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Film / The Substitute

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"I'm in charge of this class. I'm the warrior chief. I'm the merciless god of anything that stirs in my universe. FUCK with me, and you will suffer my wrath."

The Substitute is a 1996 American action thriller film directed by Robert Mandel and starring Tom Berenger, Ernie Hudson, Diane Venora, Glenn Plummer, Marc Anthony, Luis Guzman and William Forsythe.

Berenger plays Jonathan Shale, a Vietnam vet and mercenary who goes undercover as a substitute teacher at the Miami Inner City School where his girlfriend teaches after she is attacked by a gang.

Went on to spawn a series of sequels, with Treat Williams replacing Berenger as the titular substitute and fighting more gangsters, steroid-addled college athletes, and white supremacists, in that order.

Not related to the 1993 movie of the same name. That one had an Evil Teacher, not a Badass Teacher.

These films provides examples of:

    The Substitute 
  • Actor Allusion: Shale, a character played by Tom Berenger, is a Vietnam War veteran.
  • Actually Pretty Funny: When Shale is introducing the high school to the rest of his team, one of the other team members asks if the students there are not doing their homework. Shale laughs for a few seconds at that remark.
  • And the Adventure Continues: The movie ends with Shale and Joey Six walking away from the school (that got thrashed in the final shootout) and casually talking about probably moving to California to continue the "substitute" gig. In context, they were probably just talking to cut the tension after the rest of the mercenary team has been killed off, but considering that this film got various sequels...
  • Badass Boast: Shale's speech after he gets serious about restoring order in the school and moving out the gangs that run it.
    "I'm in charge of this classroom. I'm the warrior chief, the merciless god of anything that stirs in my universe. You fuck with me, and you will suffer my wrath."
  • Badass Crew: Shale's team of mercenaries.
  • Badass Teacher: The Movie
  • Big Bad: Juan Lacas is initially portrayed this way, until it's revealed that he's only The Dragon to Principal Rolle.
  • Big Bad Duumvirate: Principal Rolle and Indian drug lord Johnny Glade.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Shale is saved twice right before he is about to be executed by a bad guy. The first time Jerome saves Shale by killing Juan Lacas. The second time Hollan saves Shale by killing Johnny Glades (right before dying himself).
  • Bittersweet Ending: Rolle and the Kings of Destruction have been taken down, but everyone in Shale's mercenary team is dead except for himself and Joey Six.
  • Black Dude Dies First: The first major character to die is the Black teacher friend, Mr. Sherman. The first commando to die is also the Black member of the team, Wellman.
  • Blood Knight: Hollan.
  • Bring My Brown Pants: Shale scares someone so bad they crap their pants, they later blame it on "The fiber".
  • Bullying a Dragon: A couple of students try to mess with Shale, not realizing that their substitute teacher is a battle-hardened Vietnam vet and a mercenary. It doesn't end well for them.
  • Catch and Return: The undercover mercenary teacher Jon Shale gets a soda can thrown at the back of his head by one of the rowdy students. He turns around, catches it in time, and throws it straight in the guy's face. He declares that he had to grow eyes in the back of his head during his time in Vietnam.
  • Cool Teacher: Jane Hetzko, Shale's girlfriend, is loved enough by the students (the ones that are not crooks, that is) that when they hear about her having her leg broken they arrive to see if she is okay. Mr. Sherman is another example and is lamented by the students when Rolle kills him. Shale becomes one by putting down the law in his classroom.
  • Crapsack World: The first film takes place in Miami in the mid 90s, and the inner-city school in which all of the action takes place is a perfect definition of the term "hell-hole" without taking into account that it's being used as a base for drug dealers.
  • Death Equals Redemption: A critically-wounded Hollan radios Shale to warn him that he's walking into a trap. A few minutes later, Hollan saves Shale's life by killing Johnny Glades right before dying himself.
  • Department of Redundancy Department: John Janus' video advertising his skills as a mercenary list his proficiency in five or six different types of martial arts before saying that he's good at killing with his bare hands.
  • Doublespeak: When Wolfson the lawyer interviews Shale, he claims his client is shipping "South American goods," and is hiring mercenaries to guarantee the shipments, while "dealing decisively" with anyone who interferes, including their competitors and government agencies. Shale cuts through his bullshit and turns the job down without a second thought.
    Shale: So what you're looking for is someone to protect your drug shipments, possibly kill any rival dealers? And maybe even government agents if they happen to get in the way.
  • Everyone Has Standards: Shale may be a mercenary, but he has nothing but contempt for drug dealers and refuses to work for them.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good:
    • Rolle can't believe Shale is attacking the drug ring for any reason besides money.
    • A similar scene ends hilariously when Shale turns down a job because it involves drugs.
  • Evil Parents Want Good Kids: Shale asks the kids what good comes from a gang life and the kids start bragging about things like drugs, money, and clothing. He asks if that's what they want for their kids and they quiet down and say that it's different when talking about your kids.
  • Evil Principal: Principal Rolle is first introduced as an outwardly genial ex-cop, now tasked with cleaning up a poor inner-city school plagued with gang and drug problems. In reality, Rolle himself is the mastermind behind most of the drug trafficking going on at the school, using school buses to transport cocaine and storing it in the boiler room. He has no qualms about murder either; he tries to have Slade killed several times and personally murders another teacher who finds out about his scheme. Also turns out that he was a Dirty Cop before becoming a principal, and sees good to have a more direct line for distributing the drugs directly to the kids.
  • Fanservice Extra: Shale meets Joey Six at a strip club to talk business; the camera lingers on the topless dancers around the place, and even Joey himself gets distracted.
