review for The Substitute on AllMovie

The Substitute (1996)
by Karl Williams review

This guilty-pleasure revenge fantasy is pure cinematic cheese, but like many other Z-grade action pictures it's also bizarrely entertaining. For those seeking one, a disturbingly racist "angry white man" subtext can possibly be discerned here, placing the film in the same league as Death Wish (1974) and Falling Down (1993). The debate over the artistic validity of works that legitimately tap into the angry social zeitgeist is endless, but such philosophical arguments are largely moot here because there isn't much art involved. Director Robert Mandel offers up stereotypes and platitudes, but also plenty of camp value, so a story that, in other hands, might have been a searing indictment of a dysfunctional system, becomes a major hoot for those able to check their I.Q. and social conscience during the opening credits. Of course, none of it makes much sense: The film's vicious final confrontation provides the hero with satisfaction but its real life ramifications are too absurdly horrible to contemplate. Tom Berenger simply offers up a variation on his hardcore warmonger characters from Platoon (1986) and Sniper (1993), but that's all the script requires. The best one can do with a film such as this is refuse to take it seriously and hope the filmmakers never intended otherwise. Rest assured that if you detest The Substitute (1996), you possess excellent taste but are also possibly missing out on the joke; enough viewers appreciated something about the film that it was followed by a pair of sequels.