It opens with Berenger, typecast as a military man since his performance as Staff Sergeant Barnes in Oliver Stone's Platoon, waking up in a small raft and signaling to be picked up. He is wearing army clothing, has a gun, and soon will be standing in a small room watching a square box television while a news reporter says that the American government denies all knowledge of what he has done in Cuba. It's a botched mission, and soon Berenger and his team of secret agents are retired, and he returns to his girlfriend, a teacher in Columbus High, a cesspit of a school that is run by the unimaginatively named KoD, Kings of Destruction. That's okay, though, because if the gang was well named, then it would sit our poorly in a film that is a collection of unimaginative ideas and Marc Anthony playing a man he's clearly ten years too old to be.
In the Bad School film lexicon, the Substitute is a film that lurks upon the edges of the genre, since it is mostly a vague action film with a crime element that involves a school, yet there is still enough to have it as part of the library. The principal, played by Ernie Hudson, is an ex cop who is so corrupt that he has become a principal so that he can funnel drugs in on school buses and into the basement of a High School where he can, the film says, sell it straight to the children. As if the fact that he is sitting around and unwilling to punish the gang leaders of the KoD is not enough evidence that he is corrupt, he also has an expensive watch, and when Berenger asks him about it, he demonstrates that he is a lethal weapon by breaking a board with his fist. I suspect the director of the film, Robert Mandel, whose bibliography includes episodes of Lost and X-Files and a Def Leppard doco, may be a man easily impressed by martial arts. I, on the other hand, am not, and believe that if I had punched that board that Hudson held, it would have shattered and proved that I was a lethal weapon to Mandel as well.
Berenger's character, whose real name is Shale, but who when he teaches goes by Smith, becomes the substitute for his girlfriend after her knee cap is broken by a large Native American standing on the beach in jeans, a singlet, and with a large stick next to him. How this went unnoticed by those around him, I don't know, but fortunately, Berenger was there to save her. The scene includes a fabulous fight scene in which Berenger, clearly not a martial arts expert, does a few bad kicks, gets exhausted, and then hides behind some palm trees. If that doesn't make him a teacher, I don't know what does. In fact, if I may pause here for a moment, I want to note that the film appears to have a subtext about the fitness of its teachers. When the English teacher is killed, he attempts to climb a rope to the ceiling where he can, uh, hang safely and the people with guns can stand beneath him and go, 'Shit, we're much to close to shoot him. Can't you get higher?' Gang leader, BMW driving Marc Anthony, though, scales that thing with ease so he can stab the other man in the hand, thus highlighting an important difference between the two. Anyhow: moving on from the fitness of teachers critique, Berenger, a man without a job, but who knows what you got to do when your woman is in trouble, decides, fuck it, he can teach history or whatever the fuck she teaches, and goes in undercover.
The first day is a bit rough. No one knows that he's an ex-soldier who makes men shit their pants--that literally happens in an earlier scene--but after Ernie Hudson breaks a board for him and he realises that tough love is the way to go, Berenger beats up a few kids and begins teaching.
Unsurprisingly, he teaches them about Vietnam.
This is the film's one meta-textual moment, in which Berenger, though his dialogue with the class, acknowledges his typecasting. Of course he's a teacher teaching like a hard bitten military man, he is saying to us all. That is all he has been able to be since the eighties, and whenever anyone has seen him in a role that he isn't a soldier, they think, 'What the fuck? Go be a soldier.' So of course, when he teaches, he has to talk about Vietnam--because this is the only subject that we, the audience, would find it acceptable for him to teach. Math? Nah. Lit? Fuck that. Vietnam? Hell yeah. That he reduces Vietnam to a simplistic description of gang warfare to reach out to the children in his class and to change them in ways they have never been changed before is fine. He's talking about Vietnam. If Tom Berenger came up to you on the street and said, 'The Vietnam War was because the truth about the moon landing was close to being learnt and we needed a distraction,' you'd leave that conversation going, 'Fuck yeah, of course. That dude played Barnes in Platoon. That dude was fucking hardcore, man. Of course it was the moon landing.'
And the fact that a class full of Hispanic and Black teenagers believe him, and hang on his every word, and begin to want to change their lives, leaving their filthy gang lifestyle behind... the fact that they listen to him is the proof that typecasting is a truth we cannot deny.
The kids, they have an influence on Berenger, as well. It's not a Bad School film if the white teacher doesn't begin to acknowledge the privilege that they have been born into, and as Berenger assembles his team, admits to his girlfriend that he finds teaching rewarding, you can see that he is moved, that he recognises that as a white man, he has a responsibility to help the kids, to give them their school back, and to change the world for the better. At one stage, the film shows a rare moment of lucidity, where the black English teacher played by Glenn Plummer, who you might remember as Jeriko One in Kathryn Bigelow's Strange Days, actually accuses Berenger of doing exactly that. Of course, he thinks that Hudson's character is good, but soon, as he sacrifices himself to save a student, he learns the error of his ways, tells the student to tell Mr Smith what happened (a white man can save them!) and before being shot in the head informs the principal that he has sold out his people.
Which of course, reveals the film's subtext: that it is a white man who must come in and fix up the education system for those poor black and Hispanic kids, and who has to do what black and hispanic men and women and white women cannot do. To further highlight his dominance, he even has a group of black and Hispanic men that do his bidding while he attempts to fix things. Indeed, in this group of men who serve under him, it is only William Forsythe's Hollan, a crazy white man who looks like he can't fully leave the seventies, that disagrees with Berenger's Shale, thus proving to the audience that it is only white men who have any independence, and thus power, to change the ineffectual school system that they find themselves part of.