  • Gangsta Style: Common enough among the non-merc gun wielders in the movie. Rolle uses it when executing Mr. Sherman.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: After Cool Teacher Mr. Sherman lets host student Lisa stay late after school to avoid some sexual harassers outside, the two witness Rolle conducting a drug deal as they leave. Mr. Sherman has Lisa hide and makes a racket while running in the opposite direction from her, allowing Lisa to escape at the cost of being cornered and murdered himself .
  • Inelegant Blubbering: Wolfson as Shale performs a Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique on him.
  • Intimidation Demonstration: Principal Rolle shows Shale a thing he does at the beginning of every year to show new students (and the hoodlums among them) that he's not a principal to be fucked with: he shatters a solid paddle (about the size of a cricket bat) with a single judo chop.
    Principal Rolle: Power perceived is power achieved.
  • Involuntary Charity Donation: After Shale ruins one of Rolle's drug exchanges and takes the money, we then cut to the following day with Rolle wondering who could have interfered with the exchange and a few seconds later he hears Shale's voice on the school's PA telling the students that the school just got a nice new donation from an "anonymous donor" of furniture, gym equipment, computers and there's pizza for everybody in the gym if they want it.
  • Ironic Echo: When Rolle gets on Shale's case about hitting one of his students in the face with a thrown soda can (which actually was Shale tossing it back at the student trying to bean him In the Back), Shale explains that he was just defending himself and establishing dominance over his classroom, and repeats Rolle's line of "power perceived is power achieved". Rolle visibly seems to regret having said that.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: From the bad guy's perspective. When Shale says that a Mc Job is better than a gang funeral and asks how many of those the kids have been to, Lacas' Dragon Rodriguez simply says "Too many... Too fuckin' many."
  • Knee Capping: Shale's girlfriend is kneecapped by a street gang, setting the plot in motion.
  • The Man Behind the Man: Principal Rolle, who is revealed to be pulling Lacas's strings.
  • Manly Tears: Joey Six sheds some at the end of the movie after learning that he and Shale are the only survivors of their mercenary team.
  • Morton's Fork: Talking about his time in Vietnam, Shale mentions that his team would have to take the AK-47s from the Viet Cong forces to continue the fight. Listen carefully as Rolle is at the door and you can hear him say the distinct sound difference between that and the M-16 would make American forces fire at him and his men.
    • His discussion on being in a gang versus being a Burger Fool
  • Mugging the Monster: Two inner-city high school students pick a fight with the new substitute teacher early on in his new assignment. The "teacher" is actually a Vietnam veteran and mercenary who is undercover to investigate the conspiracy leading to his girlfriend's attack.
  • Neck Snap: How Shale finishes off Rolle; an open-palm strike to the face that breaks his neck.
  • Never Learned to Read: Juan Lacas, as evidenced when he has to write "I'm Sorry" 100 times and spells it "Im sorey".
  • Odd Name Out: Shale's undercover identity is "James Smith," which Rolle keeps forgetting. He says if his name was "Fedarooski" he'd remember it.
  • Oh, Crap!: Every time Shale calmly walks into the school after he's supposed to have been killed, Principal Rolle's reaction gets more entertaining to watch.
  • Politically Incorrect Hero: For a very loose definition of hero: Holland. He calls minority enemies "boy", does an impromptu Indian war dance in the final fight, and threatens to scalp Johnny Glades.
  • Precision F-Strike: From the elderly librarian:
    Shale: "Sorry about the windows"
    Librarian: "Hey...fuck it"
  • Running Gag:
    • Lacas' "Im sorey" writing remains on the blackboard throughout the whole film and one of Janus' last words before Shale blows him (and the blackboard) away is him reading the line aloud with the obvious question of who the hell wrote this dangling in the air.
    • Rolle tries repeatedly to get rid of Shale and gets increasingly disturbed as Shale continues to arrive to the school after said attempts (especially one that makes the news).
  • Save Our Students: These movies are a rather dark and action-y take on the old formula, as the main character's approach to violent gang-bangers invading the school isn't so much to instill them with a passion for academics as it is to smash them in the face and then throw them out a 3rd-story window. Not terribly inspirational, but perhaps more fun to watch.
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: Shale really hates drugs and drug dealers; turning down a high-paying job working for a drug cartel and later throwing a briefcase full of cocaine into the ocean.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: The middleman hiring mercenaries for Rolle lies about a family emergency so he has an excuse to leave town after being threatened by Smith.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Shale clearly has some hangups about Vietnam and uses his experiences to discipline students. "You had to be RESOURCEFUL in Vietnam!" - Said after injuring a student with a soda can.
  • Sherlock Scan: Shale and Rolle perform a quick version of this on each other shortly after meeting. Rolle notes that the extensive scars on Shale's hands are somewhat incongruous with his stated background as a bureaucrat with a 'standard liberal arts education'. Shale, for his part, immediately zeroes in on the expensive-for-an-inner-city-teacher gold watch that Rolle wears despite working in a school and area with heavy gang activity.
  • Shut Up, Hannibal!:
    Lacas: "When this is over I'm gonna make you write 'I'm Sorry' 100 times..."
    Shale: " talking in the library"
  • Smug Snake: Juan Lacas.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: Someone is kneecapped while Mungo Jerry's "In The Summertime" is playing.
  • Stock Ninja Weaponry: Shale knows how to use shuriken (ninja throwing stars), and they even come in handy in one scene.
  • Teasing the Substitute Teacher: Well, the students try. But against Shale, it becomes a huge mistake.
  • Token Evil Teammate: Hollan is most definitely the most unhinged and mercenary of Shale's team, almost coming to blows over Shale destroying several million's worth of cocaine to deny it to Rolle and his goons.
  • White Man's Burden: The film is an action movie take on the "white teacher challenges the inner-city kids." He's actually a mercenary who's investigating the attack on his teacher girlfriend, but along the way he manages to knock some sense into his class and helps take down the black principal's drug ring.

