Central America in the 1980s was a complicated place, a Cold War hotspot with Marxist revolutionary groups dueling with dictatorial regimes, counter-revolutionary forces squaring off against newly installed Communist governments, and the U.S. government trying to play both sides against each other. You needed a scorecard just to keep track of who’s a Contra and who’s part of the Sandinistas, and the dirty tricks the American government were up to in Central America were enough to bring down some prominent members of the Regan administration (but apparently not bad enough to keep them from getting jobs in the current administration). Strange, complex days indeed, which makes it a good thing we’ve got a film like “Toy Soldiers,” which not only simplifies the political intricacies of 1980s Central America but also serves as a cautionary tale for wayward rich kids thinking of organizing their own amateur hostage-rescue commando team.
Like most vacation-gone-wrong movies, “Toy Soldiers” starts out with a vacation going right. Rich girl Amy (Terri Garber) and a bunch of friends are cruising along the Central American coastline in a yacht piloted by a dude named Sarge (Jason Miller, better known as Father Damien in “The Exorcist). A Vietnam vet, Sarge grudgingly chapperones the kids (including a young Tim Robbins!), and though they’re all super-rich, they’re nice enough. That is until they stick Sarge in a lifeboat and steal the yacht for an afternoon of fun. The kids play guitar, drink beer, hold a wet t-shirt contest and generally act dumb, though the fun comes to an end when one of them trips and cracks his head open. Thinking that traipsing through the Central American jungle is the quickest route to medical attention, Amy and three pals take their injured friend ashore. Within minutes, they’re captured by some sort of military group, thrown into a makeshift jail and groped and tortured by the grungy revolutionaries (or are they counter-revolutionaries? Ah, who cares.) Meanwhile, Sarge is always about 15 minutes behind the rest of the story, first using a boat and then running at a light jog to find the kids.
Up until this point, “Toy Soldiers” is reasonably competent. The characters are lame, sure, but there at least is some tension, and the direction isn’t all that bad, even though Jason Miller spends way too much time trying to catch up to the action. But once Amy creatively uses the corpse of a priest to escape into the jungle, “Toy Soldiers” gets ridiculous. His jogging complete, Sarge meets up with Amy in the jungle and, using only his shoelace, kills a couple bad guys and whisks Amy to safety. Miller is obviously channeling his inner-Stalone here, but he doesn’t look to happy about it. Must have been all the jogging.
But wait! All those rich kids are still trapped in the jungle! And Uncle Sam won’t pay the ransom the kidnappers are demanding! At home in California, Amy tries to convince her dad to privately fund a military operation to rescue her friends. He refuses (perhaps the most sensible decision in the movie) and so Amy recruits her street-savvy African American butler and a couple of friends (including Tim Robbins, who mostly just uses a bug-eyed stare and some grunts to show emotion) to travel back to Central America and lead a rescue mission. Amy shows her commitment by selling her dad’s limo and her prized Rolex to fund the operation, and her friends show their paramilitary prowess by smashing a watermelon and jogging on the beach. There is so much jogging in “Toy Soldiers” that Miller and the rest of the cast were probably ready to run a 5k after filming; you, the viewer, however, may be better off taking a drink every time someone jogs and seeing if your drinking endurance matches the casts’ running endurance.
To complete her crack squad, Amy cajoles Sarge and his war buddy Buck (Cleavon Little, from “Blazing Saddles”) to join up. They hop on a plane, parachute into the jungle, and the dopey rich kids who could only smash watermelons slightly better than Gallagher suddenly turn into ruthless killing machines. From there on, every ‘80s action-movie cliché shows up, from the random sprays of automatic gunfire that manage always to hit their targets to a shot of an exploding shack that’s used multiple times. All the carnage is set to a wildly inappropriate smooth-jazz soundtrack, which is only slightly more out of place than the corny folk music in “Last House on the Left.”
There’s a lame twist, of course, but there’s also an equally lame climax involving a box of fireworks. The Central American country the kids wind up trapped in is never named, and the commentary on Central American politics is summed up with a confused shrug, which is pretty much how Americans responded to all the real-life turmoil down there. Unlike 1984’s other kids-versus-Commies movie, “Red Dawn,” the villains here are a little murkier and the kids a little wussier. But if there’s any lesson to take away from “Toy Soldiers,” it’s that when you can’t trust Uncle Sam, Central American death squads or puppet governments, you can always count on your rich friends to swoop in save you if terrorists capture you. But I guess that’s all the comfort we can expect in our crazy, mixed up world.