Hey everyone, gather 'round—there's a new Substitute flick for our viewing edification!
The highly anticipated fourth installment in the long-running, critically acclaimed, boffo box office smash Substitute film series, The Substitute 4: Failure is Not an Option brings a dramatic, darker edge to its shopworn teach-and-pummel mix, acting as a prescient cautionary tale tracing the trail of the extremist hate movement plaguing today's narrow, weak-minded yet impressionable youth. How's that for overblown hyperbole? Just how bad can this direct-to-video production be? Remember folks, there is a '4' in the title up there. Is that ever a good thing?
Facts of the Case
In a brief yet muddled pre-credits opening sequence, mercenary-for-hire Karl Thomasson (Treat Williams), seemingly engaged in some covert mano-a-mano combat with unnamed guerrillas in an Argentinean warzone, kills his youthful quarry. I guess this confusing sequence is included to show that Thomasson is equal parts lean, mean killing machine and kind, concerned man with a heavy, compassionate heart for young, impressionable soldiers willing to die needlessly for their cause.
Flash forward to the conveniently named "Military Academy of the South." Thomasson, now retired from active military duty, poses as a substitute military history teacher to investigate the diabolical Commandant Brack (played by the wonderfully named Patrick Kilpatrick—The Replacement Killers , Last Man Standing). Brack is brainwashing his cadets, conveniently grooming them into a cult of deadly neo-nazis. Brack's elite skinhead faction has united under the guise of the Werewolf Company. They covertly gather, engage in wanton destruction, and incessantly chant whimsical ditties like "Slash Burn Bomb Kill Die Werewolf Glory" with all the pent-up, aggressive bravado of an adolescent punk gathering at a Skrewdriver concert.
To infiltrate and bring down these pesky, evil hatemongers, Thomasson enlists the aid of several staff members at the private academy, including Dr. Jenny Chamberlain (Angie Everhart—Bordello of Blood, Another 9 1/2 Weeks), the school's medical officer, and the mysterious, seemingly crazy groundskeeper Luther (Bill Nunn—Radio Raheem from Do The Right Thing). After that, the plot is very straightforward to the point of rote predictability. What ensues is a one-man war to prevent an academic apocalypse, Rambo style. Can Thomasson turn Brack's militantly loyal troops against the puppet master himself by teaching and preaching lessons of racial harmony over singular purity? Or will he have to resort to old-fashioned ass-kicking and blowing stuff up real good? Hmm, I just wonder.
Full disclosure time—I'll readily admit that The Substitute 4 is my first foray into the Substitute series. So I don't know how Part 4 holds up alongside its cinematic lineage; I can only comment on this installment free and clear of any preexisting bias. That said, let's cut right to the chase here—this is a bad film. Not a horrible film, mind you, but still a fairly bad one nonetheless. Lower your expectations, go along for the mindless ride, and you may just emerge unscathed in the end. Maybe.
In his production notes, director Robert Radler remarks that he is particularly proud of this film for its place in cinematic history as what he believes to be the first movie to elaborately blow up a port-o-potty. What a perfect visual metaphor to liken the audience's probable viewing reaction to watching this poppycock.
Although his attempts at action sequences are dull and unexciting and often look like cheap outtakes from a lost A-Team episode, in fairness, Radler's pedestrian direction is reasonably competent on the whole, with decently framed shot compositions for a run-of-the-mill, direct-to-video production like this. It's a choppily assembled picture to be sure, but never to the point of mindless, talentless incoherence. Still, it is predictable and clichéd to a fault, littered with insultingly stereotypical good and bad guys. And the film just gets more and more ridiculous as it drags on through its 91-minute runtime. By the time white supremacist Commandant Brack turns to the Asian community for help by enlisting a Korean hitman to take care of Thomasson, you'll likely want to reach for that remote and shut this nonsensical drivel off.
When Treat Williams starred in Sidney Lumet's Prince of the City way back in 1981, he was the toast of the Tinseltown, a hot young actor whose star was surely on the rise. With this standout, powerful performance, he was certainly someone to watch in Hollywood. And then he seemingly disappeared; his acting career devolved into a quagmire of one disastrous misstep after another. Unfortunately, with previous appearances in both Substitute 2: School's Out and Substitute 3: Winner Takes All, it seems that this Substitute series has somehow become his regular starring vehicle and acting refuge. Mr. Williams is still a dependably good actor with a commanding screen presence and a likeable onscreen persona; his talent deserves better material than this, period.
