The Substitute

tn_substituteSince Labor Day was last Monday I figure the kids are either back in school or about to go back to school, so I might as well do VERN’S BACK TO SCHOOL SPECIAL. And if I’m gonna do that there is one movie that I would have to be a fuckin moron not to start with. And I’m not talking about BACK TO SCHOOL.

THE SUBSTITUTE is not necessarily a great action movie. It doesn’t have any particularly memorable action scenes or anything. But I really like this movie for the simple fact that the idea behind it – combining a mercenaries/drug gangs action movie with a DANGEROUS MINDS style white-teacher-makes-a-difference-in-the-big-city movie – is flat out brilliant, a once-in-a-cinematic-history opportunity. Seriously, I sit around trying to think of genre combinations this absurd and yet this natural. There aren’t many left.

mp_substituteTom Berenger plays Shale, a just-disavowed covert ops badass looking for work when his old girlfriend (Diane Venora), a teacher of the toughest class at a gang-infested Miami high school, gets knee-capped. He figures her students are responsible so he has his computer expert friends whip him up various fake degrees and a background in education, then he becomes the substitute teacher for her class, undercover.

Some filmatists might’ve made this movie but pussied out and not gone all the way with the concept. Not these filmatists. They stay true. It turns out the biggest troublemaker in the class (Mark Anthony – the guy that’s married to Jennifer Lopez!) is also the #1 lieutenant in a drug gang. And the big boss man is the school’s principal (Ernie Hudson), which explains why he was timid about kicking guys like that out of school. They store coke by the kilo in the floor of the school’s boiler room. And there’s a big transaction going down after the parent-teacher conferences.

As a side note, my spell check apparently doesn’t know there’s a past tense of the word “pussy.”

From there the movie could move to some exotic locale, like Miami Beach, or some swamp or something. But still it stays loyal to being a school-based action movie. Shale and his merc buddies (Luis Guzman, William Forsythe, Raymond Cruz, Richard Brooks) take on the gangs and a team of rival mercenaries inside the school at night. In fact, Shale has his showdown with the lead merc inside his own class room, which we know by the 100 misspelled punishment sentences on the chalkboard. Shale explains that it’s a remedial class before he shoots the guy – my one regret is that he doesn’t tell him he failed.

During the climax I was thinking it was funny that nobody heard gunshots and called the cops, but then our heroes actually address that as they walk off into the sunset. They also feel bad that they had to blow up parts of the school. But since earlier they stole drug money and used it to buy sports equipment and school supplies I figure it sort of evens out.

This would’ve made a funny Seagal movie (it’s got the black ops background, the old computer expert friend, the learning, and I’m sure he would’ve thrown in some Spanish or ebonics) but it’s perfect for Tom Berenger. He has just the right cold stare and unemotional responses. I believe he would be the thing that finally scares some of these gangster kids. When he’s writing on the chalkboard and somebody throws a can at the back of his head his reflexes are so fast he catchs it and throws it back in the kid’s face. Ninja shit. In fact, later on he stocks up on ninja stars. So don’t go saying the American education system isn’t up to snuff. We got ninjas. And they bond with students by comparing ‘Nam scars to gang scars.

It’s just enjoyable to watch him dominate these people, like when a bunch of guys ambush him in the library but he is prepared and makes them put their guns in a library cart and rolls them away. And tells them not to talk in the library. I like Tom Berenger.

I like that all those guys are on his team too, even if they don’t get to do a huge amount. Forsythe does get to be the psycho on the team, the guy who enjoys it too much, who goes overboard and shoots people unnecessarily. At one point he has a guy tied up and kicks cocaine in his face like that cartoon bully kicking sand in the wimp’s face on the beach.

Raymond Cruz might not be a name that means anything to you, but if you watch alot of ’90s action movies you’ll recognize him and he’ll make you feel at home. He was in OUT FOR JUSTICE, UNDER SIEGE, CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER, BROKEN ARROW, THE ROCK, ALIEN RESURRECTION and FROM DUSK TILL DAWN 2, plus others. In this one he looks like kind of an idiot because he’s got a ponytail on the top of his head, like a topknot. But that’s just what mercenaries do I guess.

