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Joe Dante’s been the next big directorial thing for so long it’s a safe bet by now that he’s going to cruise at this not-unrespectable altitude for the rest of his career. He’s an ideas guy, not an execution guy; his realization of the cheesy, thinking-man’s horror that’s so exciting on paper is often messy to the point of sabotage; he gets bored with B-stories and sleepwalks through the human aspect of his plots. But when manipulating an idea as good as that of Gremlins, The Howling, or even the underrated Matinee, no one has more nasty-minded, fiendishly resourceful fun bedeviling the audience. Small Soldiers is conceptually fresh, scary, and difficult to pull off. Fittingly, it’s Dante’s best work yet.

Dante tries to frame the story by sending up the greed and heartlessness of the military-industrial complex—more on that pretty phrase later—but he’s too honestly bored with such hoary satire to do it well. At what used to be known as Heartland Toys, Larry (Jay Mohr) and Irwin (David Cross), two hapless computer geeks, find themselves the sole employees of the overtaking company, Globotech. Globotech’s ruthless young CEO (Denis Leary) wants his company’s toy division to create million-selling violent action figures, and he gives Larry and Irwin full access to all the company’s accounts to do so. In programming his new action figures, Larry borrows some superchips from Globotech’s Defense Department surplus, and the beast—a truckload of aggressive little plastic men implanted with “smart warrior” chips—is loose.

Meanwhile, young Alan (Gregory Smith) tends his dad’s charming, old-fashioned toy store, the goopily named Inner Child, where war toys are verboten. But while Dad’s away at a conference, Alan can’t resist stocking the Elite Commandos and their mortal enemies, the Gorgonites. Alan’s expansive suburban neighborhood is set up for a sociological satire that never happens: his gentle, post-hippie parents with their anti-war toy dicta vs. the hotheaded, tech-crazy neighbor (Phil Hartman) with a billion volts of juice flowing into his completely electronized house. The neighbor’s daughter, Christy (Kirsten Dunst), also happens to be the prettiest girl in Smallville. Dante is content to let his screenwriters set up these dominoes; he’s just too uninterested to knock them down.

All he wants—and, frankly, that’s what we paid for, too—is for the little humanoid gremlins to start warring. The Gorgonites are a motley crew of fanciful animal-like creatures led by their emissary, Archer. They are programmed, as Archer explains to Alan, to “hide and lose” to the superaggressive overkill tactics of the vicious Commandos, led by Maj. Chip Hazard. Hazard’s outfit is recognizable to anyone who grew up within spitting distance of Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos—their grinning, fiercely modeled faces and ultrapumped physiques as well as their names and jobs, like Link Static, communications expert.

The screenwriters have a built-in eject button with the idea of “programming”; it allows them to let the battle unfold—the relentless Commandos tracking down the Gorgonites and their civilian (read: human) allies by any means necessary—without pesky emotional explanations. It also nails down this film’s weird but welcome political stance. The Gorgonites are squabbling, playful creatures who are searching for their homeland, Gorgon. Archer has a cultured, mellifluous voice (Frank Langella has never given so moving and courtly a performance, not even as Dracula), an intelligent, catlike face, and a trim waist. The Commandos are thuggish American know-nothings, greedy for blood, who are blindly encoded with the duty of preventing gentle peoples from seeking independence.

To ensure that no one reads this surprising moral configuration as an accident, Small Soldiers spells it out. While Alan sleeps, Archer absorbs the history of American military involvement from his computer. The screen starts out showing great leaders, from Lincoln to Eisenhower. And here it pauses—on Ike, the man who coined the phrase “military-industrial complex,” before whom American war-making was largely considered a good, noble, and virtuous thing—before rushing on in a strobing montage of increasing horror, from escalation to nukes. Archer watches it all unfold and, thanks to the “learning” ability built into his chip, knows he wants none of it.

The Commandos, on the other hand, mindlessly relish the blustery trappings of battle. Their learning chips are employed only to build bigger and meaner war machines—they roll out of Alan’s garage in a convoy of rigged-up corn holders, nail guns, and cheese graters to the ironic sounds of “War (What Is It Good For).” This is the post-World War II generation of U.S. soldiers, a superbreed of unthinking hooligans programmed—to use the movie’s own word—to destroy.

Dante has great fun sending up war-movie clichés in this pint-sized context. Maj. Hazard rallies his troops with a senseless speech of mixed metaphors and jumbled catch phrases, strutting before a giant American-flag jigsaw puzzle. When munitions expert Brick Bazooka meets defeat under Alan’s bicycle wheels, his buddies put him back together, one leg at a time, as he grimaces manfully. The Commandos break into Christy’s house to take her hostage and get an eyeful of her Gwendy doll collection with all the gleaming lust of American boys on the loose in Arles—they promptly ask Hazard for a three-day pass. Even the Gorgonites, sympathetic as they are, are only plastic and wires; growing bored with Christy’s ransom video, one of them mutters, “What else is on?”

The Gwendys are rather unpleasant; one doesn’t quite know what to make of the participation of naked, mutilated girl dolls in the carnage. They are particularly vicious, without the resourcefulness of the Commandos (who created them). They say threatening girly things in piping voices—”Hissy fit!” and “I broke a nail”—but do get off one great line, when Christy picks up her twirling baton to fight them: “Look out!” the Gwendys squeal. “It’s a baton death march!” The dolls’ voices, by the way, are cast with diabolical cleverness—Sarah Michelle Gellar and Christina Ricci do the Gwendys, the cast of This Is Spinal Tap are the bickering Gorgonites, and the Commandos are portrayed by the seasoned barking and sneering of the remaining Dirty Dozen, with inheritor Tommy Lee Jones as Hazard.

When the human story intrudes, Small Soldiers flags. There’s some unconvincing need for Alan to redeem himself—never has a troubled screen child seemed more normal or likable (or destined to play the young David Duchovny)—and the payoff to the technology wars between the kids’ homes goes nowhere. A psychologically plausible ending is built right into the story’s premise, but it’s overlooked for a distasteful denouement, with every battle-fatigued character thrilled to accept Globotech’s hefty blood money. But the soft spots are temporary and do very little damage, and a lovely, hopeful ending, marred only by a trendy crack, shows that the movie’s heart is in the right place even when its head is full of guts and glory.CP