I was a great fan of Joe Dante’s film Gremlin when it came out in 1984. Six years later, I found myself an even greater fan of his sequel, Gremlins. I kept waiting for a third film, but one never came. After seven years, I finally accepted that if I wanted Joe Dante to make a third Gremlins film, I was just gonna have to dress like him and make one myself. One year and several lawsuits later, the world finally received a third Gremlins film: Small Soldiers.

Trying to rip someone off stylistically is a lot harder than it looks and I believe I deserve a Grammy or something just for the good-natured attempt. Dante’s one of the best, and I had no right trying to ape him, so let’s focus on how close I got rather than how bad I missed. Okay?

So instead of gooey little demons fucking shit up, this film has self aware (though, not really intelligent) toys. There are beautiful American ones called the Commando Elite, and the ugly Alien ones called the Gorgonites. The Commando Elite are desperate to kill the Gorgonites and will totally kill your ass too if you befriend one. The Gorgonites, on the other hand just want to live in peaceful harmony and be your best friend. Like ET, their ugliness turns to cuteness once you see how pathetically helpless they are.

The whole problem starts at the toy factory. Look, I know most of you are tired of seeing Michael Cera, Jonah Hill, Ken Jeong, Thomas Lennon, Justin Long, Jane Lynch, Craig Robinson, Paul Rudd, Jason Schwartzman, Ben Stiller, and the cast of Freaks and Geeks (-the Geeks) in every comedy that comes out these days, but America has always held their funny people in sort of a national repertory company. Small Soldiers is a great example. At the toy factory we have David Cross, Dennis Leary, Jay More, Kathy Najimy, Cheri Oteri, Sinbad, David Spade, and Christopher Walken. Later in the film Phil Hartman even shows up. It’s like one big late-nineties comedy sandwich! (True Story: I asked Bob Odenkirk to be in the film, and he told me he’d rather die than be in a film about mischievous toys. When I asked David Cross to play the same role he simply said, “Sure! But I’m the sarcastically cerebral future of comedy so I’ll need a bigger trailer than Phil Hartman.”)

Anyway, the whole problem starts at the toy factory. The bigwig fathead (Dennis Leary) says, “Me Want Toys!!!” David Cross says, “Well I’m a moral scientist toy maker and I like these boring toys.” Dennis Leary says, “NEXT!” Then the sycophantic Jay More steps in, “Just tell me what kind of toys ya want, boss, and I’ll getem ferya! No matta what it takes, see?” Dennis Leary’s like, “I like the cut of your jig, sonny!!!”

But instead of inventing awesome toys, More just takes his crappy G.I. Joe rip-offs, and Davis Cross’ ugly/cute aliens, and fills them with a weaponized chip designed by the military called HAL 9001 (I gave it this name in honor of Stanley Kubrik, who I think would have really enjoyed this film). Then, as kind of a test run, he makes one of each character and sends them to ONE lucky toy store.

Here is where we meet the film’s hero, Sad-Eye Sam. The store owned by Sam’s dad gets the one and only Small Soldiers shipment, even though he’s a luddite with an analog-only approach to toys. It’s the kind of store you go to for a yo-yo or a Rubick’s cube or a sock with googly eyes; a box filled with militant achievements in toy technology is likely to just end up in the trash along with all those muthafuckin Gameboys.

Luckily, Sad-Eye Sam intercepts the awesomebox before his dad can melt them down into jump ropes and slinkys. He opens the box marked “Gorgonites” and finds his very first action figure! It’s unbelievable! The rumors of toys that could talk were true! But Sad-Eye Sam never expected a toy that could learn his name or answer questions or beg him to stop when he tries to shove one up his poo-bum.

But before Sad-Eye Sam can play with his new toy, the box marked “Commando Elite” explodes open, and a bunch of macho Army toys set the luddite toy store on fire. “Why are they doing this?” Sam asks his new friend. “Because they want to kill us,” answers the Gorgonite. “You have big muscles and a crossbow. Why don’t you stop them?” The Gorgonite looks at his feet. “We were programmed to be pussies, Sam.” Sad-Eye Sam looks at his feet. “So was I.”

He grabs his Gorgonite friend and runs home. All the other Gorgonites burn to death. What we have now is a kid and his “otherworld” buddy vs. eight steroid-enhanched toys from Texas (not Austin). Sad-Eye Sam and Archer, the shaved-cat-face Gorgonite, have to figure a way to grow a pair and kill rather than get killed. Sad-Eye Sam, being a modern pussy, decides to solve the problem by calling customer service.

The customer service call gets their attention down at the toy factory. Cheri Oteri takes the call, she relays it to Sinbad, the night watchman, who immediately relays it to bigwig fathead Dennis Leary, “Yo man, Your toys gone whack! Whoop, there it is!” If Small Soldiers were remade today, I believe this role would go to Samuel L. Jackson.

Leary smells a lawsuit so he sends the toy’s creators to help kill any survivors. Jay More is like, “Sure thing boss!” But Davis Cross is all, “Geez, Pa I don’t think this is the right thing to do!” Leary has Jeremy Piven beam them directly to Sad-Eye Sam’s house, but the tech is wonky, and they beam into Phil Hartman’s house instead, breaking his satellite dish. Hartman threatens to sue, so Jay More zaps him with a memory eraser. David Cross gets pretty nervous, “Gee, Jay More, I don’t think that was the right thing to do!”

Meanwhile, the Commando Elite are preparing to fuck shit up rebel-style. One of them is programmed to be a genius; he makes copies of their Hal 9001 chip and puts it in an army’s worth of Ken and Barbie dolls. They don’t look menacing, but they lack genitals and feel pretty upset about it.

Soon, Sad-Eye Sam’s house is surrounded by toys armed with flaming arrows, mini-guns, and mustard gas. Jay More and David Cross can tell that that’s where the party is, so they dress like Commando Elite and try to sneak over. A sentry guard stops them, and David Cross gets killed before a second nervous syllable can escape his lips. Jay More is in the clear, or so he thinks. The Barbies recognize him instantly from Jerry Maguire, and kill him for being so mean to Tom Cruise. Dennis Leary witnesses this from a crystal ball at the toy factory. Having been in combat, he knows those toys won’t stop until that kid’s suburb is Vietnam II. He secretes into his lab and prepares an Ace to shove up humanity’s sleeve.

Despite his begging parents, Sad-Eye Sam refuses to turn over his new found toy to the bad guys. The house catches fire and his dog dies, yet he will not relent. A kind of symbiotic connection has evolved between them so that they can share each other’s thoughts. Coincidentally, both their thoughts drift towards cutting their arms for attention. They try that and accidentally hit a freeway with no traffic. The house burns down around the parents, and everyone is pretty much dead. The Commando Elite have won!

But then figures pour out of the woods and bushes. Commando Elite members begin to silently fall. Half of them are gone before anyone even knows it. They step into the light and open fire. It’s a small but highly trained squad of N. Vietnamese toys. The Commando Elite is completely wiped out in under ten minutes. From the toy factory, Dennis Leary congratulates them on a job well done, then douses ‘em with twenty pounds of napalm. You simply cannot improve endings which feature napalm.

(three stars)

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