The Substitute

on April 19, 1996 by Rick Schultz
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   For a half-hour or so, "The Substitute" promises to be an absorbing action film with more than mayhem on its mind. Tom Berenger plays Shale, a mercenary who until recently worked for the CIA. Now he's a teacher subbing for his girlfriend, Jane (winningly played by Diane Venora), who is recovering from an attack at her gang-infested, violence-ridden Miami high school. The principal (a fine Ernie Hudson) is a tough ex-cop named Rolle who tries to teach Shale that "power perceived is power achieved." We know something's up when Shale spots a gold Rolex on Rolle's wrist; for his part, Rolle wants to know where Shale got his impressive array of scars. There's a riveting tension between these two formidable opponents, but "The Substitute's" collapse begins when Shale brings his mercenary pals into the picture to help foil a multimillion-dollar drug ring. Though expertly directed by Robert Mandel, and occasionally tweaked by clever one-liners, the entire last act of the movie takes a nosedive into the generics of a shoot-'em-up. That's too bad, because the film's initial concept--wittily put by one of Shale's fellow teachers as "a joint operation between the CIA and the PTA"--does generate its share of surprises for a while.
   Berenger brings a battle-gained weariness to his role, and there's an effective scene in which he shares his combat experiences with students living in their own hellish war zone. If only "The Substitute," which settles for being a deranged version of "The A-Team" meets "The Principal," had found more scenes like that one, it might have packed some real firepower.    Starring Tom Berenger, Ernie Hudson, Diane Venora and Glenn Plummer. Directed by Robert Mandel. Written by Roy Frumkes, Rocco Simonelli and Alan Ormsby. Produced by Morrie Eisenman and Jim Steele. An Orion release. Action. Rated R for some sexuality and terror/violence. Running time: 114 min.
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