They use a couple of the well-traveled but lesser known action tropes that I enjoy:

* the American flag gets shot down in one of the classrooms. In Seagal movies you often see symbols of knowledge or spirituality (books, statues) get accidentally hit in a shootout. A flag getting shot is a similar idea.

* class tensions – Shale goes after a rich asshole on a jai alai court. He chases him into the locker room and keeps beating on him. The two guys whose job it is to weave the xistera (jai alai scoop thingy – special thanks to Wikipedia) watch but don’t give a shit and just sit there weaving.

The director is Robert Mandel, who did F/X and SCHOOL TIES. But I was surprised to learn that the writers are names I know from being a horror fan. The credits list the team of Roy Frumkes & Rocco Simonelli, plus Alan Ormsby. (Not sure which ones wrote the first draft and which ones rewrote it.) Frumkes is the guy who wrote STREET TRASH, but I recognized him as director of DOCUMENT OF THE DEAD, that awesome documentary where they followed the making of DAWN OF THE DEAD and DAY OF THE DEAD. Ormsby was a regular collaborator with the late Bob Clark. He wrote and starred in the cult favorite CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS. To be honest I am not a member of the cult that it is a favorite of, I couldn’t get through it, partly because of Ormsby playing this obnoxious fucker:

ormsbyBut I forgive him because he wrote the uncomfortably funny Ed Gein movie DERANGED and the war-themed zombie movie DEATHDREAM. Also I just learned that he invented a creepy doll:

hugoFrom the creator of Hugo comes THE SUBSTITUTE. That’s two good ways to get into Heaven.

This entry was posted on Friday, September 11th, 2009 at 12:03 pm and is filed under Action, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

64 Responses to “The Substitute”

  1. Nice to be reminded of this gem. Can we look forward to reviews of the Treat Williams sequels? I haven’t seen those ones, but from their titles (Schools Out! and Failure is not an Option) I think they might have more of the education themed pun business you crave.

    On a personal note re. Mercs: Can I get a vote from you guys on this top-knot issue Vern has identified? It’s pretty important. Can it be badass for non-Japanese in the 21st century? Mercs don’t have to abide by the grooming rules of the military that trained them – and they often have to be able to go incognito on missions – so a jar-head “High and Tight” cut would make them stand out like a sore thumb. But the top-knot seems to me to be an acceptably combat themed hair-do.

    Strange request, but it is work (and, coincidentally, Diane Venora) related.

  2. I have this one on DVD (a double feature with the third one, starring Treat Williams, the off-brand Bruce Campbell. Why does the second one get no love? It’s the Phantasm 2 of the Substitutiverse) but I haven’t gotten around to watching it yet. How does it stack up to Jim Belushi’s The Principal in the Lean On Me With A Vengeance sweepstakes?

    Now that we’re on the subject… I’d be ashamed to admit this anywhere else, but I like Jim Belushi. I haven’t seen his show that may or may not still be on the air, but he was great in Red Heat and K9. That part when he tells the doctors who don’t want to operate on an animal that his wounded dog is the best cop he’s ever partnered with gets me choked up every time. (Please bear in mind that “every time” means “the last time I saw it when I was 13.”)

  3. Jim Belushi is pretty cool. He was funny and a hard-ass in RED HEAT. The guy gets no love.

  4. Vern please review the DTV sequels with Treat Williams. Especially the one where he fights a group of neo-nazis.

  5. K9 is great and also has at least one DTV sequel (actually, might have been theatrical). I like the bit where he handcuffs his snitch to his car and slowly drives to the freeway. Quality police work.

    And I’ll always watch Red Heat when it’s on. “I’m parked in the red zone – No offence…”

  6. For my money the best Belushi performance was in “Salvador.” The entire movie plays like “Fear and Loathing in Central America.” You should review that one Vern; very much in your zone, both for the surreal bits of comedy, tense dramatic bits, and for challenging American foreign policy in an “Oliver Stone before he was OLIVER STONE” kinda way.

