The Substitute: Failure Is Not an Option
*½/**** Image C Sound B Extras B-
starring Treat Williams, Angie Everhart, Patrick Kilpatrick, Bill Nunn
screenplay by Dan Gurskis
directed by Robert Radler
by Walter Chaw Since being robbed of an Oscar for his performance in Sidney Lumet's underestimated Prince of the City, Treat Williams has been engaged in a terrifying and vengeful rampage of direct-to-video schlock and woeful cinema (The Deep End of the Ocean). Taking over the decidedly unimposing titular role of "the substitute" after Tom Berenger's surprise cult favourite inversion of the tired Blackboard Jungle/Dangerous Minds mold--fish-out-of-water teachers beating the tar out of inner-city youths--Treat Williams makes his third appearance as the teacher we'd love to torment...but better not.
Moving from the urban asphalt of the first three films, The Substitute 4: Failure Is Not An Option relocates to a military school in Atlanta, where a neo-Nazi domestic-terrorism wing festers under the eye-rolling tutelage of Colonel Brack (Patrick Kilpatrick, Best of the Best 2). Karl Thomasson (Williams) is a crack commando mercenary who, as a personal favour to an old friend, infiltrates the academy as a mild-mannered history teacher. Together with two other good-guy moles (Bill Nunn and Tim Abell), Karl dispenses a little tough love in the classroom and considerably tougher love on various fields of battle in and around the mysteriously desolate campus. The film's subject and setting seem to suggest something of an oblique apology for the implicit racism of the first three films' positing of a white male domesticating a minority buffet.
Filmed in a breakneck 18 days on a minuscule budget, The Substitute 4 is surprisingly well-performed (all things considered) by Williams and veteran snarling jarhead Kilpatrick. Fledgling Nazi scumbag toady Buckner (Scott Miles) turns in a convincing performance as the kind of stock simpering "yes man" Anthony Michael Hall might play if he still had a career. Veteran character actor Bill Nunn is affably unassuming in a supporting role, but far more troublesome is Angie Everhart as the school's nurse/love interest. An ex-supermodel turned "actress" in films like Bordello of Blood, Everhart is admirably uninhibited about taking her shirt off yet unintentionally disquieting in not only her stunningly wooden elocution, but also the unsettling dimensions of her cranium. Everhart has the biggest head for a military movie love interest (a.k.a. inevitable hostage or victim) since Kelly McGillis in Top Gun.
The Substitute 4 follows the tired basic tenets of the Taps genre, presenting a pantheon of stock heroes and villains who move with a lock-step rigidity through their telegraphed paces. It's not a surprise that Karl will find himself in an ill-advised and doomed roll in the hay with Nurse Noggin, and it's not a surprise that the kid with second thoughts will turn against his evil commandant. Oddly, the entire thing passes for an agreeably breezy flair with more-than-adequate stunt work, an unexpected lack of real groaners, and enough explosions to give the woofers a nice workout.
There are four scenes of satisfying chop-socky (including a smiting by chalk eraser), a nasty knifing of a Korean national, a gratuitous reference to the gory end of John the Baptist, a gurgling impalement, and more blood squibs than you can shake a stick at. A fat bar waitress does the naked hoochie-coochie on a grateful Nazi youth member, and Angie Everhart demurely flashes the goodies at least twice. All in all, a satisfyingly gory, violent, and prurient exercise that delivers everything the fourth installment in a direct-to-video exercise probably should, with the added bonus of having the courage to denounce the controversial issues of bigotry and racism. You tell 'em, Sub.
Enhanced for 16x9 televisions, the visual transfer of the Artisan DVD is something of a disappointment. There is an unusual amount of pixellation scattered throughout, the most noticeable break-up occurring in a sequence in which a line of barrels (and an outhouse) explodes. The 5.1 Dolby sound is considerably better, providing a nice low-end rumble for the explosions and a suitably invasive burble effect for the numerous chops to the throat and fervent stabbings. The DVD production notes (which are repeated in the liner notes) surprise with brief behind-the-scenes vignettes that are, unfortunately, neither particularly interesting nor synchronized with the notes. Also included is a pair of deleted scenes that are either bizarre and incoherent or tedious outtakes of the kind almost always funnier to the actors than anyone else.
Director Robert Radler (The Substitute 3) offers a director's commentary that is basically devoid of insight. Radler waxes rhapsodic on the actors and their dedication to the project, and the track is made all the more ludicrous for its total lack of perspective on the quality of the endeavour in which he is involved. Compounding his misplaced confidence and misguided pride is a confession that, while he wanted to make a stern statement about racism, he "didn't want to offend anybody." It's a statement made more disturbing than comical by an extended on-screen monologue from the weasel Buckner about the fallacy of the Holocaust. Perhaps Radler should amend the "didn't want to offend anybody" with "except Jews."
A photo gallery and cast and crew bios finish off the presentation. Originally published: May 1, 2001.
91 minutes; R; 1.78:1 (16x9-enhanced); English DD 5.1, Spanish Dolby Surround; CC; DVD-9; Region One; Artisan