Looking back at Toy Soldiers

Not a big hit on release in 1991, teen-filled action movie Toy Soldiers has aged surprisingly well. Simon takes a look back…

By the start of the 90s, the action movie was on the cusp of some big changes.

This was the last era of the global action movie superstar, powering their films to massive box office success. Terminator 2 was about to usher in a growing reliance on special effects, and the lure of the computer was something the genre would wrestle with from that point onwards. And that means films such as Toy Soldiers, whilst nothing as dramatic as the last of a dying breed, are really quite rare.

The concept and set-up of this particular film is quite straightforward, and in narrative terms, it’s happy to be conventional. A prologue alerts us to another generic criminal being extradited to America, and we can see that son of said criminal, Enrique Cali, isn’t best pleased about the news. So he does what any annoyed terrorist offspring would do, and heads off to America.

Oddly, in America, there’s a boarding school by the name of Regis High, where lots of sons of powerful people seem to go. Said powerful people include the owner of the third largest construction company in the world, the vice president of the Republican Party, and the chairman of the armed services committee. Oh, and the presiding Federal Judge overseeing the trial of Enrique Cali’s father. Regis High clearly has set criteria on its application form.

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Enrique, thus, heads to America to try and get at the son of the aforementioned Federal Judge, by taking over Regis High with lots of guns and explosives. And he quickly gets over the bad news that his primary target has already left, when he works out just what families send their kids to the school. In short, he’s got hostages. Lots of them.

That’s one ingredient to the film. The other is that said kids at the school are the self-professed ‘rejects’. Or at least a small ensemble of them are, led by Sean Astin’s Billy. Amongst his cohorts are Wil Wheaton, Keith Coogan and George Perez, although perhaps the most inspired piece of casting turns out to be that of Louis Gossett Jr as the Dean.

It’s Gossett Jr’s steady performance that grounds a lot of Toy Soldiers, even when he assumes the Al-esque role from Die Hard later in the film. He’s the one who shows us that Astin and his chums are more lovable rogues than anarchists, secretly smirking at pranks such as the legendary vodka mouthwash, tapping into the school’s phone line to ring arguably the most unerotic chatline of all time (personally, I’d want my money back if I was paying), and moving furniture out onto the school lawn.

In fact, the casting balance is really strong. Wisely, in a film where it’s generally a young cast carrying the weight, bringing in Gossett Jr is just one of the counterbalances. The others are the always-terrific Denholm Elliott, in his penultimate film role, and Andrew Divoff (the Wishmaster films) as a surprisingly nasty villain. Even Full Metal Jacket’s R Lee Ermey makes an appearance. Always good to see.

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And it’s a bit of nastiness that arguably separates Toy Soldiers from its contemporary rivals. There’s no playing for a PG-13 or 12A rating here. Toy Soldiers keeps an undercurrent of menace about it by the sheer level of violence in the film. This is, after all, a movie where one of the students gets gunned down on the steps of the school. They clearly wouldn’t greenlight something like that today.

At the time, the violence was something the film was slammed for, but I’m not sure that was entirely fair. The reason the ultimate hostage situation in the Regis School works is because you actually believe that the terrorists would open fire at any given moment. Mainly because they do.

For me, this pays off in one sequence in particular. It’s the moment where Billy has to break back into the school in time for headcount, and it’s one of the few moments in an action movie where I can remember sitting in the cinema wondering just how they were going to do it. Granted, the answer wasn’t ultimately particularly radical, but at least it set up something where it really felt like there would ramifications if the fit hit the shan. I though it was genuinely quite tense.

Toy Soldiers is arguably at its least interesting when it’s outside of the school gates, Gossett Jr excepted, and it’s to the credit of the young ensemble cast that you want to spend more time with them. Astin is a good choice to lead them, too, arguably leaving the last vestiges of The Goonies behind him here. For Wil Wheaton, the film was notable around release for him appearing in his pants, basically. But it’s good work he puts in here, and clearly one of his best films.

Co-writer and director Daniel Petrie Jr (the co-writer of Beverly Hills Cop), and co-screenwriter David Koepp, take their time to tick the right boxes and cover the background work. Thus, the first half hour establishes both the protagonists and antagonists, and the second act turns the screw, but always remembering to drop in sufficient humour.

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The final act is, perhaps inevitably, the least interesting, but it’s still a decent pay-off, and Toy Soldiers is a rounded, three-act action movie. Its action sequences themselves have little special about them, but it doesn’t seem to matter too much: we know the threat, we know the situation, and there’s little need to show off with explosives to distract from that.

I also want to mention the music. Robert Folk’s score from Toy Soldiers is incredibly rare, and that’s a real pity. At the start, I talked about how this was action movies heading to the end of an era. I’d argue the score reflects that, too. A decade after Toy Soldiers’ release, action movies with thematic scores were in the minority, and Folks’ work here is one of the most underappreciated of the 90s, for my money. If I could afford it, a second hand copy at Amazon US is going for $120 at the time of writing.

Toy Soldiers certainly has problems. It was derided as Dead Poets Society meets Rambo on release by the Chicago Tribute, and it does have a point. It’s tonally a bit up and down. It also relies on some flying contraption as a pivotal plot moment, something that seemed signposted from the minute it first appeared.

But it’s held up surprisingly well, and rewatching the film in the present day, it’s a really enjoyable near-two hours. It’s one of the few films that might even be better than you remembered it, too.

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It’s been horribly underserved by the DVD and Blu-ray market, though, with the sole disc release to date being a pretty crappy 4:3 affair. Why nobody though even to bother with widescreen is a bit of a mystery, really. But there’s still time to fix that, and I still believe there’s a surprising degree of interest in an action movie that only made $15m at the US box office.

The film is certainly worthwhile, and it’s overcome the initially underwhelming reviews to retain a small degree of interest. I couldn’t hold it up as a 90s classic (although it sort-of-is for me), but it is still a fun little gem that’s worth digging out.