  7. Vern’s Back to School Special? That’s it, kids, I’m opting you out!

  8. A bit off topic (again. Sorry. But seriously guys, thumbs up or down for a top-knot on a bad ass mercenary) but now we’re talking DTV sequels again – I can’t find Vern’s review of Dusk Til Dawn 2 here. I’m sure I’ve read one. 3 is on here, though. Help?

    Back on topic. Back to school could work. You’ve got Toy Soldiers, those Class of… movies and, of course, Kindergarten Cop.

  9. I’m gonna vote neigh on the top knot unless you’re the villain from Kickboxer or the goblin on the wing of the plane in the Twilight Zone movie.

  10. I want a Hugo.

    And K-9 has meanwhile two sequels, both DTV.

  11. Are the sequels any good? I just don’t know how they’d recapture the magic of the predequel.

  12. DIdn’t Cruz also have a top knot in THE ROCK?

  13. Don’t recall him rocking it in The Rock. And he didn’t sport one on Breaking Bad. Although his is more of a bun than a samurai chonmage – so it looks a bit strange and girly (or old ladyish).

    Mr M – I think you are right and that a buzz cut may be the answer.

  14. Oh he had the top knot in The Rock.

    Here is a fun side note. The Substitute was Number One at the box office that weekened it came out with 14 million dollars. If you were to adjust that for inflation would be 19 Million Dollars. I guess it really isn’t that impressive of a stat.

  15. If yer gonna go for the topknot do it right and shave the rest of your head. Otherwise, its about as cool as a bathtub mohawk.

  16. How come Berenger kept doing DTV Sniper sequels but they could never get him back for these? Anyone?
    The only scene I remember from this movie is the bit with the eraser. I do remember a lot more about the Treat WIlliams sequels but that’s because Cinemax used to show them in between Night Eyes sequels.

  17. Mr S – Sold. It’s an issue of commitment, I guess. Any long haired Keanu wannabe can just tie up his locks – the Bushido inspired bad ass must go the whole hog.
    Thanks for the help with the decision boys, I’ll alert you to the results of your influence when the time comes…

    Marlow… Mmmm Night Eyes, mmmm Shannon Tweed….

  18. telf — hey hombre, keep asking the hard questions, as long as you’re ready for the answers. :)

  19. hahaha, Tom Berenger is awesome

  20. I remember when this film was on the rental video shelves. Where I was at the time, it seemed like Dangerous Minds, this film, and one with Samuel L. Jackson and a bike wheel called 187 (the film, not the wheel) all came at once. I guess maybe Dangerous Minds came earlier, but that it kept on living due to that song. These days I keep getting scenes mixed up in my head, and I can’t really tell which was from which film any more. At the time The Substitute was pretty much dismissed as non-serious, while the other films were slightly praised (by uninformed media in a faraway country, where nothing resembled the world portrayed in the films, I should add). Somehow it stands to reason that this film would be the one to stand the test of time. It was the only one that didn’t make you feel miserable. It makes me feel like re-watching all three of them. Why are they never on cable?

    Speaking of cable and James Belushi, in addition to the already mentioned films, he’s also been pretty decent in some almost-exclusively-on-cable-films that have been forgotten as failures, but which aren’t. Made Men entertained me with interesting characters to the very end. And Retroactive is just plain good to me, in spite of trying the almost impossible mix of time travel and DTV-type action. It may not offer the intellectual challenge of Primer, mentioned in a post a while back, but it more than makes up for it with guns, attitude and good characters. There are whole, long sections in there where you genuinely feel like it’s Groundhog Day with a gangster psycho. Sort of makes you sad they never went even further with that in some other film.

  21. odo19 – Yeah, that sequel was fun. Love how Treat’s character isn’t just pissed he’s dealing with more criminal kids and their school bosses, but also their Nazi bullshit genuinely offends his Patriotism. Way to go skinheads…

    Oh and that awkward scene where he walks in on his romantic interest fucking the bad guy.

  22. Jim Belushi – Retro Active is freakin’ awesome stuff, action-packed up the wazoo yet still a solid SF time-travel piece. Red Heat – essential. The one I rewatched again recently though, and the classiest thing he ever did along with Salvador, was the tech guy to James Caan’s Thief. For Thief and Salvador alone the guys deserves his place in the acting Hall of Fame.

