Picks and Pans Review: Toy Soldiers
Miracles, to quote Willie Nelson, occur in the strangest places, and here's a small one: a teenage adventure caper with vigor, appeal and a boxing champ's sense of pace. It's predictable—yet as entertaining as a surprise party you know is coming.
The film is somewhere between a kinder, gentler Red Dawn and a Dead Poets Society with guts. It focuses on a boys prep school in a Northeastern state that's taken hostage by Colombian terrorists who want to spring a drug lord from an American prison.
Gossett (see story, page 59) is the school's dean; Astin (Memphis Belle) is leader of a group of rowdies whose pranks—such as tapping into the school phone system to make calls to sex lines—are colorful but not mean-spirited. After the terrorists invade the campus, Astin becomes the inevitable leader of the inevitable revolt.
First-time director Daniel Petrie Jr. (writer of Beverly Hills Cop) rampages right past the manifold implausibilities in this script, on which he collaborated with David (Bad Influence) Koepp. Since he never takes things seriously, his excesses are forgivable even when credulity is strained by such events as two terrorists not noticing that a helicopter gunship has just flown up 10 feet behind them.
Petrie's actors help him keep the audience on his side. Astin has a rascally, young Mickey Rooney quality that has never been used to such good effect. His buddies are ingratiating too, especially Keith Coogan (Jackie's grandson), Wil (Stand by Me) Wheaton, T.E. Russell and Shawn Phelan.
The old guys come off equally well. Despite a couple too many sympathetic sidelong grins, Gossett's calm dignity plays well against the boys' hyper behavior. Denholm Elliott makes a sturdy headmaster. And Andrew (The Hunt for Red October) Divoff does a splendid villain turn as the terrorists' leader. An exception to the strong acting is Jerry Orbach, as one student's mafioso dad. His only acting move these days is a superserious frown.
Petrie only rarely lets things slow down as much as they do when Gossett solemnly says of Astin's character, "If Billy says he can do it, I gotta believe he can." It's too bad the director—perhaps not wanting to seem like a PG-13 wuss—threw in some obscene excesses and a bit too much blood.
Otherwise this is a terrific adolescent escape movie. (Make that "male adolescent escape movie," since there are no substantial female characters.) Bad adults get their comeuppance. Good ones show appropriate respect for the Nature of Youth Today. Kids get to feel good about themselves. School's out. (R)