The Curator of Schlock #103 by Jeff Shuster

The Substitute

Tom Berenger kicks some class! Haha!


Okay. Week two of Back to School Month here at the Museum of Schlock where we’ve been discussing the problem of juvenile delinquency in American High Schools so naturally we’d have to work up to 1996’s The Substitute from director Robert Mandel. I got real excited for this one from the trailer alone. Like in Blackboard Jungle, one of the punk students throws something at the teacher when his back is turned. However, this time the teacher is Tom Berenger! When the punk chucks the beer can at his back, he catches it flings it in the punk’s face.


The movie starts out with Jonathan Shale (Tom Berenger) and his band of mercenaries raiding a drug compound in Castro’s Cuba … except we don’t get to see the raid. We just get to see a bunch of them getting into a boat after the raid. What a rip-off! I wanted to see some drug lords getting shot up! Instead, all get is William Forsythe knocking over a TV set! Yeah, William Forsythe is one of the Merry Mercenaries, but he’s hardly in the movie. What’s the point? The man played the best Al Capone ever, and we’re stuck seeing him as some hippie/biker mercenary playing second fiddle to Tom Berenger!


Anyway, there’s this schoolteacher named Jane Hetzko (Diane Venora) who thinks her life is in danger because her students keep threatening her life. Well, indirectly threatening her, which is why Principal Claude Rolle (Ernie Hudson) can’t do anything about it. He’s a former police detective and won’t transfer any students without proof of misconduct. Hetzko later gets mobbed in a park. The school needs a substitute.  Did I mention that Shale the former mercenary is her boyfriend!


Shale decides to infiltrate Columbus High under the moniker of James Smith. He substitutes for his girlfriend’s history class, asking the students who discovered America? One of the replies, “Your momma.” He then asks the students who won WWII. The same kid replies, “Your momma.” Now if I was teaching that class, I would start breaking down into tears mumbling, “I can’t do this,” but Shale just starts recounting his Vietnam stories and the class quiets right down. Principal Rolle wants him out of there because Rolle is running a cocaine operation out of the school.


Yeah, that one kind of threw me for a loop too. I kept expecting Tom Berenger and Ernie Hudson to join forces to take down some gang members, but then Ernie Hudson is revealed to be the big bad guy, and that’s where the movie loses it for me. There’s a scene where Principal Rolle is eating one of those frozen juice pops. I think it is raspberry flavored. That just doesn’t scream menace to me.

Ernie Hudson was my favorite Ghostbuster, a childhood hero and I just don’t buy him as a villain. I kept expecting William Forsythe to turn out to be a bad guy in this film, but no dice. So disappointing.


Five Things I Learned from The Substitute

  1. Real mercenaries don’t use demo reels.
  2. A high fiber diet can make you prone to bodily functions that require a change of underwear.
  3. If Tom Berenger is your boyfriend, he’ll bring you delicious takeout.
  4. Students can be bought off with free VCRs and Papa John’s Pizza.
  5. Joining a gang is a one-way ticket to the joint, and by joint, I don’t mean marijuana joint, but prison!


Photo by Leslie Salas

Photo by Leslie Salas

Jeffrey Shuster (episode 47episode 102episode 124, and episode 131) is an MFA candidate at the University of Central Florida.