  23. Hi, Vern –
    I always enjoy your reviews and columns on AICN, but wasn’t aware of your website until now. Just to clarify: THE SUBSTITUTE was an original script by Roy and Rocco. I was brought in by the director to do a rewrite. I didn’t expect to be credited, but the changes were extensive enough to justify my inclusion. I had nothing to do with any of the sequels (and have not seen them).
    Thanks for your kind comments about DEATHDREAM and DERANGED and HUGO! As for my performance in CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS, I blame it all on the costume.

    Alan Ormsby

  24. Mr. Ormsby, don’t let anyone denigrate your performance in Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things. You were charged with the task of playing an annoying, narcissistic drama nerd, and by God, you delivered.

  25. And Vern’s joint goes up in the cool department by another notch.

  26. Seriously. If Vern doesn’t win all kinds of awards at year’s end, then the fix truly is in. How many other sights have the writer of Porky’s II just stopping by to say hi?

  27. Mr. M – We might be the only “sight” where people actually come by to say hi, and not just to pimp new stuff.

    Anyway, coming soon….Albert Pyun’s TALES OF AN ANCIENT EMPIRE.

  28. Thanks for the clarification Alan, I was really curious who started it and who rewrote it. It’s usually hard to find that type of information so I’m glad you shared that with us.

    I really am a big fan of DEATHDREAM and DERANGED, so I was truly impressed when I realized that you also had a hand in this one. Great job and thanks for stopping by.

  29. While we’re sort of talking about james belushi, how about his role in Angel’s Dance? Professional Hitman/comedian. Belushi has a certain charm where you can actually believe that someone this average looking can actually turn around and be a cold blooded killer just with a few cues.

  30. That Hugo toy freaked the hell out of me as a kid. In truth, I’m still kind of freaked out. Chucky is a rank amateur next to Hugo.

  31. I live in a home with 8 Hugo’s. They stare their dead glassy stares and frighten away burgulars.

  32. And the kid on the toy’s boy, pictured in Vern’s review, looks like he’s be cast under the creepy hypnotic spell of Hugo.

    God knows what evil Hugo will unleash once he’s recruited his glassy-eyed army of the damned.

    Be afraid, Margaret, be very afraid.

  33. The boy does look like he’s being held hostage. The weirdest thing about the Hugos is that they are all decidedly different–identical octuplets and yet each one looks slightly different from the others. Like they are alive…

  34. Well, he is the “doll of a thousand faces.” I figure at least a few of those faces have to be evil. Like the kind of evil Demon Dave would find on the other side of that Doorway to Pure Evil.

    One person on the Hugo apprication page describes him as “some sort of murderous freak from hell” and “unbeatable, indestructible and pure undiluted evil.”


  35. Oh he’s not THAT bad. There’s a little dilution. And he’s terrribly photogenic.

  36. Jareth, do not tempt fate by invoking the name of Demon Dave. What if you accidentally summon him without Juggfuckler around to protect us? I, personally, am not prepared to juggfuckle a meathead of that magnitude by myself.

  37. Jeez, where’s a good liverpool exorcist when you need one?

  38. I’m sure Ramsey Campbell has a few numbers in his rolodex.

  39. Mr. Majestyk: words of wisdom, my friend, words of wisdom. Only those who have undergone monastic training by a juggfuckle master should ever attempt to juggfuckle outside their weight class.

    In case there were newcomers here who don’t know what the fuck we’re talking about, do yourself a favor and read the now-classic exhanges between Vern and Demon Dave DeFalco at the following link:


  40. So you are scared of the comments of a goofy dweebe demon dude? Man up a little, boys!

  41. Oh shit, are you and me gonna have to wrestle, Twynk? You don’t want to fuck with me, dude. I’m from the East Coast!

  42. I roll my eyes in your general direction.

  43. Twynklebat – Don’t you understand? Demon Dave stands at the doorway to PURE EVIL. THE DOORWAY IS OPEN.

  44. Oh I understand a few things, Jareth….

    But I suppose the doorway to pure evil might be intimidating to some…

  45. I once lived in an apartment that had a Cupboard to Pure Evil in it. Fucking Satan kept stealing my ramen.

  46. Ramen WOULD be the food choice of Satan

  47. Satan is a fiend for ramen. Or mojitos. Or something.

    SHame about the Cupcoard to Pure Evil, Mr. M. Hope the super cut you some slack with the damage deposit.

