The Film: Toy Soldiers (1991)
The Principals: Directed by Daniel Petrie Jr., starring Sean Astin, Wil Wheaton, Keith Coogan, and Andrew Divoff.
The Premise: When terrorists take over a boarding school, it’s up to a group of incendiary, resourceful kids to stomp them out. But first they have to wash some pots and pans.
Is It Any Good: It’s one of the best, most suspenseful action films of the early ’90s. Yeah I said it. It’s like Die Hard set in a boarding school, with four smartass John McClanes instead of one. Ok, maybe it’s not that good, but it truly is a fun, well-constructed thriller. Actually, pardon my backtracking, it is that fucking good and I recommend it to everyone who likes action movies. It’s set within a condensed, labyrinthine space and makes the stakes real, leading to some white-knuckle cat and mouse moments and triumphant payoffs.
This was on TV so much about 15 years ago, but have you watched it since honing your cinephile senses? Because there is a lot of fantastic shit going on. First off, the gang of kids is terrific: Sean Astin, Wil Wheaton, George Perez, T.E. Russell, and the painfully underrated Keith Coogan are our heroes. They’re all frustrated, angry rich kids that are more punk than spoiled. They hate that they come from wealthy families, y’know? Usually audiences don’t wanna root for the rick kids, but these dudes are like the anti-preppies – rebelling against authority every chance they get. There’s even a Misfits poster in their dorm room!
Coogan was in a string of classic late ’80s, early ’90s flicks – including two that involved babysitting (Adventures in Babysitting, Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead). Then he seemed to disappear, which sucks because he’s a great actor. In Toy Soldiers, I related to Coogan the most because he was asthmatic. As a young boy damn near crippled by asthma, Coogan’s smartass, wheezing anti-hero was a bit of an idol to me. But it’s impossible not to root for the entire cast of degenerate, anti-authority fuck-ups.
So the premise is pretty simple and there’s an interesting subplot involving Wil Wheaton’s mafia father. Terrorists take over a boarding school where most of the students are sons of powerful politicians. They plan on holding them hostage until some political prisoner is released. The head terrorist, played by Andre Divoff (the Wishmaster!), is like Hans Gruber but more solemn. Aside from all the heavily armed showboating, there are moments where it seems like he truly hates being a terrorist. He’s a very compelling villain.
The most unique aspect of this otherwise formulaic plot is that after the terrorists take over the school, they allow regular courses to keep functioning. How much does that suck for the students?! Not only do terrorists shove automatic weapons in your face, but you still have to keep going to calculus.
The catch is that a few times a day, the terrorists demand that every student and faculty member line up in the cafeteria. That way they can take a head count and make sure nobody has escaped. This countdown leads to some highly intense moments and culminates when Sean Astin flees to give Louis Gossett Jr. and the rest of the army intel on numbers and locations of the baddies. Everything about that scene, which lasts a solid seven minutes or so, is agonizingly suspenseful. From the distractions the gang implements to the head count in the cafeteria, to Astin’s punishment, this segment is impossibly effective.
Another remarkable aspect of Toy Soldiers is that it makes the stakes real. Kids die in this film. If you’re looking to make a mainstream commercial or marketable film, you don’t kill kids. Toy Soldiers goes there. If you’ve seen the film, you know the bit I’m talking about. It manages to balance triumph and agonizing mortality into one heart-wrenching, painful sequence.
Is It Worth a Look: Check out Toy Soldiers if you haven’t ever seen it or if it’s been a few years. You might be surprised about how tightly-wound and well-crafted it is.
Random Anecdotes: In an interview with Inside Entertainment for the film, Sean Astin stated that he would love to play a villain. Has he ever done it? I can’t think of any but I would love to see him in a villainous role.
Cinematic Soulmates: Die Hard, Goonies, any other badass kid movie you can think of.