May 31, 2009

Underrated MOTM: Toy Soldiers (1991)

Before I write anything about May's Underrated Movie of the Month, Toy Soldiers, I'm obligated to make it known that I haven't seen Red Dawn, the 1984 controversial classic that inspired it. So for those of you are devoted to that movie, or to 1981's Taps, or to 1984's Toy Soldiers - you can save your breath as I'm not making comparisons to them.

That out of the way, I settled on Toy Soldiers after seeing it on a list of some kind recently, as well as hearing the unrelated Martika ballad (the sappiness of which hasn't stopped YouTubers from combining the two). It's a movie that I haven't seen in years but that I'll still find myself watching in surprised horror when I come across it. Also, what better way to celebrate the end of the school year (nevermind that I'm not in school) than a fantasy about destroying your school in a battle against a Colombian druglord?

Written and directed by Daniel Petrie, Jr., who also wrote Turner and Hooch and the Beverly Hills Cop trilogy, Toy Soldiers is the rare movie that was marketed precisely to the audience (teen boys) who couldn't see it due to its R-rating. Whether this led to a theater full of boys pretending they were men or men wishing they were boys, I can't say. In fact I don't even know when I first saw Toy Soldiers, but it definitely wasn't in the theater. Seems to be the norm, though, since the movie took in a measly $15 million upon its release in late April of 1991. Opening weekend it came in third to Stallone and Tomei in Oscar and Matt Dillon in A Kiss Before Dying, a fact which can only be explained, in my opinion, to Toy Soldiers' R-rating.

Or maybe it also had to do with Roger Ebert's grouchy 1-star pan: "Was there any way to make this material original? To find a new twist? Was there anything the filmmakers wanted to say about the situation - other than the crushingly obvious fact that troublemakers in peacetime often become heroes in war? Did anyone connected with the production notice that they were making a movie that, in essence, had already been made? That there was no need for it? That given a budget and a cast, locations and shooting schedule, they had not justified their effort by even trying to make a film it is necessary to see? Or would that be asking too much?" Easy, Roger, easy - and don't think I won't expect you to insert that exact paragraph into your review of the Red Dawn remake next year. Isn't it ironic?

So sure, Toy Soldiers was nothing new. But that doesn't mean it wasn't awesome for a generation of boys daydreaming heroic fantasies during their high school English classes - one major difference likely being the lack of any girl to woo in the movie. No, the Regis High School is an all-boys boarding school in Virginia where "the country's best families send the world's worst students". Among these mischievous teens, Billy Tepper (a pre-Rudy Sean Astin) is the biggest thorn in Dean Edward Parker's (a post-Iron Eagle Louis Gossett, Jr.) side. He's whip-smart, influential, and fearless - the perfect hero-in-waiting when Colombian druglord Luis Cali (Andrew Divoff) and his posse take the entire school hostage.

I think what Ebert misunderstood about Toy Soldiers was that it wasn't really meant to be an analysis of U.S. foreign policy, or about international relations at the end of the cold war. To me the evidence shows that it was just meant to be a rollicking good time for the testosterone-fueled boys who were able to see it. I mean, this is the guy who wrote Beverly Hills Cop, right? In fact, if anything Ebert should have focused on the surprising brutality of the battle. The coarse language and frequent violence against teens (beatings, whippings, shootings) makes it unlikely likely this movie would even be released in 2009 and marketed to a generation that's advanced through their school careers with horrifying school shootings and classroom lockdowns. It's pretty disturbing to consider, but it automatically comes to mind when you see Wil Wheaton emptying the magazine of his machine gun.

Rather than focus on the alleged unoriginality or the harsh violence in Toy Soldiers, it's better to
consider the more positive aspects: the stunts are spectacular, the villains are over-the-top (Cali: "If any of the individual explosives are tampered with, theywillEXPLODE!!"), and the comedy is corny and crass. The title Toy Soldiers is actually very symbolic: as "real" as the scenario sometimes seems, it always remains a kind of playground for the viewer, particularly for a generation raised on G.I. Joe. As evidenced by the spoilerific clips below, it's ultimately just a B-movie about the "good guys" vs. the "bad guys", and all of the messy international politics can be safely left on the sideline as ancillary material, like those extra pieces that came with your action figures that you never used.


  1. One of the few UMOTMs that I haven't seen. Never really heard that it was any good, though, and of course my only real association is with the song (unfortunately).

  2. Yes - unfortunately is right! I don't know who your sources are, because I'm telling you, this movie is right up your alley. Or at least right up your "Fletch as a 16 year-old" alley. Besides, who can't appreciate Sean Astin and Wil Wheaton as action stars? Give it a look this summer and let me know what you think.


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