"It's like Die Hard, but in a school!"
Now, that's how you make a Die Hard-esque movie! Within this various sub-genre of action films trying to recreate the magic of Die Hard, lies a smaller niche devoted to injecting a teen protagonist into the standard story we all know so well. We've already talked about one such film in our podcast episode about 1997's Masterminds. Hell, there were TWO films staring Cory Haim (Demolition High and University), also trying to ride that wave around the same time. However, 1991's Toy Soldiers did it first and arguably the best. The main factors in its successful entertainment are its well cast players and its refusal to water down the material for a PG-13 audience. Not to mention its kickass score from Robert Folk, which gives it a nice balance of action and gravitas.
The story is quick and to the point. It begins with a siege on The Palace of Justice in Columbia, where Luis Cali (Andrew Divoff, who also killed at portraying the bad guy in Oblivion) and his band of mercenaries take hostages to free Cali's drug lord father, who is in U.S. custody. After finding out that Cali's father has already been shipped to the U.S. they create a plan B and follow him to U.S. soil. Cut to the Regis School, an upper-class all-boys prep school where we meet our team of heroes, led by main protagonist Billy Tepper (Sean Astin). These kids are the rebellious lot in a prestigious institute headed up by Dean Parker (Louis Gossett Jr.), with a predilection towards calling it the Rejects School and spray painting such where they see fit (oh, the 90s). The terrorists take over the school with the intention of ransoming the son of the judge presiding over the elder Cali's case. When they discover he is no longer there, they decide to ransom several of the other boys with influential parents (who just so happen to be our 5 main leads) instead. Now it's up to Billy and his pals to thwart the bad guys and help the military force on the outside in the only way they know how...rebellion!
I've never gone to an all boys school before, but other than an awkward sharing of a dirty 1-900 call and generally hanging around in their underwear, the banter and attitudes of the youths are very naturalistic and much more true to life than the film's PG-13 counterparts (you won't hear Vincent Kartheiser calling Jon Abrahams a "fuck-face" in Masterminds, is all I'm saying). They also don't tone down the violence, which is surprising in a movie full of late 80s/early 90s teen heartthrobs. The violence is harsh and one of our main characters dies! Although the death is kind of silly, its circumstance is entirely plausible and its effects linger over the characters in a serious way, which is commendable. While the script ain't Shakespeare, it does capture the vulgar camaraderie between teenage boys and the action never hits the unbelievable superhero levels of the later Die Hard films. Everything the kids are able to pull off appears to be in the realm of their capabilities.
It's interesting that they went with the R rating when their main cast is made up of some of the quintessential teen heartthrobs of the 80s and 90s. We have Sean Astin, Wil Wheaton, and Keith Coogan (a hunk trifecta if there ever was one) all just a few years out from the childhood roles that made them famous, trying to branch out into more adult oriented material. Despite the obvious incentive of toning the film down for a lower rating to grab the teenage demographic, the filmmakers decided to keep the language and violence intact. They take the material seriously and try to give it some weight, which is why it plays so much better than sillier kid-friendly fare like Masterminds. In the age of bloodless teen action films where the stakes are hard to latch onto, its refreshing to see a film like this involving teens where the deaths and the threat feels real. This includes having the young heroes save the day with their brains more so than with their brawn. Every time one of them actually gets a gun, things immediately go downhill because they're just kids and have no idea how to use them properly. They aren't just typical John McClane badasses or the heroes with no experience that suddenly become weapons experts as soon as they pick up a gun. They instead use their bravery and sense of rebellion to collect and sneak out data on the terrorists to the police outside, who can then use the proper force to take out the bad guys.
Toy Soldiers also differs from Die Hard and other "...in a school" scenarios by not maintaining the lone hero or incompetent police force clichés. Billy is certainly the leader of the group, but they all work together and contribute something to complete their task against the antagonists. The outside law enforcement doesn't stand around baffled or at the terrorists' whim as you usually see, instead they are involved and coming up with tangible solutions to take care of the situation. From Dean Parker's recommendation, they actually trust Billy and his information (adults trusting kids in a 90s movie! Are they insane!?!). The police then use the data they collected to perform a surprisingly effective raid on the school while the kids worry more with getting everyone to safety. The only part that doesn't play very well and comes off as forced is Gossett Jr.'s part in the final showdown and the heavy hand he plays in taking down Cali. But I suppose you're not going to get a name like Louis Gossett Jr. to head up your movie without letting him share the hero's spotlight, so it's forgivable.
I'm surprised this film didn't make a bigger splash (15 million in its theatrical run) or have a larger cult following. Not only was it directed/co-written by Daniel Petrie Jr., who has already found success writing films like Beverly Hills Cop and Turner and Hooch (he also wrote and directed In the Army Now, but I'll save my love for Pauly Shore for another column), but it was also co-written by David Koepp, who was on the verge of blowing up writing films like Jurassic Park, Mission Impossible, and Spider-Man. They also had a pretty strong lead in Sean Astin, who pulls off the action much better than you'd expect from the kid that played the wheezy Mikey in The Goonies. This led Astin down a strange career path of trying to pull off the grown up action hero role before finding his groove in those Hobbit movies, but that gave us this film and 2000's Icebreaker (a surefire future entry in this column), so it can't be all bad.
This was one of the most fun experiences I've had watching something for these pieces and I highly recommend you give this a watch if you haven't already seen it. After you watch it (or if you've already seen it), I also suggest you check out this blog post Wil Wheaton wrote a while back after watching Toy Soldiers with his wife 20 years later. Join me next time when I welcome first timer Kurt Russell to the pseudo-Die Hard club along with returning champion Steven Seagal in the 1996 masterpiece (is that the right word?) Executive Decision.