Starring Sean Astin, Lou Gossett, Jr., Wil Wheaton, Andrew Divoff, and Denholm Elliott
My rating: ★★★ stars
When their boarding school is taken hostage, a group of rebellious boys fight against their captors in this entertaining action flick.
After the flood of teen movies in the 1980s, the early 1990s brought a dry spell. One of the few that were released during that time was 1991’s Toy Soldiers, a kind of Red Dawn meets Die Hard. In the film, the members of a South American drug cartel seize a boarding school for rebellious boys because they believe the son of the judge in charge of the trial of the cartel’s leader will be there. A group of boys, led by incorrigible ne’er-do-well Billy Tepper (Sean Astin), work together to take down the bad guys and free the school.
The movie, which never aspires to be anything more than an entertaining action film, is enjoyable throughout. The boys’ plans make use of their troublemaking know-how. The exposition scenes cleverly introduce the talents and knowledge the boys will use later in the film. The script spaces the action scenes nicely to maintain interest throughout the film. The best sequence comes in the middle of the film, when Billy escapes to deliver information to the authorities and then must break back into the school before the captors notice his absence.
Astin proves charismatic, showing an ability to carry a movie. However, he’s slightly miscast; he’s a little too sensitive for Billy. On the other hand, at that time, there weren’t a lot of teen stars to choose from. There are plenty of good actors around Astin’s age, but they weren’t active at the time or weren’t starring names yet. Astin does about as a good a job as any young star could have done then.
A more egregious miscast is Wil Wheaton as Billy’s best friend, Joey, the hot-headed, angst-ridden son of a mafia boss (Jerry Orbach). He’s more sullen than angst-ridden. Wheaton can’t even get close to being rash and angry enough for the role. It’s the kind of part that a young Mark Wahlberg could have played, if he were acting at the time.
Lou Gossett, Jr., however, is perfectly cast as the tough but sympathetic dean. The role recalls the one that won him an Oscar in An Officer and a Gentleman. He gives a smart and understanding performance. When the authorities discuss the boys’ plan to take down their captors, most of the adults think the plan is ludicrous, which, of course it would be in a real life situation. But Gossett, with his intelligence and conviction, makes viewers believe the plan is feasible.
The film features a host of good supporting actors from the era in addition to Orbach and Gossett. They’re helped by a script that doesn’t present all adults as out-of-touch or incompetent, as a weaker film might. Denholm Elliott is wonderfully compassionate as the headmaster, taken hostage along with the students and trying valiantly to help them through the ordeal. Mason Adams gives his FBI deputy director role a sense of shrewdness and experience. R. Lee Emery, as the army general in charge of handling the situation, and Keith Coogan, as the wisecracking member of the boys, play the type of roles that they had perfected.
One of the film’s best performances comes from Andrew Divoff, as Luis Cali, the leader of the captors. While he’s clearly a hard-line bad guy, he’s neither insane nor sadistic. He has a calculated plan that begins to go wrong from the moment the captors take control of the school. Divoff shows Cali responding to each crisis with calm efficiency, only hinting at the frustration of the character. He allows us to see Cali struggling with not wanting to hurt the boys while trying to maintain control. Divoff never lets his performance appear obvious. He can only give hints and suggestions as to what the character is thinking because Cali has to present a strong front to his men and his captives.
Unfortunately, the opening and closing action sequences provide Toy Soldiers with one big flaw. They look too much like 1980s-type ultraviolent action films that Stallone or Schwarzenegger might star in. The machine guns and swirling helicopters don’t match the tone of the film. The scenes needn’t be as graphic as they are. It isn’t necessary for us to see bodies getting riddled with bullets. The movie ended up with an R-rating, which had to have hurt it at the box office, shutting out much of its intended audience (or, at least, making it harder for teens to see).
Toy Soldiers isn’t a big film or an important one. But it is fun, showing more cleverness and a greater quality of execution than many action or teen movies. It’s the kind of film that I stop on when channel-surfing because I know it will provide diverting entertainment.