The Substitute (1996)

The Substitute (1996)- * *1\2

Directed by: Robert Mandel

Starring: Tom Berenger, Ernie Hudson, Glenn Plummer, Raymond Cruz, William Forsythe, Marc Anthony, Diane Venora, Richard Brooks, Cliff DeYoung, Willis Sparks, and Luis Guzman

“Don’t cry, sit down and have a shrimp roll” - Shale

Shale (Berenger) is a Vietnam vet and mercenary. He has a team of mercenary buddies that he does missions with – Rem (Guzman), Wellman (Brooks), the reliable Joey (Cruz), and the unhinged Hollan (Forsythe). After having gone through hell and back during numerous wars and dangerous escapades, nothing can prepare them for the most threatening and perilous mission yet – high school!

When Shale’s love interest Jane (Venora) is attacked in true Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding fashion, Shale does the only logical thing – he goes undercover as her substitute while she’s out convalescing. Unfortunately for Shale, the school is a chaotic jungle of drugs, gangs, bad language and tardiness. Principal Claude Rolle (Hudson) seems to be doing his best, but a gang called the Kings of Destruction rule the school. KOD (not to be confused with “Youth of the Nation” band POD) is led by Juan Lacas  (Anthony), so Shale, now teaming up with not just his merc buddies but also some teachers and a few of the better students, try to get to the bottom of all the criminality going on at that particular Miami high school. Will the baddies succeed, or will they graduate from SHALE University? Find out today…

The Substitute is a movie that was a popular enough rental on VHS that it spawned three sequels to date, and in our minds remains tied to the video store era. It almost feels like cheating for us to re-watch it on DVD (never mind Blu-Ray), but it’s hard to resist the inexpensive DVD collection that compiles all four Substitute movies for one low price. It has a junkier, grainier look than we remembered from those golden days when we chose it from among the many options at our local video store. It’s also significantly longer than we remembered – at almost two hours, it’s unnecessarily lengthy. But, then again, it did play in theaters, and “theater movies” always think they have to be longer than they need to be. Needless to say, this would never make it to the theater today.

If you take all the “bad school” movies that have been with us for such a long time – everything from Blackboard Jungle (1955), to The Principal (1987), Class of 1984 (1982), Class of 1999 (1990), Dangerous Minds (1995), Detention (2003), and, of course Class of 1999 II: The Substitute (1994), not forgetting the parody of such films, High School High (1996), and amalgamate them, and add some “Mercenary Humor”, you get The Substitute. One thing the aforementioned movies don’t have, of course, are Tom Berenger’s stunning purple shorts. Or Raymond Cruz’s man bun. He was quite ahead of the current man bun trend. We think that’s what The Substitute will really be remembered for.

Sure, there’s a lot of silly dialogue, a couple of brain-numbing action scenes, and your typical 35-year-old teenagers, and that’s all well and good, but sadly there’s some bathroom humor, mostly typified by the character of Wolfson (De Young). Just why an overlong movie felt it had the time to include bathroom-humor scenes remains a frustrating question. That aside, the library scene is a winner, even though you have to wait almost an hour to get there. The presence of Marc Anthony as Lacas makes you understand why J. Lo fell so madly in love with him. One thing you have to give The Substitute is that the cast is really strong, with plenty of names/faces we all know and love. Although, not to be mean, Berenger looks a little chunky to be a mercenary in fighting-fit shape. Maybe that’s why he didn’t return for the sequels and the great Treat Williams took his place. Or perhaps we should say substituted for him. Sorry about that, but I guess we have substitutions on the brain, as this movie teaches us that the practice of substituting solves all of life’s problems.

Finally, special mention should go out to one Willis Sparks as the character of John Janus. He was a competing mercenary who even had a truly awesome “mercenary demo reel”, which was unquestionably a movie highlight. (It ought to be; Janus informed us that it was created by a guy who normally does “rock videos”). Janus’s demo reel should have been this movie. Or it at least should have spun off into a movie of its own. It would have done in the 80’s, but by this point we were firmly entrenched in the 90’s, so, consequently there was no John Janus spinoff movie. Too bad.

