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Details and one-liners make Substitute more enjoyable

The Substitute

Directed by Robert Mandel.

Starring Tom Berenger, Ernie Hudson, Diane Venora, and Glenn Plummer.

Sony Cheri.

By Teresa Esser
Staff Reporter

The Substitute is an amusing film about drugs, gangs, and high school in Miami. A cross between Rambo and Dangerous Minds, it packs enough testosterone, sweat, and explosions to satisfy even the most demanding action fans. The writing is excellent and there are a number of well-developed sub-plots. For those who enjoy a hearty dose of cinematic tension, chivalry, and tough-guy bravado, this film is well worth a trip to the theaters.

The movie's plot is simple: A drug gang terrorizes a high school teacher (Diane Venora). She is saved by her heroic boyfriend Shale (Tom Berenger), who doubles as a mercenary killer. Temporarily unemployed, he poses as an educator and is hired as her substitute. He confronts the gang leaders. A fight ensues.

Although the basic storyline is simple, the script is well written. For one thing, it is chock full of deadpan humor and quotable lines. "Power perceived is power achieved," Claude Rollé (Ernie Hudson), the school principal, tells Shale. Shale intimidates the fellow with this question: "Do you want to know what the difference is between soldiers and killers? [Dramatic pause.] The difference is, you're still breathing."

When the high-school students don't give him the time of day, Shale grabs the troublemakers where it hurts. "In this class I am the warrior chief," he says, "the merciless god of anything that stirs in my universe." After a few days of scuffles and twisted arms, the kids start to pay attention.

The strength of The Substitute is in the details. The audience is kept on the edge of their seats by a series of unexpected dangers: Shale's girlfriend is kneecapped while jogging. Shale talks business in a bar while men fire water-uzis into the mouths of dancers. A statue outside the high school is protected from further graffiti by a chain link fence; the letters KOD, for Knights of Destruction, have been written on every available surface.

Even Shale's reason for taking on the substitute assignment makes the situation sound grim: "These kids are walking around with pagers, driving $50,000 BMWs. Where there's drugs, there's cash." And where there's cash to be intercepted, there will be mercenary killers. So begins Operation High School.

My main objection to the film was the overt racism created by both the script itself and the casting. The hero, Shale, is a large white guy who volunteers to substitute teach when his girlfriend is kneecapped by a Seminole Indian. Because Shale has just retired from a covert army attempt to destroy a Cuban drug facility, he has both the time and the training needed to intervene in the high-school drug ring. The brains behind the drug ring is the school's black principal, Rollé. Rollé is assisted in his evil-doings by the Knights of Destruction, a local gang made up of black and Hispanic students and the aforementioned Seminole thug. The underlying message here is twofold: first, blacks and Hispanics need to use drugs to obtain power, and second, the situation will not be made right unless large white men come in and take control. Why Orion Pictures decided to cast the film in this way is an interesting question. It would certainly have been a different movie if Berenger had played the principal and Ernie Hudson had played the substitute savior.

There are a few notable exceptions to this trend. Sherman, a black teacher with dreadlocks, sacrifices himself to save the life of a Cuban student. Jerome, a black student in Shale's class, proves himself by firing a gun and saving Shale's life. Unfortunately, the rest of the students are portrayed as passive victims of their surroundings, all too glad to be saved by Shale, the Great White Hope.

The Substitute presents an interesting look at life in a fictional Miami high school. It is a thrilling movie that should be watched with a critical eye and thoroughly discussed.