  48. No, but they cut me a break on the rent. I live in Brooklyn, so I’d live with motherfucking Gozer if it meant getting a one-bedroom for less than $1500.

  49. All that “Are you a god? Then DIE!” stuff is a lot to put up with in a room-mate. But hey, it’s Brooklyn: there’s plenty worse.

  50. 187, which was briefly mentioned, is a good teacher going nuts in high school movie. Its directed by Kevin Reynolds, who made Waterworld but for a terrific film also made The Beast, about Russians trapped and hunted in Afghanastan.

    Basically Sam Jackson plays a teacher who gets attacked in a New York school, recovers and goes to work in an LA school, gets abuse from the kids and starts taking out the trouble-makers. Its less of an obvious genre film that The Substitute sounds like but does have some strong moments, in character and visual sequences.

  51. ok just a little update I’m 3/5’s through the substitute and… is that a simulated sex scene involving a coathanger and a plaster cast?

    If only hitchcock had the balls to try this in rear window. history making.

  52. “Yeah, I’ve been shot.”

    “Yeah, I’ve lost a few homeboys.”

  53. Good deal. I like Jennifer’s music a lot. It really irritates me when people say things like since she’s Forty she shouldn’t make music anymore. Thats silly. Carry it J.Lo!

  54. you mention street trash in this review, have you seen it? its really technically very excellent. its almost like a troma movie made by people who actually know how to make movies. i got to meet frumkes at a horror fest last weekend and he was really cool, i wish i had known he made the substitute before i met him because i would have liked to chat with him about it. anyway you should review street trash. according to frumkes jodorowsky is a big fan of it…

  55. I second that, Ron. Street Trash is brilliant shit, and the world would be a richer place with Vern’s insights on it (seriously, positive or negative, this is the review I most want to read by the man).

    I read somewhere that Roy Frumkes originally did this with the intention of making it the follow-up to Street Trash, with the cop from that movie in the lead role. can you imagine that shit? Coulda been amazing, but fortunately we still got a pretty decent movie out of it.

    Also, if you are into “Document of the Dead,” rent that Street Trash dvd! It has a feature length documentary on it that he made as well, almost better than the fuckin movie!

  56. Ok I don’t normally make recommendations but I saw my dad this weekend (after like 5 months of quarantine) and he busted out a dvd I’d never heard of- 1988’s SHOOT TO KILL. I couldn’t believe it- this mother stars Sidney Poitier, Tom Berenger (hence turning to this review to talk about it) Clancy fuckin’ Brown, Andrew Robinson, Richard Masur, Kirstie Alley, and was directed by Roger Spottiswoode.

    Basically this psycho steals a bunch of diamonds and kills some folks in the process but outsmarts the law and escapes to a town just outside Spokane (local connection!), but our man Sidney is on the case. It turns out this unknown killer has blended in to a local guided fishing trip into the woods and they figure he’s gonna kidnap the guide and make her take him through the woods to Canada, so Sidney teams up with local mountain man Tom Berenger to go after ‘em.

    I really wound up enjoying it, and it’s one of those ones where they don’t make them like that anymore- just BAM, starts with a psycho taking a hostage and just barrels forward from there. No fat. There’s also some pretty classic buddy cop fight brotherhood development between Berenger and Poitier as the big city FBI man and the hermity woodsman learn to respect each other. There’s also some fun stuff where you’re seeing the fishing party and trying to figure out which one of these guys is a stone cold killer and when he’s gonna let everyone know. Lots of outdoors kinda action and some really beautiful shots- one especially towards the beginning of Sidney Poitier on a foggy dock at night really caught my eye.

    Anyway, it’s definitely a forgotten gem- highly recommended to Vern and all the good folks here if you can track it down!

