Judging the movie by the poster, I should hate this movie. I find the mini-genre of white people educating minorities to be abhorrent. If I have to watch one more poorly constructed film with a B-list movie star going into an underprivileged school and helping the poor, unwashed minorities extricate themselves from gangs and focus on getting a high school diploma, I’m going to shoot myself. I hate that shit.
They’re just modern remakes of the old cowboy goes into the native encampment and teaches the poor savages how to use a gun and drink whisky. It’s disgusting. They’re always disgustingly heartwarming and inevitably one of the characters gets shot in a drive by, and the violins swell, and the movie tries it’s damnedest to get you to cry. Looking at you, Hardball.
By all rights I should hate the Substitute because it’s ostensibly one of those Great-white-savior movies filtered through the lens of arguably one of the most misogynist and gender role enforcing franchises of all time, Death Wish. And yet, I love it.
I love the Substitute.
Tom Berenger plays a mercenary named Shale who, after his girlfriend is assaulted by a gang, infiltrates a high school and begins to hunt the parties in question down.
Berenger isn’t necessarily that convincing as an ex-military man, but he pulls it off ok. There’s something about his awkward sidekicks coupled with his never ending parade of tropical print button-ups that makes him slightly less than believable. I’m not exactly sure why Berenger ostensibly made his career on playing stone cold military types. There’s nothing about this demeanor or physical presence that says ‘intimidating’, but between this and the Sniper franchise you can’t really argue with the way the man pulls in the crowds.
I consider myself a fairly forward thinking individual, who attempts to steer clear of bullshit ‘high octane’ Man Cinema. I’m not really a big fan of watching movies just for boobs and explosions. However, I will admit that I have a strange preoccupation with the Death Wish franchise. That’s undoubtedly where some of my affection for The Substitute comes from.
Berenger’s Shale is not a huge leap away from Paul Kersey. He’s methodical, intelligent, and doesn’t tolerate the women in his life being manipulated, manhandled or (in Kersey’s case) raped to death.
I think most of my misgivings about the action genre, and specifically the Revenge sub-genre, is that so often the female characters are treated as plot devices. In Death Wish Kersey’s wife and daughter have almost no character development before they’re abused. I’m all for the message that anyone who rapes/abuses/mistreats women will get their just deserts but the genre’s preoccupation with have the protagonist be male enforces terribly constrictive gender roles. When was the last time that you saw a dude get fucked up in a movie and his girl friend or sister went on an unending war for revenge? Never? Oh, sure, there’s things like The Brave One and I Spit On Your Grave, but they’re few and far between when it comes to the Revenge sub-genre.
But I digress, getting back to The Substitute. I quite enjoyed how the film functions as a streamlined, more palatable Death Wish, with a better high concept. You can practically see the pitch meeting where the writer is like, ‘What if we made a Death Wish movie….. IN A HIGH SCHOOL’.
And you know what? That’s basically what The Substitute is. It’s a toned down Death Wish set in a high school. The film even cursorily deals with issues of race, gang violence and police corruption. The film also attempts to address the issue that I had raised earlier of the Great White Savior. There are some black characters that are gang bangers, there are some that are upstanding citizens and there are some that are just downright evil. And, hey, that’s usually more than you get in this type of film. The fact that the filmmakers were attempting to say a few more subtle things about racial differences and hierarchies, while blowing dudes up, is cool in my book.
Honestly, I would have enjoyed the film ten times more than I did, which was quite a bit, if the Shale character had been played by any other ethnicity other than Caucasian. There’s just something about a white dude walking into a classroom of disorderly minorities and showing them how to ‘behave’ that really rubs me the wrong way. I understand that the filmmakers aren’t being racist. I know that the film overall does a fairly decent job of masking the Great White Savior bullshit. But there’s just something that keyed into my world view where whenever I see a white dude exerting control over a situation I get pissed off.
That all being said, The Substitute is one of my new favorite films. I love the tone, I loved Berenger, I loved the action, and I loved that it was a predominantly minority cast. I genuinely enjoyed The Substitute.
The fact that there are three direct to DVD sequels only makes it better.