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I Watched All Four "Substitute" Movies So You Don't Have To

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All four "Substitute" films, starring Tom Berenger in the first and Treat Williams in the three sequels.

All four "Substitute" films, starring Tom Berenger in the first and Treat Williams in the three sequels.

The "Substitute" Movies

I watched a lot of movies to keep occupied during the Great COVID-19 Lockdown of 2020, and it seemed like every time I went searching through my various streaming services, Substitute installments kept turning up. I had vague memories of seeing these movies on the shelves of Blockbuster Video when they were current, but I had never watched any. After a while I shrugged, said, "What the hell," and started going down the rabbit hole. In just over a week's time, I sat through all four (!) installments in the series. (Who even knew there were that many Substitute movies? I didn't.)

In case you don't remember this franchise, the Substitute films revolve around a mercenary (Tom Berenger in the first film, Treat Williams in the three sequels) whose M.O. involves repeatedly going undercover as a teacher in crime-ridden learning facilities in order to take out the trash and restore order. Essentially, it's The Punisher Goes Back to School, Parts 1-4.

Actually, I'm pretty sure this plotline was used in the Punisher comics (probably more than once), and in at least one volume of the Mack Bolan, the Executioner paperback series. So while the Substitute films may not have the most original premise, they're a mostly entertaining quartet that should please fans of low-budget action flicks. So grab some popcorn, press play, and let's briefly review this series in order.

The Original...

In the first film of the series, Platoon and Major League veteran Tom Berenger stars as Jonathan Shale, a lifelong military man and mercenary who's considering getting out of "the business" after a botched mission in Cuba. Shale sets up housekeeping at the Miami apartment of his girlfriend Jane (Diane Venora), a teacher at a gang-infested local high school.

When Jane is attacked by a gang of teenage thugs and winds up in the hospital, Shale quickly fakes some teaching credentials for himself and takes over her class, so he can get to work dismantling the gang's control over the school.

Berenger is certainly an imposing presence and it's satisfying to watch him kick the crap out of a seemingly endless series of gangstas, but at nearly two hours this movie drags on too long for its own good, in spite of strong supporting performances by Ernie (Ghostbusters) Hudson and a young Marc Anthony, who plays the gang leader.

Fun fact: this is the only film in the series that was released theatrically. According to the Internet Movie Database, its box-office total was just under $15 million.

Episode II: Enter Treat

Berenger chose not to return for a sequel, so 1998's Substitute 2: School's Out introduced Treat Williams as Karl Thomasson, a fellow mercenary and apparent one time associate of Shale's. Thomasson's brother is a teacher at a Brooklyn high school who is murdered when he interrupts a car-jacking in progress near campus. After his brother's funeral, the merc gets a job at the school, takes over a class full of violent ne'er do-wells, and naturally teaches them the error of their ways.

Obviously Substitute 2 is little more than a rerun of the first movie with a change of locale and a new leading man, but I actually preferred it over the original. Williams is more likable than Berenger and his action-hero chops (previously seen in such cult B-Movie faves as 1988's Dead Heat and 1998's Deep Rising) are on point as well. It was also interesting to see B.D. Wong, who I know mainly as the police psychiatrist from Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, playing a bad-guy role.

Third Time's the Charm?

When Thomasson returned in 1999's The Substitute 3: Winner Takes All, his crusade moved up to the collegiate level. During a campus visit to the daughter (Rebecca Staab) of an old Army buddy, Karl runs afoul of the school's football team, who are unusually large and violent for their age. Doing a bit of after-hours digging, Thomasson uncovers a steroid-production operation run by the school's football coach in conjunction with the local Mob. As usual, bullets start flying and things blow up.

Winner Takes All is noticeably cheaper looking than the previous two films, but it still fits in some decent action sequences and pyrotechnics. Williams has clearly settled comfortably into the Karl Thomasson role by this point and seems to be having a lot of fun with it, as evidenced by the near-permanent smirk on his face. "3" may be the best of the Substitute films.

A Not-So-Fantastic "4"

The series was clearly running out of gas by the time 2001's Substitute 4: Failure Is Not An Option arrived direct-to-HBO. Summoned by a former commanding officer to investigate strange goings-on at an exclusive private military academy, Thomasson becomes the new Military History professor at the school and learns that its crazed commandant (Patrick Kilpatrick, Class of 1999) is recruiting its most elite cadets into a private white supremacist army.

The film's obvious budget restraints hamper what should've been a pretty cool butt-kicker. Williams is still having fun and '90s supermodel Angie Everhart lends some nice eye candy as Thomasson's love interest, but this one spends more time on the investigative side of the mission and less on action, so it feels more like a dull episode of a TV cop show

If you've already sat through the other three Substitute films you might as well catch this one to complete the saga, but if you haven't, there's no need to bother with this not-so-fantastic fourth.

That's a Wrap

If you're interested in checking out the Substitute films for yourself, all four installments are widely available on major streaming services like Amazon or Tubi, or you can pick up a handy-dandy 4-pack DVD of the entire series for just a couple of bucks. Class dismissed!

© 2020 Keith Abt


Noel Penaflor from California on May 13, 2020:

There is no...substitute?