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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Toy Soldiers' as Ludicrous as Its Premise

April 26, 1991|MICHAEL WILMINGTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Toy Soldiers" (citywide) takes place on a tree-lined Blue Ridge Mountain Virginia prep school, an upscale academy in excelsis. It's about brave rebel preppies: a quintet of misbehaving rich kids who band together to fight Colombian cocaine cartel thugs who have taken over their campus.

As an idea for a movie, this ranks high among the most unpromising and ludicrous of the last several years. Writer-director Daniel Petrie Jr., who had a sense of humor when he co-wrote "Beverly Hills Cop," seems to have lost it completely here. In the press information, he actually describes "Toy Soldiers" as "a film about the triumph of the spirit of teen-age American boys under adversity."

Really? Is "triumph of the spirit" just another marketing catch phrase now, like "fish out of water" or "boy meets girl"? Calling a plot like this, about preppie misfits defeating the drug underworld with model planes and frying pans, spiritually triumphant is like dreaming up an "inspiring" saga about an intrepid team of Doberman Pinschers who climb Mount Everest to battle a submarine full of invading Martians. How can we uplifted by something we can't take seriously for a second?

"Toy Soldiers" has been fashioned by Petrie and co-writer David Koepp ("Apartment Zero") into a teen male-bonding comedy gone bonkers. It's set at Regis--supposedly notorious as the Animal House of American prep schools, with so many washouts on its roster that its secret name is "Rejects."

For some curious reason Regis has hired Denholm Elliott as its headmaster and Louis Gossett Jr. as its dean. In the movie, Gossett is Mr. Tough Love, and Elliott seems to symbolize impotent old liberalism, dithering on about Franklin Roosevelt while the thugs push everybody around.

Material like this might have worked if the moviemakers had played it completely crazy and over-the-top, if they'd made it a true satire of the American upper class facing its worst nightmare.

But the tone of "Toy Soldiers" suggests its makers might have tried to turn "Animal House" into a "triumph of the spirit" story, too. Sonorous music crashes with star-spangled fury. The villains are presented as Latin American and blonde Nazi scum; maybe the two blacks in the cast (Gossett and T. E. Russell), are around to forestall racial objections. "Toy Soldiers" is a wish fulfillment movie, but whose wishes is it fulfilling? Is Tri-Star trying to tap the vast latent prep school audience? Play out some prescient preppie Persian Gulf allegory? Are we meant to see George Bush lurking behind Sean Astin, Wil Wheaton and Keith Coogan? I could never figure out what was supposed to be entertaining me in "Toy Soldiers" (rated R for violence and language). But maybe the very idea that someone would make a movie like this is satire enough.

'Toy Soldiers'

Sean Astin: Billy Tepper

Wil Wheaton: Joey Trotta

Louis Gossett Jr:. Dean Parker

Denholm Elliott: Headmaster

A Tri-Star Pictures presentation in association with Island World of a Jack E. Freedman production. Director Daniel Petrie, Jr. Producer Freedman, Wayne S. Williams, Patricia Herskovic. Executive producers Mark Burg, Chris Zarpas. Screenplay by Petrie, Jr., David Koepp. Cinematographer Thomas Burstyn. Editor Michael Kahn. Costumes Betsy Cox. Music Robert Folk. Production design Chester Kaczenski. Art director Marc Dabe. Set designer Masako Masuda. Set decorator Judi Sandin. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

MPAA-rated: R (violence, language.).

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