opening scene, an unrelated mercenary mission on the Bolivian border. Thomasson and a partner kill some soldiers who are shooting at them, and Thomasson gets depressed when he looks at the bodies and realizes how young they were. Nicest moment in the movie. But why does the dead body have the werewolves symbol carved in his head? I have no idea, and the director (Robert Radler again, same as part 3) doesn’t give any hints on his commentary track.

And what’s up with the scene at the Officer’s Ball? I don’t really understand military protocol, so maybe it makes sense that they’d have a dance at 3 in the afternoon. But I still think it’s weird that Thomasson tells his date (Angie Everhart) he’s going around the corner for a second, then leaves the building to hide in the back of a truck and spy on the werewolves on a 3-hour drive to blow up a power plant. He already had to ditch her right before sex, now he does it again and doesn’t even make an excuse or mention it again. And it’s also kind of weird for a movie like this that he just watches and doesn’t try to stop the bombing, but I guess that’s more realistic, because what’s he gonna do?

It’s also kind of goofy that the white supremacist colonel has a Korean as his main henchman. Radler even says on his commentary track that he and everyone involved thought it was “a stupid idea.” But they had to shoot it fast and Treat Williams had experience fighting with Simon Rhee, the stunt coordinator for both this and part 3. Colonel Brack is kind of inconsistent anyway. In the climactic face off he yells “Sew your multi-culturalism in Hell!” and his last line is “It’s just the Holocaust. Get over it. RACIAL PURITY!” But just a little bit earlier he was spouting that cliche about how in Chinese the word for “crisis” can mean both “danger” and “opportunity.” A little multi-cultural for a guy like that.

Here’s a nitpick for you: at the end they visit the grave of a character who died during the story, and somehow his tombstone is aged and dirty.

At one point I almost suspected Everhart’s character of being a Substitute in her own right. She has to leave, saying “I’m a substitute at an emergency room in Atlanta.” She’s not a soldier as far as we know, she’s a doctor. But still, what if she’s undercover too? It’s entirely possible that an emergency room doctor was beaten up by– I don’t know, let’s say by corrupt nursing assistants who are stealing from the pharmacy. She goes undercover to find out who’s responsible and kick ass, or whatever. It could happen.

Thomasson gets involved in a little bit of action. There’s a part where the werewolves blow up his car and shoot at him, so he steals a bulldozer and crushes their car until it blows up. He runs in front of explosions and has a long fight with Rhee, and did most of his own stunts. I thought the best action though was a jokey scene where the academy’s martial arts instructor chooses him as a volunteer to demonstrate some moves on but Thomasson keeps flipping him and making him look stupid.

As hard as Williams seems to work, you don’t watch a Treat Williams movie for the fight scenes. This series is more about the story than the action. I enjoyed this one but not as much as the others. At this point it has pretty much abandoned the original gimmick of “the schools are out of control – but what if a badass mercenary pretended to be a teacher?” There are only a few classroom scenes and with him fighting against other military guys it doesn’t have the same military skills vs. criminal skills tension, it’s just the usual contest to see which one is the most elite soldier, the good guy or the bad guy. Could go either way.

But it does make an effort to be thoughtful about mercenaries and the military. In conversation with Everhart he claims that he doesn’t do things for the money and that he’s not a mercenary anymore (which is weird since he seemed to be on a mercenary mission in the opening scene). Also, unlike the other Thomasson stories he actually does resolve the original problem. In fact, it’s meaningful that he just stands there during the final conflict instead of killing the bad guy. His job is to check up on the nephew, so he lets the nephew prove that he’s learned a lesson.

The subtitle in this one is doesn’t specifically apply to this story. In fact, it’s a scam. Check out the tagline at 1:16 in the trailer for the original SUBSTITUTE:

and note that there’s no “4” written on the part 4 DVD cover. Nope, this is one of those part 4s that’s designed to be rented by accident by somebody who wants part 1. It’s a substitute SUBSTITUTE. It’s like if they changed the name of SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE to SUPERMAN: YOU WILL BELIEVE A MAN CAN FLY.

I’ve noticed in the comments that people seem to have different ideas of which is the best sequel. Personally I’d rank them in order – #1 is best of the series, #2 second best, etc. They keep getting weaker each time. But I gotta say I enjoyed watching all of them, and you don’t get that too often.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Thursday, September 17th, 2009 at 2:32 am and is filed under Action, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

10 Responses to “The Substitute 4: Failure Is Not An Option”

  1. Alright! The Substitute family is all here. I have to see the first one at least now.

  2. Vern, since you’re on an undercover kick at the moment, and since your out of Substitutes, may I recommend you watch the Charlie Sheen classic, “Beyond the Law”. I was watching Sons of Anarchy on TV last night and it made me think about it. I personally think it’s superior to the Bos’s under cover biker opus. Michael Madsen as, the president of the outlaw motorcycle club, a character named dildo, part of his transformation into becoming a “true” biker involves pissing on his jacket, and it’s one of those classic “based on a true story….kinda” movies. Oh and it actually has some biker chicks who actually look like a real biker “old ladies” not just the Hollywood super model types that are usually in the type of flicks. Keep an eye out especially for the bride in the biker wedding scene, she’s a beauty. I’m begging ya Vern!