  57. SHOOT TO KILL is a childhood favorite of mine. That opening scene is so intense that it really stokes an aura of menace that is maintained throughout the picture. It really builds Clancy up as this all-time psycho. I remember it being kind of a big deal at the time for being sort of a comeback for Sidney Poitier but then it got forgotten. It’s a movie that doesn’t deserve to be as obscure as it became.

  58. That’s the one where Poitier scares off the bear, right? I’m sorry, I saw this when it opened and that’s all I’ve got.

  59. SHOOT TO KILL is one of the all-time great thrillers. And one where they don’t fall for the smart outdoors man versus stupid big city cop ploy. These guys have something valuable to teach each other. And to have Richard Masur, Frederick Coffin, Andrew Robinson and Kevin Scannell playing the other members of the hiking party is just genious. Those of us who saw it in ’88, and had just seen HIGHLANDER, recognized Clancy’s voice straight away, of course, but still! Poitier hadn’t done a movie in 11 years when this came out. Talk about comeback!

  60. The movie-expert Vernians here may be able to settle something for me. I have a vague memory of a 1990s action movie with a scene near the beginning where a mercenary goes to a client’s home for a job interview and the client has eaten too much fibre and keeps pooing. And the client is played by Cliff DeYoung. And I think this might have been that movie. There’s nothing on-line to confirm this.

    My spell-check doesn’t know the word “pooing.”

    Re: telf: The top-knots in WATCHMEN (1986/2009) looked pretty good as an alternative-universe substitute for mohawks. The angels’ middle-of-head ponytails in WINGS OF DESIRE (1987) were said to be inspired by the samurai hairstyle and they looked great. Historically turbans were used by Sikh warriors to both observe their religion’s rule against cutting their hair but also not give an opponent long hair to grab onto, so that’s one option for having long hair in the military. Marine-short hair has become very standard among civilians now so that a soldier with that haircut wouldn’t necessarily stand out. There was a scene in one of the Jack Reacher movies where he spots the military guys following him because of their short hair, though. I vaguely remember not liking Michael Qissi’s Krishna-esque topknot in the BLOODSPORT sequel. I think it’s because he shaved his forehead.

    Jim Belushi has done some good things, such as RED HEAT (1988), TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS (1990) (in which BTW he has a mullet that slicks back into a cool Seagal-esque ponytail), MR. DESTINY (1990), and WILD PALMS (1993). He cameoed as a school principal in then-wife Marjorie Bransfield’s movie ABRAXAS, GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE (1990) (a bad movie I love). David Cross doesn’t like him, based on his on-set behaviour when they were in DESTINY TURNS ON THE RADIO (1995) together. As revenge he went to House of Blues one night when Belushi was singing and danced sarcastically on the stage until they kicked him out, which is kind of funny.

    Belushi was also in an obscure straight-to-video (or made-for-cable) movie called TRACES OF RED (1992) which is a perversely nostalgic movie for me because some friends and I rented it based on the advice of our friend who worked at the video store, and we decided it was terrible. We gave him a hard time about it and never followed any of his recommendations again. But about 20 years later when I found a copy of TRACES OF RED at a thrift store I bought it out of nostalgia for those old days and found it pretty enjoyable.

  61. Fwiw Mr Destiny was my favorite movie ever when I was 12. For me to see that your life will turn out ok even if you’re not good at sports was magical.

    I still like it, though sleeping with Cindy Jo is still cheating on his wife and then we’re supposed to root for him to win her back?

  62. TRACES OF RED gets a mention in this (not particularly great) SNL sketch, set in a VHS store adorned with promotional items for other films that didn’t necessarily get far out of the 90s, most notably FRUADS, a bizarre Australian Black Comedy starring Phil Collins as a psychotic Fraud investigator who lives in a BATMAN 66-style villains’ lair.

    Karl's Video: Jeff Goldblum and Steven Tyler - SNL

    Jeff Goldblum wants to rent porn from a video store, but store owner Karl (David Spade) annoys him by asking personal questions and requesting a headshot for...

  63. Ha! :-) I remember that sketch. I miss video stores. Had I gotten a job in a video store in the 1990s I might have been a human IMDB like David Spade’s character. He mentions TROOP BEVERLY HILLS as a bad rental decision but I liked it. FRAUDS was disturbing and depressing.

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