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Movieland has some funny views on high school. Some tropes reached a point of stupidity due to overuse, loosing the grip with high school experience that it originally held due to excessive replication. Others are less based on experience to begin with and use the element as a backdrop for generic action, horror or sexy comedy. 90's era Hollywood was sure all the kids of the poor neighborhoods needed to be able to turn life around was a transplanted substitute that didn't mind cracking a few skulls. It pumped out a few well meaning but ultimately silly savior out of water tales during the VHS era ranging from fake nuns to marines. All playing the ultimate ingredient to uncovering  the diamonds that lay hidden in the human ruff aka the working poor's troubled kids. I hated high school. It was crowded dirty place (not in the fun way) stocked with all flavors of asshole and filled with the threat of mental/physical violence at any time (not in the fun way). My freedom loving ventures and dedication to my VHS collection led to my ejection from the normal schooling program. Because high schools are like strip clubs and your choices progressively get worse with every expulsion you receive, I saw some of the more seedy areas of the education system as I moved from school to school until someone handed me a diploma. If these commandos of enlightenment where running around uplifting the ruffians and body bagging evil gangsters I would have run into them at some point. Reality aside just because a story element is stupid and culturally deaf does not mean it can not be fun, case in point The Substitute (1996).
When we first meet Jonathan Shale () he is just making his get away from a black ops mission that seems to pretty much have gone to shit. The politics involved with the incident lead to his group of men being scapegoated so, jobless and blacklisted, he heads back home. In Miami he surprises his girlfriend () when she comes home after a long day of teaching at Columbus High School, which seems to consist of watching kids get beat up and being threatened by Marc Anthony. After their reunion his fiance, Jane Hetzko, tells him that her drive for education has caught the unwanted attention of the local gang’s leader Juan Lacas (). Of course Shale doesn't like what he hears and when the two are attacked during a romantic stroll, breaking Jane’s leg, Jonathan has no choice but to pose as a substitute to get to the bottom of all the troubled youth madness. After laying down some crazy-vet-uncle style knowledge on his class, the situation escalates and he decides to recruit (some) of his old crew to take down the violent gangsters. Using his gruff wits and military training he faces off against the crew of gangbangers to avenge his wife and reform the public school system.
While it's no The Principal (1987) the plot moves along at an entertaining pace, with adequate fight scenes sprinkled in to keep things going. Like the Belushi film it devolves into an Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) type situation using the school as the confined space and battlegrounds. Although the story has been done(possibly better) a few times over, the movie makes it through the 90's action cinema checklist in a enjoyable enough way. As long as you do not put too much importance on logic it's well worth its time limit using its actors well enough for the most part. It had a theatrical release in its day, but can feel a lot like a Straight To VHS Revenge or Death Wish (1974) clone minus perhaps their graphic rape scenes. While not as brutal as some proper trash it doesn't really skimp on the action and sports the semi-nihilistic tone of the best 90's genre flicks. More to its credit it has for the most part a coherent and satisfactory ending not falling into the common trappings of several others in its type. It's not going to grab you by the curlies as far as the drama goes, all imposed peril comes with a guaranteed avenging. Sure there is a vague social issue in there somewhere but it's violent no brain fun.
Our main character is Tom Berenger who has no trouble in the lovable badass role. Admittedly it's my favorite role of his and he seems to work well in a film that doesn't take itself too seriously. His fiancee is played by Diane Venora, who does well enough but seems like she could kick more ass than the script allowed. Luis Guzmán pops in for comedy and William Forsythe shows up to show us how friendship works in disbanded blacks ops groups. The school principal is played by my favorite Ghostbuster, Winston Zeddmore. I'm always glad when he shows up in shit.
While hardly scholastic The Substitute is a lot of cornball fun and reminds me of the good times spent in front of a television during TNT’s action marathons. What it lacks in originality it makes up for in active pacing and fun characters. I can't really speak for much lower quality TV movie sequels that replaced Tom Berenger with , but excuse me while I go watch them all.
| 1996
 Director: Robert Mandel

Writers: Roy Frumkes, Rocco Simonelli, Alan Ormsby

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