Violence seems to be the theme this weekend as all five new movies in town employ it as either a central theme or a subtext.
"Toy Soldiers" is a fairly typical entry in a strange genre that includes "Taps" and "Red Dawn," predictable yarns about youngsters taking the law into their own hands to see justice done . . . more or less.
"A Kiss Before Dying," on the other hand, takes the approach of a Hitchcock film (like "Shadow of a Doubt") or perhaps a "Columbo" episode. It's not a mystery - we know who the killer is, even if the other characters do not - but it is suspenseful.
- "A KISS BEFORE DYING" is based on a novel by Ira Levin ("Rosemary's Baby," "The Stepford Wives") and was filmed before in 1956, with Robert Wagner in the lead role.
This time Matt Dillon stars as a psychopath with a surreptitious plan. He wants into the wealthy family of a Danish copper baron (Max von Sydow) and he's figured out just how to do it.
The opening scenes provide an incredible shock, which I won't give away, but it tells us immediately that Dillon is not to be toyed with. And as he marries von Sydow's innocent daughter (Sean Young) to further his status as the most ambitious social climber in the history of movies, Dillon thinks nothing of knocking off anyone who gets in his way.
"A Kiss Before Dying" is written and directed by James Dearden, whose most famous claim to fame is the short film "Diversions," which he eventually expanded into the Oscar-nominated screenplay for "Fatal Attraction." (In my estimation "Diversions" is actually better than "Fatal Attraction.")
Here, Dearden does stumble a bit - especially with some obvious editing errors that seem rather surprising for a major film like this one. His stars are also a bit too enigmatic. Not that it's so much a problem for Dillon, whose brooding demeanor and sloppy grin effectively bolster a sinister presence, but Young seems like too much of a cold fish most of the time - and early scenes where she plays an ingenue are not very convincing.
But most of the way, "A Kiss Before Dying" is a tightly constructed film that sufficiently builds suspense, keeping the hairs on the back of the neck rising on a regular basis.
It is rated R for graphic violence, some sex and nudity and scattered profanities.
- "TOY SOLDIERS" is an example of a very good cast - primarily young Sean Astin, Wil Wheaton and Keith Coogan in the film's main roles and Louis Gossett Jr. and Denholm Elliott as their supervising adults - forced to go through a by-the-numbers routine.
The plot here has a drug lord demanding his father's release from prison. His ace in the hole is taking over a prep school filled with young boys whose fathers are all prominent figures.
But it's all little more than an excuse to present cat-and-mouse games between the kids - in particular Astin, who has the nominal lead here as a troubled youngster out to prove himself - and the terrorists.
On the outside the military threatens to storm the place, but Gossett is sure Astin and friends will save the day.
There are a few good moments here and there, some nicely choreographed action scenes, but for the most part this is warmed-over "Taps" on a B-movie level.
There is also an especially tasteless phone-sex sequence early in the film that amounts to vulgarity overkill.
"Toy Soldiers" might do for an evening out at the dollar theaters in a few weeks (or as a $1 video rental in a few months), but it's nothing special.
"Toy Soldiers" is rated R for considerable violence, profanity and vulgarity, with a brief nude scene.