  3. I am 100% certain that the evil colonel never studied Chinese, he’s completely wrong about crisis/opportunity. So you can relax about his character coming over all multi-cultural, he’s just a bullshitter.

  4. He just saw that episode of The Simpsons. Crisitunity!

  5. Guys, this is totally off-topic (shocker, right?), but I recently gained access to one of them doowhackeys (that’s a technical term) that burns VHS onto DVD. Any recommendations for analog-only flicks? Particularly obscure late-80s/early-90s straight-to-video action movies. Those are my current obsession, along with the collected works of Werner Herzog. (I’m a complicated motherfucker.)

    This is neither of these, but I already bought Malone on tape from Amazon for two bucks on Vern’s say-so. Well, that and the totally incredible cover art. The movie could totally suck and I wouldn’t give a shit. Shotguns and mustaches go together like Swayze and mullets.

  6. I saw all of these a long time ago, but the only one I really remember well is the first because I watched it so many times. Vern, you’ve inspired me to take a trip down Memory Lane with a stop off at the Substitute Ale House.

  7. The Substitute series is one I liked. Actually I liked 1,2 and 4. Didn’t like 3. In anycase my favorite one is Failure Is Not An Option, I mean how can you not love a movie that blows up outhouses. Plus Kilpatrick was a great villain, and overall a good movie. I can see though why someone might like 1 or 2 better. For me it goes 4,2, 1 and 3. Treat Williams a good stand in.

    In fact him and Sasha Mitchell are the only decent replacements for original stars i’ve ever seen. In Kickboxer and Substitute. It’s ironic actually cause bout of these franchises were the biggest selling STV movies of their day. Kickboxer 1-4 in the early 80s to mid 90s, Substitute mid 90s to early 00s. Also Ironically I like all of them except part 3 in both series. Odd. But the difference is I still like Van Damme’s original best, and liked Van Damme more than Sasha Mitchell, though I liked him. With The Substitute I actually liked Treat Williams more than Tom Berenger. Go figure.

    Still…good times.

    Speaking of which, when is Vern gonna finish the Kickboxer series like he promised? And here I was going to put a dedication in my action movie review book for you Vern, tsk tsk. I’m afraid until you correct this… :)

  8. “sending them on terrorist bombings of minority owned power plants (?)”
    Do they make a “White Power” pun about this?
    “I’ve noticed in the comments that people seem to have different ideas of which is the best sequel. Personally I’d rank them in order – #1 is best of the series, #2 second best, etc. They keep getting weaker each time. But I gotta say I enjoyed watching all of them, and you don’t get that too often.”
    Then maybe rather than numbering the films 1-4, they should Grade them? The Substitute A, B, C and D, though D would be create an oxymoron with the “failure is not an option” tagline.

  9. In the latin american dub it’s OPORTUNCRISIS!

  10. I’m checking this series out, although Substitute 4 sounds a tad too sloppy for me. I’m all for shooting from the hip, punk-rock filmmaking, but I hate it when films drop the ball; forgetting continuity, not following through on plot elements, etc. Yeah, sometimes it creates coincidences that lend the film a surreal depth, but usually it just shows that the filmmakers don’t give a shit.

    I know this doesn’t score me any points with Vern, but I love MST3K. The reason I bring this up now? Their episode, “Attack of The The Eye Creatures” is all about this kind of movie. First off, the filmmakers didn’t notice they already had the word “the” in the title once, so they threw it in again; then they forgot when it was night, and when it was day, so that scenes would flip back and forth like a schizophrenic eclipse (which I know sounds cool—but isn’t); they couldn’t afford all the monsters to have full costumes, so sometimes one would just wear the head, leaving the rest with full costumes.

    The best part is at the end the cast gets the actual “director” to come onto the ship. He appears, wearing an “I’m With Stupid” T-shirt. The mads are all “Tell them about how this is your vision.”

    The director just stands, reeling, looking blank.

    “Tell them about how this is your passion.”

    Again, not even a blink.

    Finally, “You just didn’t care, did you?”

    The director gets a glazed over look in his eyes, and points at them, like, “You gotcha.”

    But, on the plus side, Substitute 4 has to be better then Attack of The The Eye Creatures.

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