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‘The Chocolate War’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 20, 1989

You won't have any difficulty getting your bearings in Keith Gordon's "The Chocolate War." Though it has been adapted by Gordon from Robert Cormier's young adult novel about the battles of a Catholic schoolboy, the film's true source seems to have been every other Catholic schoolboy story ever told -- so much so, in fact, that you feel trapped in an echo chamber.

The only fresh touch is in the film's central metaphor -- the chocolate war -- which revolves around St. Trinity's annual effort to generate income through the sale of chocolate candies. Rising out of this sale is a triangular power struggle among Brother Leon (John Glover), who has upped the ante by increasing the number of boxes to be sold to twice that of previous years at double the price; a scrawny freshman named Jerry (Ilan Mitchell-Smith), who refuses to participate in the sale; and Archie (Wally Ward), the president of a secret society of students known as the Vigils.

There's some energy in the film's first section, as the operating practices of the Vigils are revealed. Primarily what the Vigils do in their basement meetings is make "assignments" to the membership. These are dreamed up by Archie, and in general they range from the harmlessly sophomoric -- like taking all the screws out of the desks and chairs in one brother's classroom -- to the marginally rebellious. Initially, Jerry is merely following orders in his protest against the sale. But his assignment was to refuse participation only for 10 days, and when he continues his protest, it is considered an act of defiance.

At first, Jerry is viewed as a hero by his fellow students, but after Brother Leon and Archie begin to apply pressure he is ostracized by everyone except his friend Goober (Corey Gunnestad), who urges his buddy to give up the fight. But a rebellious malaise sweeps through the rest of the student body, affecting the chocolate sales and sending Brother Leon into a panic. And in response, the Vigils begin to campaign against the upstart Jerry by calling his house at all hours and laughing into the phone, smearing his locker with chocolate and sending the neighborhood bully down with his horde of baby bullyboys to beat him up.

Jerry refuses to give in -- but then there was never any chance he would. "The Chocolate War" is about the triumph of sensitive natures over the vulgar forces of power -- it's a kind of revenge fantasy in which all the skinny kids who got kicked around by bullies at school get to replay the past and win. And no doubt Gordon, who as an actor has played brainy, sensitive types in such films as Brian De Palma's "Dressed to Kill," identifies with his hero. Unfortunately, empathy isn't enough. Aside from the youthful playfulness that Gordon shows toward his medium, there's no indication that the young director -- who is making his debut effort here -- has any film sense. When he feels free to goof around -- as in the film's fantasy sequences -- he's able to give the imagery a vigor that is lacking in the straight expository scenes. (This isn't to say that the dream sequences are any good, though.)

The showiest role goes to Glover, who as the demented Brother Leon is in serious danger of rivaling James Woods for generalized creepiness. Glover was impressively malignant in "52 Pick Up," but he may have too keen a facility for playing villains -- they come too naturally to him, but because he's playing so close to type, they have no dimension. His performance here gives us only what we expect.

The rest of the cast fares little better. As Archie, Ward is the epitome of prep school smugness -- his nose seems permanently tilted in disdainful superiority. But as Carter, Archie's aide-de-sleaze, Adam Baldwin has a sort of weaselly menace. Mitchell-Smith has an appealing softness as Jerry, and he genuinely looks as if he is out of his depth in his opposition to the powers around him. But still, he's not yet evolved enough as an actor to carry the film. He's too slight.

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