At this point in our nation’s history, The Substitute has attained “Video Store Classic” status, so anyone who remembers it from that time will appreciate it still, but to be honest it’s not without some significant flaws. In other words, it’s no Substitute 3: Winner Takes All (1999), that much we can tell you.

Comeuppance Review by: Brett and Ty


Fight To Win (1987)

Fight To Win (1987)- * * *

Directed by: Leo Fong

Starring: George Chung, Hidy Ochiai, Bill "Superfoot" Wallace, Chuck Jeffreys, Juan Chapa, Richard Norton, Cynthia Rothrock, and Ronnie Lott

Ryan Kim (Chung) is an enthusiastic young Martial Artist that loves nothing more than training with his Sensei (Ochiai). One day after a tournament, the mysterious Armstrong (Norton) approaches them and offers Ryan the opportunity to fight Tankson (Superfoot). The reason for this is that Sensei has three ancient statues and the wealthy Armstrong wants them for his collection. When Tankson defeats Ryan, Sensei offers a “double or nothing” rematch, which the overconfident Armstrong can’t refuse. 

When Sensei is hospitalized after a heart attack, a new trainer is brought in – a woman named Lauren (Rothrock). At first, the immature and perhaps sexist Ryan doesn’t want to be trained by her. But after experiencing her brilliant skill, not only does he fall in line, he also falls in love. The stage is set for the ultimate showdown…and there’s even a raid on Armstrong’s compound that features Ryan’s buddies Michael (Jeffreys), Jerry (Chapa), and Randy (“All-pro football star Ronnie Lott”). It’s time for Ryan and the gang to FIGHT TO WIN!

From George Chung (not to be confused with one of the producers here, the prolific George Cheung), the mastermind behind Hawkeye (1988) and Kindergarten “Ninja” (1994), and director/fan favorite Leo Fong, comes Fight to Win, another wacky, screwball blend of Martial Arts, comedy, and an indefinable element that can only be found in the magical productions of the 80’s. If you’ve seen either of the aforementioned Chung outings, here you get more of the same (thankfully) – a low budget, but plenty of energy and upbeat attitude, silly dialogue and situations, and highly-skilled Martial Arts. The dialogue isn’t recorded very well so undoubtedly some of Chuck Jeffreys’s bon mots are missing in the mix, but the sense of fun is infectious, and the whole movie is imbued with a – dare we say – feeling of childlike wonder and whimsy.

It’s really impossible to dislike Fight to Win, and we feel sorry for anyone that does, as they probably have no heart or soul. The cast is killer: We have the aforementioned auteur George Chung, who gives his all here, Chuck Jeffreys, the Eddie Murphy of low-budget DTV Martial Arts movies, doing his usual stellar job, Troy Donahue in a blink-or-you’ll-miss-him cameo, Bill “Superfoot” Wallace as Armstrong’s tough-guy fighter, David Heavener lookalike Juan Chapa, Martial Arts legends Hidy Ochiai and Master Hee Il Cho, All-pro football star Ronnie Lott, and of course the teaming of Comeuppance hall of fame all-stars Cynthia Rothrock and Richard Norton, who do interact and have some fight scenes together. With Leo Fong as director, this cocktail can’t possibly fail, and it doesn’t. Rothrock is as charming as ever and Norton plays the baddie with aplomb. It’s a joy to watch everyone’s Martial Arts skill on display.

While there’s plenty of extensive training which the presence of Rothrock as the trainer helps to make more enjoyable, and some casually-racist Middle-Aged Punks (classic MAP’s), truly the showstopper is when the movie essentially stops so George Chung can have a one-man music video where he combines Martial Arts with razzle-dazzle dance moves. 

