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BMOC (Big Mercenary on Campus) Serves Up a Curious Mix

In "The Substitute," a mercenary (Tom Berenger) poses as a history teacher, substituting for his girlfriend in an ultraviolent Miami high school after she is assaulted in a strangely sophisticated gangland attack. (Rated R.)


Mr. Holland used music. Jaime Escalante used math. Now, Shale--a soldier of fortune with ethics--wins over the hearts and minds of high school students using automatic weapons and firefights in the halls.

The classroom drama-action hybrid, featuring gratuitous nudity and violence, wasn't what most kids expected from a high school movie--even if it was rated R.

Scott Pfeifer, 15, of Mission Viejo figured the unusual mix was probably the result of movie makers' trying to stand out among the sheer volume of inspirational-teacher movies. "Because they're doing the substitute thing over and over, they had to put a new twist in it," he said. "He was, like, a mercenary instead of just, like, a teacher. I didn't think it was excellent. It was pretty good."

Curiously, most kids said Miami's fictional Columbus High, a stereotype of a modern inner-city high school, was "realistic"--even though they had never been to a school where the day begins with metal detection, statues must be protected with chain-link fencing, every inch of tile and concrete is covered with graffiti and students routinely taunt, curse and try to kill their teachers.

The movie's students think that Vietnam was all about stopping Hitler and that Yale is a lock (literally), not a university. Many are already parents themselves.

"It's way more realistic than 'Dangerous Minds,' " said Gabriel Pluma, 11, of Irvine.

In that movie, Michelle Pfeiffer uses competitions and prizes to turn around her wild inner-city kids. In this one, Shale, a Vietnam veteran, compares war stories with them.

Scott said the high school students looked and acted more like adults.

"A lot of the students would ride along with teachers and other authority figures, they were, like, conversing back and forth, they were like partners so it didn't seem like a high school atmosphere. They seemed a little bit old for the part of high school students. I mean, they don't look like any of my friends," he said, adding that other scenes seemed out of place for a purported high school movie.

For instance, in a club scene where Shale meets his buddies, the kids got a surprisingly graphic eyeful of strippers.

Similarly, the violence "did seem a little bit gratuitous, especially toward the end," Scott admitted.

Shale and his merry band of mercenaries break up a drug cartel with the usual action-adventure assortment of car crashes, beatings, explosions, shootings and blood baths. The victims include students and an innocent teacher as well as the villains.

Irvine eighth-grader John Anderson said he went to see what high school was all about.

Instead, he and other kids got a heavy dose of inner-city teenage exploitation that spreads stereotypes while passing for entertainment.

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