''The Substitute'' tests the waters | EW.com


''The Substitute'' tests the waters

Will racial dynamics and Tom Berenger as Vietnam vet bent on vengeance appeal to America?

The hard-charging trailer for The Substitute makes Tom Berenger’s inner-city classroom look more dangerous than a newly sown minefield. A Vietnam vet bent on vengeance, Berenger’s Mr. Smith faces down the black and Hispanic punks who put their last teacher in the hospital. Exploiting urban racial tensions, the trailer presents a movie that’s, at best, un-PC; at worst, The Substitute seems to be bucking for Aryan Nation movie of the year.

But there were no protests at the cineplex last weekend as the $15 million flick, shot last summer in Miami with local gang members in supporting roles, opened to a respectable $6.1 million. It played strongly to African-American and Hispanic teens, and became the No. 2 movie, albeit on a very slow weekend. Count that as a low-rent victory for LIVE Entertainment. Mainly a video producer that makes forays into theatrical distribution, LIVE, whose previous successes include Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, used Orion Pictures’ distribution operation but handled all publicity itself.

And the company had no fears that The Substitute’s take-no-prisoners trailer would offend minority audiences. ”We wanted to highlight the confrontation between the kids and Tom Berenger — to show that he related to them, that he was able to reach them,” claims Elliot Slutzky, LIVE’s executive vice president of distribution and marketing. ”I think this was a very authentic showing of how things happen in high schools sometimes.”

Director Robert Mandel (School Ties), who took on the project last April, says, ”I thought it was an action movie that maybe I could add a little humor to. I just loved the hook — it made me laugh — the idea of an ex-mercenary coming into a public school and trying to clean it up.”

Humor, eh? Would that include Berenger’s line when he pelts some teens with hardcover texts: ”It’s about time you boys start hitting the books!” Call it To Sir, With Very Tough Love.