With this heady combination of Bruce Lee, Tae-Bo, Footloose, Flashdance, and Zumba, Chung – and thus the movie as a whole – truly shines. This dance element (which was foreshadowed earlier on during one of the tournament scenes) sets the movie apart and makes it stand out even more – and it was already a fairly odd duck to begin with. And we mean that in the best possible way, of course. Fight to Win is a delight from start to finish. Criminally, it never received a U.S. VHS release (and as of this writing has yet to receive a U.S. DVD or Blu-Ray release). The fact that just about everyone in America did NOT see this back in the day is painful to contemplate. Interestingly, it was released on video in Greece under the title “China O’Brian [sic] 3”, even though it came out three years before the other two sequels! At least they got to see it, however.

Well, there you have it. George Chung turns in another winner. They truly don’t make movies like this anymore, and in the self-serious modern era, Fight to Win just stands out that much more.

Comeuppance Review by: Brett and Ty 


Hell's Heroes (1987)

Hell's Heroes (1987)- * *

Directed by: Stelvio Massi

Starring: Fred Williamson, Miles O'Keefe, Scott Green, Gabriele Gori, and Chuck Connors

Set in the jungles of ‘Nam during the war, Hell’s Heroes tells the tale of Sgt. Darkin (O’Keeffe), a badass soldier whose badassery is constantly hampered by bureaucratic red tape. Naturally, this causes Darkin to become disillusioned with the war. When Senator Morris (Connors) comes to visit the troops on some sort of a press junket, Darkin expresses his dissatisfaction with life and the TV cameras and radio microphones eagerly pick it up. When Senator Morris and the soldiers he’s with are ambushed by some sneaky Viet Cong bad guys, Darkin is made the scapegoat even though he had nothing to do with it and was merely expressing his opinion. During his period of punishment, he meets up with other rebellious soldiers such as Feather (Fred), Trash (Green), and Bronx (Gori). Now a team with nothing to lose, will the men fight their way out of Vietnam when there are traps and gunfire everywhere? You just may find out…

Hell’s Heroes is yet another mediocre jungle slog that even Miles O’Keeffe, Fred Williamson, and Chuck Connors could not enliven. That should tell you how dreary it can be. Granted, fan favorites Fred and Connors don’t get a lot of time to shine here. That’s one of the problems. The major issues are, as we’ve seen time and time again, a lack of lighting, and the fact that there’s no one central villain. You’d think those would be no-brainer inclusions to an exploding-hutter like this, but no. The lights are off for about 60 percent of this movie’s running time and truly no one is home.

Just some mindless machine gun shooting, helicopters flying around (none explode), and huts exploding – not to mention O’Keeffe doing his Clint Eastwood impression again – is not really enough to get this plodding mush off the ground. Having more Chuck Connors would have been an improvement, but it must be said that his exit is grand, as is befitting the great man. It is highly appropriate that O’Keeffe’s character is named Darkin – we’re certainly in the dark for the majority of the film. It’s almost like they were thumbing their noses at us, the loyal audience. If that’s the case, that’s not cool, man. When a movie is so dark that the only light sources are muzzle flashes or explosions, that’s not good. It all adds up to an Italian-made jungle slog that we really wanted to like, but the lack of lighting and  too-brief appearances of the fan favorites made that difficult…actually, impossible.

This same year, 1987, director Stelvio Massi again teamed up with Fred Williamson for the more entertaining Black Cobra. Perhaps he wanted to make amends for Hell’s Heroes and use Fred in a more workable context. The naming of the incidental characters Bronx and Trash will immediately remind genre fans of Mark Gregory and 1990: The Bronx Warriors (1982) and Escape from the Bronx (1983), where he, of course, played Trash. Is this something we were supposed to pick up on? Because if so, then the character name of Darkin does indeed seem more like a nod to the fact that only the most minimal lights were used and nothing is seeable during the night scenes – and they knew it. Stelvio Massi is also known for his spate of Poliziotteschi movies in the 70’s, so he knows how to make fast-paced action. Something must have gone awry in the jungle this time…a bungle, to paraphrase Jethro Tull.

