School-age protagonists, Colombian terrorists, and Louis Gossett, Jr. may seem like portions of a top ten list of film ingredients that should never be combined. However, in 1991 these elements came together, along with Wil Wheaton, Sean Astin, R. Lee Ermey, for the movie Toy Soldiers. Set in an exclusive private school, the children of some of America’s most powerful politicians and businessmen find themselves held hostage by the son of a Colombian terrorist. Using the boys as pawns to secure the release of his father, the commander of the armed invaders pits wits against the school’s dean (Louis Gossett, Jr.), a general bound by red tape (R. Lee Ermey), and a group of adolescent troublemakers, including the aforementioned Wheaton and Astin.
Expelled from some of the most prestigious academies in America, a group of teenage classmates known as the Rejects bond in their mutual dysfunction. Rites of male passage involving pranks, alcohol, and pornography constitute the movie’s first chapter and showcase the boys’ close ties and perpetual battles against authority figures of all sorts. When the kids find themselves caught in a battle of wits and will with terrorists seeking release of a drug czar in federal custody, the youths find the courage to transfer that animosity to their captors. The boys employ angst and their individual hobbies and skills to gather intelligence for their would-be rescuers on the outside and avenge the death of one of their own. In the end, the enthusiasm of youth confronts the ruthlessness of trained killers, and patriarchal ties on both sides are stretched to the absolute limit.
In fact, it is the examination of the familial ties of the both the Rejects’ Joey Trotta (Wil Wheaton) and the terrorist leader which are the movie’s real strong point. Terrorist leader Luis is obsessed with winning the freedom of his father and returning him to his home in Colombia, so much so that he is obviously willing to sacrifice himself and the lives of innocents to make that fantasy a reality. On the other hand, Joey chooses estrangement from his mob boss father. Even when his dad (played ably by Jerry Orbach in a cameo role) arranges for his son’s release via a prison deal struck with Luis’s father, Joey instead opts to stay with his friends as a captive. This decision begins a chain of events which leads to more than death and the film’s climax. Questions of love and loyalty are quickly presented and answered in rapid action flick fashion.
All this is not to say that Toy Soldiers offers a deeply involved psychological journey. On the contrary, the film offers plenty of teenage wish-fulfillment with the school kids grasping the situation more quickly and handling threats more capably than most of the film’s adults. The one exception to the incompetence of adults is the understanding dean, not coincidentally the only mature individual that bothered to listen to the Rejects and empathize with their problems. Despite the film’s moderate level of violence, there is more than one scene of outright fantasy: in one instance, the terrorists fall prey to a simple scheme involving a soccer ball and a remote-controlled plane.
Nevertheless, if the viewer can maintain their suspension of disbelief, Toy Soldiers offers an escapist treat and a glimpse of Sean Astin’s potential well before he joined the Fellowship of the Ring.