Jonathan Shale (Tom Berenger) is a mercenary, which normally means he would be in this business for the money, but he thinks he is in it for something more. When a covert ops to Cuba he was involved with ends up as a political football, as the men who hired him and his team deny all knowledge of their mission, they are angry, none more so than Hollan (William Forsythe) who threatens to go rogue, but Shale is more reflective as he returns to Miami where his girlfriend Jane Hetzko (Diane Venora) works as a teacher in a tough school. However, when some of her students gang up on her, he begins to take more of an interest in her job - maybe he can help out?
In the late nineteen-eighties and into the nineties, there were a number of inspirational teacher movies released, anything from Stand and Deliver through to Dangerous Minds was featuring grim-faced teens (or twentysomething actors playing grim-faced teens) being tutored in various subjects that would, against the odds and their social deprivation, see them win the day and go on to a brighter future. The Substitute was like that, only with a lot more gunfire, for this was an action movie of the sort that had been popular in the previous decade, you know the thing, one-man army against heavily armed antagonists, shooting guards from observation towers, and so forth.
Except here it would seem we were going to see a Class of 1984 affair where the teachers had to arm themselves against the students, and a full-on school war was about to erupt - with us on the side of the tutors. That it did not evolve into that was a blessing, though there were scenes early on where Berenger proved his character's macho credentials by getting unruly teens in an armlock, or even more forceful practices, but before long he has settled the class with his badassery and a history lesson he turns into a first-person account of surviving the Vietnam War. There remained elements in the class who would rather see him eat lead, however, and they had a surprising mentor.
Now, to bring real life screaming into the obviously fictional world, there were calls to post armed veterans in schools, then to actually arm the teachers, to prevent the epidemic of mass shootings blighting the United States in the twenty-first century, but films like The Substitute illustrated that this thinking, as was so much to do with guns, was informed by pure fantasy where when someone begins shooting in a public place the scene will soon look like your average Chuck Norris thriller and some hero will step up to gun down the lone gunman, or terrorist, or whoever the antagonist happened to be. But real life was not like the movies, so you could entertain your fantasies of how weaponry would improve a crisis yet comparing that with activities here and other action flicks was plainly ridiculous - and unrealistic.
Best to leave the fiction where it was, on the screen or the page or wherever you went for your escapism, because in this example there was the twist that the principal of the school (Ernie Hudson, who seemed like such a nice guy elsewhere) was using the establishment to run drugs, stashing millions of dollars' worth of cocaine in the basement, and even recruiting some of the more wayward kids to assist him in his crime gang. If that was your idea of what actual crime was like, God help you, but in a movie, it was absurd enough to be diverting on a lower level, yes we know this is stoopid, degree of amusement where you just knew Shale's buddies were going to come to the rescue, including the maniac Hollan for that shot at redemption. Something of a patchwork of aspects no sensible person would have sewn together for a plot, The Substitute may not have done much for Berenger's career, but Treat Williams would appear in three straight to TV or video sequels. Music by Gary Chang.