I’ve always liked actor-director Keith Gordon. I feel that he remains a very underrated and unique figure of film. He is mostly remembered for his performances in movies including Dressed to Kill (Brian De Palma, 1980) and Christine (John Carpenter, 1983), but for a few years has had a resurgence as an accomplished director with his own certain flair for stories and characters. However, The Chocolate War, his 1988 directorial debut (and based on the controversial Robert Cormier bestseller of the same name) is perhaps not his best effort.
Set in the prestigious Catholic boys school St. Trinity, Jerry (Ilan Mitchell Smith) is a new freshman (mourning the recent death of his mother from cancer) trying to fit in by joining the football team, but soon becomes an outcast by refusing to take part in a promotion (a ridiculous chocolate sale) to boost the school’s morale by sadistic school administrator Brother Leon (John Glover) and ruthless leader Archie (Wally Ward) of The Vigils, an underground student gang that has massive power within the school. Leon seeks help from Archie to bully Jerry into participating in the sale, which further unravels the power play, where the mighty certainly fall, and the not-so mighty rise, but at what costs?
I understand what Gordon was trying to do when aiming a rather sharp eye on the weird rituals of toxic male youth, but the tone is really all over the place. I’m not sure if I was watching a drama or an unintentional satire on conformity and power hunger. There is though a hilarious bit with Bud Cort (in a cameo as instructor teaching environmental issues) but even I couldn’t use that to describe the film as a comedy either.
It also doesn’t help that the acting varies. Glover is way too over-the-top to be taken seriously at times; he seems to be an in entirely different film. Mitchell-Smith, who was great in 1985’s Weird Science, is not quite capable of being a leading man. He is perhaps a little too nuanced for his role as Jerry. But, he did a decent enough job for me to not complain too much. Ward as Archie is rather complex. In the beginning, he is just as erratic as Glover, but doesn’t overdue it too much. In the end, when Archie gets bested and is downplayed to the new Secretary of the Vigils, I kind of felt some sneaky sympathy for him. He was probably the best actor in the movie. A young Doug Hutchison as Obie, the Vigils original Secretary, is a problematic and sleazy character (ironically, just like Hutchison himself would later be) and Jenny Wright, Jerry’s love interest, was unnecessary. She really impressed me in 1987’s Near Dark, but here, she doesn’t have much to do.
Despite my many misgivings towards it, I still think it’s a decent enough film. It is rather provocative about rebellion and not giving in to a higher authority, just like Gordon’s own life as a former Hollywood actor turned independent filmmaker who refused to sell himself.
The special features include a feature commentary with Gordon, as well as an almost hour-long interview with him as he discusses making the film. There’s also a trailer for the film itself, as well as trailers for Disturbing Behavior, Canadian Bacon, and Vampire Kiss (also apart of MVD’s Rewind Collection).