    The Substitute 2: School's Out 
  • Air-Vent Passageway: The janitor helps Thomasson deal with a bunch of mooks he fought in the lavatory by hiding their bodies in the air vents.
  • Backup Bluff: Thomasson and one of his mercenary friends intimidate a gang by walking right up to them and rigging a device to point multiple Laser Sights at their chests, claiming them to be a whole group of snipers.
  • Laser Sight: Invoked to intimidate a group of gang-members by making them believe they are being covered by a like-number of hidden snipers, they are actually being covered by a single man with a gimbal-rig holding several laser-pointers.

    The Substitute 3: Winner Takes All 
  • Drugs Are Bad: The third movie deals with performance-enhancing drugs being peddled at a state college.

    The Substitute 4: Failure Is Not an Option 
  • It's Personal: Thomasson nearly throttles Buckner because of it.
    Thomasson: Thousands of people in this country died fighting a war against assholes like you. Some of them were in my family.
  • Military Academy: This movie sees former ex-soldier Karl Thomasson (Treat Williams) return to teach at a military academy and dismantle a white supremacist cult in the school.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain, Karl Thomasson goes to a Military Academy to dismantle a white supremacist cult that is secretly run by the commanding officer.
  • Sheep in Sheep's Clothing: Sissy is a local waitress who is friendly to everyone from the academy and becomes intimate with conflicted potential Neo-Nazi recruit Ted Teague, but she has a camera in her bedroom that records him when he visits. It turns out that her father is Big Bad Colonel Brack. However, Sissy is no Daddy's Little Villain, genuinely likes Ted, feels rotten spying for her father (whose beliefs she doesn’t share) and skips town to get away from the whole mess.
  • Would Be Rude to Say "Genocide": Karl Thomasson has a discussion about the Holocaust with Buckner, a student who is part of a Neo-Nazi cult at the Military Academy Thomasson is teaching at. Thomasson dismantles Buckner's rather pathetic attempt to downplay the figure from six million to five hundred thousand by pointing out that the violation of Thou Shalt Not Kill in itself is the issue, not the raw number.
    Thomasson: Let's say it was a thousand. A thousand innocent people murdered, not for something they did, but for who they were. If that's not a holocaust, what the hell would you call it?


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): The Substitute 2 Schools Out, The Substitute 3 Winner Takes All, The Substitute 4 Failure Is Not An Option


The Substitute (1996)

Jonathan Shale vs. some of his students.

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