Recently released on DVD and Blu-ray courtesy of 101 Films’ “Cult Movie Collection,” Toy Soldiers from 1991 takes us back to a time when teen characters had the freedom to do just about anything. One of the most unjustly neglected popcorn action films of its time, it musters several genre legends among its then mostly-unknown cast.
Taken from a novel by William P Kennedy and written and by director Daniel Petrie Jr in collaboration with David Koepp, the film’s script, such as it is, is paper-thin, preposterous and riddled with more holes than a tramp’s overcoat but it’s also very entertaining.
The characters are mostly two-dimensional stereotypes but the casting more than makes up for that, headed up by Enemy Mine’s Louis Gossett Jr and Raiders of the Lost Ark’s Denholm Elliott whilst the teens ares led by The Goonie’s Sean Astin and Wil Wheaton in his first breakout role after escaping from Star Trek The Next Generation, with Full Metal Jacket‘s R. Lee Ermey also popping up briefly. Most of the action takes place in the Regis School (or Rejects’ School as it is known by its students), a private rural establishment for the troubled sons of Captains of Industry in the USA.
A brief and bloody prologue set in Latin America sees revolutionary leader Luis Cali (Wishmaster’s Andrew Divoff) attempt to prevent his father being extradited to the USA. His failure to do so results in him being forced to smuggle his small and incredibly well-armed band of stereotyped heavies into the States in an attempt to kidnap the son of the judge presiding over his father’s case as a means of enabling Señor Cali Senior’s release, their scheme involving blagging their way into the Regis School.
Fortunately for the boy in question he has already been taken from the school to a place of safety, however when Cali realises just how well-connected his classmates are he decides to hold all of them hostage with the threat of summary executions, but he has reckoned without the school’s popular bad boy Billy Tepper (Astin) and his best mate Joey Trotta (Wheaton) who decide to take the situation into their own hands and, with the help of the US Army, retake the school. Things are only slightly complicated by Joey being the estranged son of the head of the New Jersey mafia, a “business associate” of Cali Senior.
Given that most of the active protagonists in Toy Soldiers are teenage boys, it would most likely be considered a young adult film in today’s classifications, however, unlike YA films of the 2010s the teen characters smoke, use F-words, drink illicit vodka smuggled in mouthwash bottles and have phone sex with prostitutes, all within the first fifteen minutes. Similarly, by contemporary YA standards the level of violence is both graphic and gory.
This is also enhanced by the complete absence of modern digital or wire work, the film relying entirely on practical physical effects to achieve its results and all the better for it. Notwithstanding its teen protagonists the film was always intended for an adult audience, coming at the tail-end of a series of eighties action films that featured teen protagonists caught up in adult situations and ultimately prevailing, and it was given a 15 certificate on first release in the UK and an R-rating in the USA.
As already mentioned the script is preposterous but what makes this film entertaining is its relatively high production values, skilled direction and editing and the absolute dedication of the talented cast. Sean Astin makes a sympathetic anti-hero and gives a committed, athletic performance, Denholm Elliott sticks to his tried-and-tested befuddled academic caught up in circumstances beyond his control while Louis Gossett is the hard-but-fair school principal.
Wil Wheaton’s mafia father appears briefly but enjoys luxury casting in the form of Law & Order’s Jerry Orbach whose charisma and screen presence brings a relatively minor but pivotal character instantly to life. To modern eyes the almost total lack of female characters is a minus but taken on its own terms as a product of its times, Toy Soldiers is an enjoyable and engaging bit of fluff.
Given that this is just a catalogue film from the vaults, the quality of the transfer on the Blu-ray is superb, with both image and soundtrack sharp, undamaged and vibrant. Unfortunately there are no extras at all, which is a pity given the names in the cast but, given its mid-range price, is well worth a punt.