The real treat in The Substitute 4: Failure is Not an Option is watching Patrick Kilpatrick chew the scenery with menacing delight as Commandant Brack. He nails just the right tone with his pseudo-over-the-top performance, and is certainly the best thing about this picture. I particularly enjoyed the way he sadistically states, with John Malkovichian villainous glee, that even his own daughter is a "godless multiculturalist," all because she wants to move back in with her mother, who now happens to be engaged to an African-American man.
Supermodel Angie Everhart provides a nice momentary mammary interlude or two, but does little else in her eye-candy-coated role. Sure, she may be a goddess to look at, but her acting "skill" is just not there yet; she was cast solely to bring some bare, name brand, celebrity flesh to the production. Then again, if you can accept this gimmicky casting of Everhart as a military medical officer with a straight face, then maybe you really will like this flick. Rounding out the cast, the various no-name young actors who play the cadets are not bad at all, and are sometimes quite believable in their roles. They are just not given much to work with script-wise, but they generally make the most of their short screen time.
While it was produced directly and solely for the home video market, Artisan still has gone the extra distance to give this forgettable film a quality DVD presentation.
The image on this anamorphic 1.77:1 transfer is quite acceptable. Although colors are a bit dull and muted, the color balance remains consistent, and there are no overt instances of bleeding or blooming. Flesh tones are natural, if not a bit subdued, so the pale glow of the sinister skinhead schism remains intact and precisely replicated onscreen. Black levels are acceptable; shadow delineation is accurate. While print dirt is kept to a minimal level, the image does exhibit some very noticeable grain and artifacts. Fine detail is wanting, but the image still remains consistently sharp and nicely rendered. And it's anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions to boot!
Surprisingly, the soundtrack is encoded in Dolby Digital 5.1. I was pretty amazed at how effective some of the split surround effects were. It's a nice, solid sound mix. The dialogue is easy to understand, and the surrounds get a fair amount of use. It's not dynamic, but it's better than this material demands or deserves. A Spanish language Dolby Digital 2.0 track is also included for those who need it.
Artisan doesn't stop in the extras department either. They've amazingly filled this disc with a wealth of bonus features, including an audio commentary track by director Robert Radler. It's a decent, informative track, but Radler is not exactly a commanding orator. He does share some interesting anecdotes about no-budget rag-tag filmmaking that merits a single listening by those interested in making movies on the cheap. Of course, the usual cast and crew biographical information is listed for your brief perusal. Next up are several pages of production notes, interspersed with several ultra-brief behind-the-scenes videos sprinkled within the text. Also included is a brief photo gallery that is somewhat pointless, as it only contains direct screen captures of scenes taken from the movie, instead of the usual exclusive behind-the-scenes photos and production stills that usually make this a worthwhile bonus features. Finally, there are two deleted scenes—one an extended military ballroom dance sequence, the other a lame, glorified blooper reel—that are barely worth watching even once. Still, at least they are on the disc in the first place, and I applaud Artisan's extra effort in going the distance to secure some bonus material.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Perhaps if you have an affinity for The Substitute series, then this fourth installment may be essential viewing simply to satisfy the completist in you. All others, you have been warned. However, Artisan must be given credit for putting together a nice DVD package for this sub-mediocre release, not scrimping on the extra content, and delivering a nice sound and sight presentation, even for inferior entertainment like this.
I think it's safe to say that The Substitute 4: Failure is Not an Option can and should be avoided by most discriminating film lovers. There really is no need to rent, let alone own, this little clunker. Besides, supporting this flick in any way could only lead to further misery; I can see it now—The Substitute 5: Stay in School and Don't Do Drugs starring Jenny McCarthy as the school doctor and, well, Treat Williams as the lone substitute teacher out to educate and smack buttocks…
Artisan is excused for making this into a presentable DVD package overall, but Substitute 4 is hereby sent packing to the back of the classroom. Failure is the only option in this case. For the love of all that is sacred on earth, this abysmal franchise must be placed on permanent cinematic expulsion for all perpetuity, with nary a hope for readmittance. Accept no Substitutes!
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary Track by Director Robert Radler
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