A down-on-his-luck businessman named Bill Rago (DeVito) ends up applying for and being given a job as a teacher for the U.S. Army. He soon learns that he has to get his group of students to avoid flunking the class (and therefore washing out of basic training.)
Tropes evident in Renaissance Man include:
- Abusive Parents: Melvin's stepfather beat up Melvin until he joined the Army and has been doing the same to his biological children since Melvin left.
- Academic Athlete: Leroy is the only one of the "Double Ds" in whom Sgt. Cass takes an interest, because he was a genuinely gifted athlete - so gifted, in fact, that he resents the fact that his high school teachers gave him passing grades in spite of his sub-par coursework, just to keep him on the team. Leroy himself tells Rago that he plans to steer his young son away from athletics so he'll concentrate on his studies. Rago tells him about Leon Battista Alberti, the archetypal "Renaissance Man", but admits that the only reason Rago remembers his name is because he could perform at least one athletic prodigy:Bill Rago: They said that he could stand, with his feet together like this, and spring straight over a man's head.
Pvt. Jackson Leroy: [laughs] Really?
Rago: If Leon Battista Alberti couldn't have done that, I wouldn't have remembered a thing about him.
Leroy: So, wait... he was sort of like a smart jock, wasn't he?
Rago: That's right.
Leroy: Now there's an oxymoron, isn't it?
Rago: You got it.
- Acronym and Abbreviation Overload: Rago is first very confused when a serviceman gives him directions full of acronyms, eventually asking if he can "buy a vowel". Later in the movie, once he's gotten used to being on the base, the situation is reversed when a civilian asks him for directions and he gives the same acronym-filled one he received earlier.
- Armor-Piercing Question: When Rago is confronted by the unit commander over his teaching methods and motivations, he dismisses any prior experience with the military note and proudly points out that he carried a sign with a dead soldier's name on it to protest the Vietnam War.Colonel James: Do you remember the soldier's name?(Cue blank look and dead silence from Rago.)Rago: No.
- Break the Cutie: Davis is convinced his father died a hero thanks to the stories his mother told him. Other trainees bully him mercilessly because of it. Turned around when, at graduation, we learn that Bill's meddling has unearthed the truth: he did die a hero and Davis is given his posthumously awarded medal.
- Calling Me a Logarithm: One of the students misunderstands the word "oxymoron" and asserts that he "ain't no ox-moron".
- Coming of Age Story: Arguably happens to several members of the class, in particular Tommy Lee Haywood (played by Mark Wahlberg).
- Cool Teacher: Bill Rago eventually transitions to this role after completing the obstacle course to prove himself to his class.
- Dark and Troubled Past: Most of Bill's class, especially seen in their essays on why they joined the Army: Benitez lost his sister to a drive-by shooting; Melvin became narcoleptic to escape an abusive stepfather; Miranda was abandoned by an unstable mother; Montgomery's home life had no structure or discipline; Leroy was a high school football star who was injured and discovered his school taught him nothing; despite passing him for sports; Hobbs was an intelligent man who got caught up in the drug trade and tried to escape; Davis joined as part of a hero-worship of his father, who died saving his platoon in Vietnam; Haywood grew up in a very rural area surrounded by family and neighbors who have gone absolutely nowhere in their lives.
- Death Course: Not a literal example, however, given how Bill Rago looks and the shape he is in, the normal obstacle course may be enough of one.
- Drill Sergeant Nasty: Sergeant Cass, but he's not particularly mean. It's still not a good idea to undermine his authority in front of the recruits.
- Fish out of Water: Bill takes some time to adjust to the military mindset and way of life.
- "Join the Army," They Said: As a starting exercise for the "Double Ds", Rago has each of them write an essay about their reasons for joining the Army. As each reads his or her composition, Rago's face shows he is genuinely interested.
- Market-Based Title: Released as Army Intelligence in Australia.
- Military School: The film treats the classroom as this kind of a setup.
- No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Bill tries to get Captain Murdoch to look into Hobbs for officer training, but Murdoch ends up finding that Hobbs has a warrant out for his arrest, making Rago feel terrible when he's arrested.
- Non-Giving-Up School Guy: Pretty much a staple of the movie as it came out in 1994 when many movies about teachers were reveling in this trope.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: Both Captain Murdoch and Colonel James are nice guys who support Rago. Even Sergeant Cass was fairly reasonable, only confronting Bill when he felt that Bill was upsetting his methods or disrespecting him in front of his troops.
- Near the end of the movie, Murdoch congratulates Bill on his excellent results, then asks him not to give his kids a test. Tests are Serious Business for the army and if they fail, they fail.
- Renaissance Man: Leon Battista Alberti is discussed by Bill.
- Bill is likely one as well, with his success at both advertising and teaching. Note also that the building his old advertising firm is in is the "Renaissance Building", making him a literal renaissance man while he was there.
- Rousing Speech: Done by both Bill Rago and the students. In-universe, the "St. Crispin's Day" speech from Henry V is quoted twice.
- Save Our Students: Done more so as a 'save our Army students' variation.
- Sound Off: Rago makes up a jody call about Hamlet. By the end of the film, Drill Sergeant Cass is using it for the new batch of recruits.Hamlet's momma, she's the queen
Buys it in the final scene
Drinks a glass of funky wine
Now she's Satan's valentine
- Too Dumb to Live: Bill's group of students are given the not-so-affectionate nickname of "Double D's" — standing for "Dumb as Dogshit". And they live up to their name, at least at first. To show how these students initially have trouble comprehending orders, there is a gas mask exercise where the trainees are told not to breathe after removing their masks, and Haywood immediately says how simple that is, taking a huge breath while doing so.
- Took a Level in Badass: Bill and his students all. Bill becomes more caring and involved with them and his daughter, and they are better able to think on their feet and cope with the demands of army life.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: Bill's old agency partner is shown trying to help him get work in a few scenes, but ultimately his character arc doesn't get any resolution.