Kids go to school to learn shit. And the number one lesson I can think of is don’t fuck with Tom Berenger. Obviously the American government agrees, otherwise they wouldn’t have funded half this film under the banner: Operation Grow Balls on Young Brains.
Tom Berenger is an actor who never really achieved the action movie badass status he deserved. Just look at the guy. His face is just a scar with lips and eyeholes. He has obviously seen some shit and wants to share it with you. But you weren’t interested. Now we’re in a war with Iraq, and it’s too late to apologize. Tom is retired, and we’re all the more fucked for it.
As The Substitute begins, Tom is in Russia with his team slitting throats just to keep their knives sharp. When their visas run out, they all go to LA so Tom can hang out with his girlfriend, a perky chick with a bowl-cut who just happens to be a teacher at one of the most dangerous schools this side of Missouri. She doesn’t seem like a badass, but a) she’s still alive, and b) she’s fucking Tom Berenger so she must be some sort of awesome. When they finally see each other again, they don’t hug or kiss because Tom Berenger is one of the last graduates of the Charles Bronson school of asskickory and that shit ain’t allowed. If your enemies see you kissing some girl in a movie, it may lead them to believe you are weak. And then you’ll have to kill them for free.
Her classroom should look familiar to anyone who’s ever been in an American high school. There are bars on the windows, security guards, metal detectors, boom boxes, rap cassettes, alarm clock necklaces, and all books are written by The RZA. Aside from the kids who just want to be rude and not learn, there is a cocaine-dealing gang running things behind the chalkboard. When she stands strong against this gang, they bust her kneecap and the Big Berenger steps up to fill her place and eat a plate full of revenge while he’s at it.
When the students see him, they immediately mistake him for a wimp. One kid even throws a paper airplane at his back. Stupid boy! Berenger whips around, catches the airplane, sticks a thumb tack on the end, and throws it through the kid’s eyeball. After that, all eyes are on him (except one).
“Now,” he growls. “This teacher’s planner says you’re learning math. Well, I got some math for you…You’re in the jungles of ‘Nam getting hunted by Charley. You shoot one in the head, slit two of their throats, and kick one in the nuts until he’s cut in half. Now, who can tell me…how many people did you just kill?”
A brave student raises her hand. “Uh, five? Sir?”
He shakes his head. “Wrong. Charley scum ain’t even good enough to be called people.” And just like that, he has won his way into their violent culture. Math class becomes History Class, specifically the parts of History where Tom Berenger kills people in Vietnam. The gang-bangers and mothers/whores all lean forward in their chairs, anxious to hear the next drop of blood leave his lips. He stops talking for a second to realize what has happened: they are learning. It’s like Dead Poet’s Society except it has balls instead of tears.
All this learning gets the attention of the school’s principal, played by Winston (minimum wage) Zeddemore. Winston pulls Berenger into his office for a little heart to heart. “You stabbed a kid in the eye with a paper airplane! Now the little bastard’s gonna sue our ass! Next time you stab a kid in my school, do it right and make sure it kills him!”
On the outside Berenger says, “Yes, sir.” But on the inside he’s saying, “I’ll remember that when it’s your turn.” See, while Berenger’s been teaching, he’s also been learning. The school’s cocaine gang is being ordered around by someone big, someone who’s not a student. Berenger thinks he might have found his man. What evidence does he have? None. Just guts. Tom Berenger once swallowed a Magic 8-ball.
That night he gets his crew together. “Listen fellas! Tonight my kids are gonna buy drugs from another school. I say we kill them all and steal their shit!” The other guys are all in agreement that this plan rules. Of course, any plan they come up with rules. This is a group that includes not only Tom Berenger, but Luis Guzman and William Forsythe as well. They don’t even need bullets–they can shoot you with their fingers. And William Forsythe has acid spit, so he can kill you just by yelling in your face (Nick Nolte can do this as well).
They kill the students and steal their shit. But then Berenger does something weird: he throws all the cocaine into the river. This really pisses Forsythe off, which is scary even if you’re Tom Berenger. The two get over their disagreement by playing Bloody Knuckles until Forsythe gives in. “Alright, UNCLE! But this ain’t over…”
Then he does something even more alienating: instead of giving his team a cut of the money, he uses it to clean up and restock his girlfriend’s precious school. Windows get new bars, teachers get new tasers, and the Wu-library gets replaced with books by Russell Simmons. All the kids are like, “You’re the best substitute ever!” But his crew, the cocaine gang, and the Principal are all like, “This motherfucker’s gotta go!” and they form a coalition against the Berenger. Bad idea.
The next day in class, Berenger lays down a new lesson plan. “Okay kiddies. We’re moving on from History and going straight into P.E. Lookie here. This is a claymore mine…” After handing out weapons, he brings in a drug dealer. “I want you to see EXACTLY how to cut a man’s throat.” When that’s done, he cuts off his own hand and teaches the students how to sew it back on. By the time the bell rings, those kids are tough enough to kill WWI.
The coalition of bad guys surrounds the school. “Everyone not willing to die for Tom Berenger needs to get the fuck out now!” Zeddemore says through a bullhorn. A couple of pussy students come out with their hands up and immediately get shot by the trigger-happy Forsythe. When no one else tries to escape, the bad guys move in. None of them ever see the light of day again.
Berenger’s crew makes short work of the cocaine gang, mostly by rigging the school with vicious booby traps. For instance, one bad guys steps onto a false tile and falls into a pit of poop-smeared bamboo chutes. Another guy follows a trail of cocaine into a room filled with wild boars.
But then the Professionals take over, and most of the students learn the world’s most common last lesson: even God is scared of William Forsythe. The kids fight back with all their hearts, but bullets just bounce off him. He lets grenades go off in his hand while punching students in the face. When it’s time for a smoke break, he grabs two bottles of A1 and heads for the wild boar room licking his Forsythe lips.
Unfortunately, one of those boars is actually Berenger in disguise. He lets himself get eaten, then flexes as hard as he can while curled up in Forsythe’s tummy. As a result, Forsythe gets blown in half. God weeps. The Devil mourns. Through their shared grief they learn to become best buds again.
Berenger takes out the rest of the bad guys one former teammate at a time. Pretty soon he and Winston Zeddemore are all that’s left. Before Winton can raise his gun, Berenger unleashes a paper airplane that goes through Winston’s heart, circles back around, and goes through his heart again. “I told myself I’d remember that when it’s your turn,” he quips. The audience is too afraid to consider what little sense that makes.
With the entire student body dead, that school is pretty much done for, which leaves Berenger’s girlfriend out of a job. “Don’t worry, babe. Pack your bags.”
“Where are we going?” she squeaks.
Berenger’s stare turns towards the camera. Towards YOU. “Community College.” Then your VCR melts, ensuring that NO movie will ever substitute The Substitute.
Behind every great book adaptation is a forgettable first try. — By Ryan Covey