A bizarre combination of family drama, B-movie and didactic treatise on the dangers of watching TV violence, “I Want to Be a Soldier” doesn’t know what it wants to be. Dramatically incoherent, full of moral finger-wagging and psychologically simplistic to the point of irresponsibility, this yarn about the impact of television on the mind of an already insecure child is partly redeemed by a decent perf from its young lead thesp, Fergus Riordan, but that’s about it. “Soldier” is unlikely to see much offshore action beyond the occasional tube screening.
Alex (Riordan) is initially presented as a normal 8-year-old kid living with his parents, Richard (Andrew Tarbet) and Amy (Jo Kelly), who are expecting twins. Alex also has an imaginary friend, astronaut Capt. Harry (Ben Temple).
The problems start when Alex, now 10, is allowed to have a TV in his room that appears to screen nothing but scenes of extreme violence. Wide-eyed Alex becomes hooked, and Capt. Harry gives way to another imaginary friend, Sgt. John Cluster (also played by Temple), who barks instructions at him. In no time at all, Alex crops his own hair, kills a schoolmate’s pet chick and has Nazi iconography hanging from his bedroom walls, suggesting that Mom and Dad have for some unexplained reason altogether abandoned the job of raising him.
Co-scribe Cuca Canals, responsible for some of Bigas Luna’s fine early films, seems to have lost control of the plot here. “I love the smell of popcorn in the morning,” mutters uniform-wearing Alex in the pic’s only moment of wit. Otherwise, it’s predictable, plodding fare as Harry and Cluster duke it out for the boy’s soul, and the family falls apart.
Riordan does good work in bringing Alex’s sufferings to life as he asks his parents the kind of troubling questions that smart kids do ask, such as why it’s better to do good rather than bad. Still, he seems a bit too young for his 10-year-old incarnation. Other perfs are workmanlike, but Tarbet’s and Kelly’s roles are fatally undermined by a lack of credibility.
Accents from the surprisingly high-profile cast are American and British, and in Kelly’s case a mixture, meaning it’s never clear where the pic is actually located. Italian thesp Valeria Marini, playing a schoolteacher, is amateurishly dubbed, though there’s ironic fun to be had in watching Robert Englund, of Freddy Krueger fame, as a satisfyingly over-the-top school psychologist. Credits feature a redundant, heavy-handed speech about the dangers of TV violence from a school principal (Danny Glover).