What happens when film executives decide to combine a teen-angst dramedy with over-the-top action? If we’re lucky, it’ll turn out like Red Dawn, a grim, paranoia-inducing thriller that allows goony teens to embody the American spirit. If we’re unlucky… Well, you’ll just have to wait for us to tackle Demolition High to know the true horrors of the teen action flick. Toy Soldiers doesn’t quite reach Red Dawn‘s heights, but it’s a solid thriller.
Billy Tepper (Sean Astin) and Joey Trotta (Wil Wheaton) are prep school thugs. Billy is smart and resourceful, the kind of kid who concocts a vodka drink that’s indistinguishable from mouthwash and uses $10 worth of Radio Shack parts to hack the school’s phone line and prank-call 976 numbers (remember those?). Louis Gossett, Jr., and Denholm Elliott turn in fine performances as, respectively, dean and headmaster. They treat Billy and Joey with a combination of tough love and appreciative amusement. It’s not exactly uncharted territory in a teen movie, but it’s always nice when the adults are played as more than simpering boobs.
Before long, the school is invaded by Luis Cali (Andrew Divoff, in a typically scenery-chewing performance), son of a Colombian druglord. Why would he choose a prep school in the U.S.? Luis’s father was arrested by a Colombian judge and extradited to the U.S. to face his crimes. The judge in question has a son who attends the Regis Academy. After Luis murdered the judge and fled the country, the State Department whisked his son away to a secret location. Luckily, Luis’s über-creepy partner in crime, Jack (Michael Champion), points out a better strategy: holding the students for a ransom their wealthy parents can afford.
From there, it pretty much unfolds like Die Hard: The Teen Years. Billy and Joey enlist the aid of friends (Keith Coogan, T.E. Russell, and George Perez) in hatching plans to foil the terrorists and communicate with the FBI and military hovering off-campus. Part of the fun of the movie is watching them coming up with schemes and putting them into action, so I won’t spoil much more of the plot. Just know that writers Daniel Petrie, Jr. (who also directed), and David Koepp do a nice job of crafting a believable story. On a certain level, it’s a ridiculous concept, but the writers never overplay their hand. There’s no war paint or slow motion Dirty Dozen badass-walks. They keep it at a level that clever teens could conceivably pull off.
Although the film mines a fair amount of clichés – including an untimely death that forces Billy to question his competence to foil Luis’s plans – they pay off in inventive, often entertaining ways. For instance, during the “exposition dump” portion of the first act, Petrie and Koepp go to great pains to show Billy hacking the school phone with his cheap Radio Shack components. Because of the nature of cinema, the instinctive thought is, “This will pay off later – they’ll use this phone trick to contact the authorities or something.” They don’t, but this isn’t an unsatisfying letdown. It’s a defiance of a cliché: they use the phone sequence to show Billy’s cleverness, resourcefulness, and skill with electronics, all attributes of his character that do pay off later. They don’t need to go back to the phone trickery – in fact, Billy’s flight from the prep school to warn the authorities in person is the film’s most suspenseful sequence.
For a teen-oriented action movie, Toy Soldiers succeeds admirably. What could have been a ridiculous, eye-rolling exercise in exploitation turns out to be an effective, entertaining film. The credit for that goes partly to Petrie, who wisely keeps the action grounded in something resembling reality. However, the success of the story really falls on the shoulders of Astin and Wheaton, whose capable performances lend credibility to a far-fetched premise. It’s definitely worth a look.