The premise of The Substitute places an out-of-work soldier of fortune in a tough-as-nails high school to clean up the joint. Though the setup is largely preposterous, the filmmakers go whole-hog for the idea and provide a kinetic entertainment.
Shale (Tom Berenger) washes ashore in Miami and camps out at the apartment of his girlfriend, Jane (Diane Venora). She teaches at Columbus High, a powder-keg environment largely run by the Latino gang Kings of Destruction.
Jane makes the mistake of crossing swords with gang honcho Juan Lacas (Marc Anthony), who has a goon bust her kneecap. When her substitute can’t step in, Shale decides to have his team provide him with a new identity – James Smith – to get a bead on the gang. He takes charge in the classroom and, to his surprise, actually gets most of the kids to listen and learn.
Fueled by a sense of righteous justice, The Substitute goes into action with both barrels blazing. Berenger exacts revenge much in the style of the Man With No Name or the hero of Death Wish. It’s a very satisfying fantasy scenario.
Pic is exceptionally well cast, with such vets as Hudson, Venora and mercenary team members Raymond Cruz and William Forsythe bringing humanity to genre archetypes.