In the end, Hell’s Heroes is dull and not indicative of the talents of those involved. There’s a reason it was included with the 4-movie set “Inglorious Bastards 2 Hell Heroes 4 Inglorious Film Collection”, the title of which we’ve chastised before for being almost incomprehensible, and not released as a standalone disc. It’s not worth that treatment, and only die-hard fans of this type of movie are encouraged to seek it out.

Comeuppance Review by: Brett and Ty 


Final Reprisal (1988)

Final Reprisal (1988)- * * *

Directed by: Teddy Page

Starring: Gary Daniels, Protacio Dee, Glazia Herradura, and Jim Gaines

In the heat of battle during the Vietnam War, Sgt. David Callahan (Daniels) along with old buddy and fellow soldier Charles Murphy (Gaines), among other members of an elite squad, stage a daring attack on the home of Vietnamese Captain Tran Van Phu (Dee). Things go horribly wrong when Van Phu’s young daughter Mai (Herradura) is senselessly murdered during the raid. Vowing revenge, Van Phu gets his wish when, five years later and now working as a trainer for the Thai military, Callahan has a family of his own. When they are mercilessly slaughtered, Callahan gets really mad and teams back up with Murphy so he can, at long last, get his FINAL REPRISAL. However, it won’t be all cut and dry, as some mysteries from the past begin to resurface…

Here we have some prime early Gary Daniels in only his second-ever film role – and it delivers the goods! Director Teddy Page rarely disappoints (here he’s credited as Tedd Hemingway; note the second “d” in Tedd), and the Page-Daniels alliance – working in the great year of 1988 and in a prime location, the Philippines – is indeed a recipe for success. Daniels’s skill and athleticism as a Martial Artist is on full display, and he’s as likable as ever. This is remarkable as he maintained these qualities throughout his career. He’s teamed up with Jim Gaines, who has had an amazing career of his own: Besides Final Reprisal, he was in Cop Game, Mannigan’s Force, Strike Commando 2, Jungle Rats, Robowar, and the rare Daniels debut The Secret of King Mahis Island – and that was just 1988!

Daniels and Gaines have a definite Crockett and Tubbs thing going on here. Miami Vice was super-hot at the time, and the clothes the two of them wear are a dead giveaway. Interestingly, Daniels’s first-ever screen credit was as “Male Stripper” in an episode of ‘Vice called Walk-Alone in ’86. Only two short years later, he was living the dream as a white-suited Crockett-esque lead. And while James “Sonny” Crockett was a Vietnam vet, Miami Vice didn’t feature Crockett mowing down baddies with a machine gun, going through “revenge training”, enduring the Prerequisite Torture as well as a torture montage. ‘Reprisal also contains killer fight scenes, as well as the classic guard tower falls and exploding huts.

While our heroes are most definitely fighting the commies, Final Reprisal offers an unusually sympathetic look at the other side of the coin. You feel bad for Van Phu and his daughter. This gives the movie a dimension you don’t often see. As a whole, Final Reprisal is a lot better and more entertaining than the much more well-known Missing in Action (1984). The whole outing starts with a bang and the viewer remains satisfied. It’s hard to ask for much more than that. Plus, we get a lot of the silenced-gun “pew” sound effect. This is to be distinguished from the “pew pew!” laser effect. A short, curt “pew” indicates a shooting done on the sly. We get a feast of them here, if there are any fans of that out there.

Puzzlingly, Final Reprisal never received a U.S. VHS release (and, as of this writing, has no U.S. DVD or Blu-Ray editions). This is a real shame, as it could have been a video store-era classic, and it could have raised the name recognition of Gary Daniels back then. It would have been perfect for video store shelves of the day. Thankfully, it does exist, and fans of Gary Daniels and/or 80’s action have a winner on their hands with Final Reprisal.

Comeuppance Review by: Ty and Brett