Helping his father run his struggling toy store, teenager Alan Abernathy (Gregory Smith) accepts (read = bribes) a shipment of new action figures during the latest delivery. From GloboTech Industries comes the Commando Elite, a specialist group of commandos headed by Major Chip Hazard (voiced by Tommy Lee Jones), whose sole goal is to eliminate their enemies, creatures called the Gorgonites, headed by Archer (voiced by Frank Langella). The toys are a new design, able to speak and respond to voice commands. Alan is stunned though when Archer doesn't just talk to him, but respond with unique answers to questions he asks. These aren't just any action figures, but that's only the start. Alan takes Archer home with him overnight, but meanwhile at the store, the Commando Elite have come to life too. Their aim? Kill Archer and his fellow Gorgonites.
While I love Toy Story, I can also appreciate how cool the premise here sounds. I'd seen bits and pieces of this quasi-family oriented science fiction story from director Joe Dante, but I finally sat down and watched it straight through recently. I liked it but didn't love it. Complaints to come, but 'Soldiers' gets a lot of points for originality if nothing else. What if G.I. Joe and Cobra toys came to life? Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles vs. Shredder and the Foot Clan? Stands to reason they might try and kill each other, right? Yeah, as a kid who grew up with action figures, that's pretty cool. The graphics here are spot-on as the toys come to life. It's not CGI -- always a good thing -- and while it looks realistic, the toys are still toys. They can break (damn plastic!) and their movements are pretty stilted. It goes a long way in making it seem even remotely believable.
The focus is not exclusively on the toys. Our main character, Alan, has quite the checkered past and has been kicked out of two schools, forcing his family, including Dad (Kevin Dunn) and Mom (Ann Magnuson) to move. He meets Christy (Kirsten Dunst), his neighbor, and quickly hits it off with her...even though she only "dates" older guys. So, yes, at times the story focuses too much on that after school special drama, how tough it is to be a teenager and all that garbage. Come on, parents, trust me...even though I've given you no reason to trust me! This is the movie at its slowest and most dull, but thankfully, the story moves along too fast to stay in one place for too long. And back to the killer toys!
One of the coolest things about 'Soldiers' as a movie fan is its knowledge of past movies. Case in point? The Commando Elite are voiced by four members of the cast of 1967's The Dirty Dozen, and it would have been five, but Richard Jaeckel died before filming. The Gorgonites are voiced by the cast of This Is Spinal Tap. Getting in line behind the perfect voice casting of Tommy Lee Jones is Ernest Borgnine as Kip Kallagin, Jim Brown as Butch Meathook, George Kennedy as Brick Bazooka, Clint Walker as Nick Nitro, and replacing Jaeckel, Bruce Dern as Link Static. Along with the calmly voiced Langella as Archer, the Gorgonites include Christopher Guest as Slamfist and Scratch-It, Michael McKean as Insaniac and Freakenstein, and Harry Shearer as Punch-It. It's just fun to hear that many talented actors working together, even if it's only their voices. Also listen for Sarah Michelle Gellar and Christina Ricci as two Gwendy (knockoff Barbie) dolls.
The funnest and also darkest part of 'Soldiers' comes when the Commandos get loose and go gunning for the Gorgonites. It sounds goofy enough, even a little innocent in the fun department. How could toys kill toys? Well, it gets pretty extreme at times. The Commandos have been built with government chips in them -- thanks Department of Defense -- that turn seemingly innocent toys into brutal killing machines. Yeah, seriously, killing machines. They want to kill their rival Gorgonites, but also the people protecting them, like Alan, Christy and their families, including Christy's goofy Dad (the always fun Phil Hartman). They build assault vehicles out of bikes and skateboards, make weapons out of chainsaws and toasters. There's a cool factor involved in seeing these toys go on the offensive, but it gets pretty dark too, many moviegoers complaining the movie was mismarketed upon its initial release.
Also joining the cast are GloboTech's money-minded, condescending CEO (Denis Leary) and the developers of the Commandos and Gorgonites, Jay Mohr and David Cross. It's a fun movie with some pretty big flaws, but it is entertaining with some nice touches in the cast.
Small Soldiers (1998): ** 1/2 /****