MGM // 1988 // 104 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dylan Charles (Retired) // June 4th, 2007
Sometimes revenge is bitter, not sweet.
Based on the book of the same name, The Chocolate War falls into that special category of books, the "using the world of children to examine and deconstruct the world of adults" category, with books like Lord of the Flies and The Butterfly Revolution.
The Chocolate War was a fairly nihilistic piece of work, letting us all know that our chances of changing anything are only a little less than zero.
Can a dark book survive a film treatment or will it have a Hollywood ending tacked on?
It's that time of year again. That time when Trinity Catholic school turns every warm body into salesmen who sell cheap products at exorbitant prices to random passers-by in order to garnish the school's funds. That's right, it's time for the annual chocolate sale! Brother Leon (John Glover, Smallville) the de-facto head of Trinity, asks Archie (Wallace Langham, Weird Science, C.S.I.) and his Vigils, a secret society within the school, to help boost sales. Jerry (Ilan Michael Smith) soon becomes a roadblock for both of them when he refuses to sell the chocolates and a three-way power struggle ensues.
The Chocolate War is Keith Gordon's (Mother Night The Singing Detective) first film. He both directed and wrote the screenplay, and he pulled off adapting The Chocolate War without falling into some of the same pitfalls as other book adaptations. Either they change far too much or they stick too close to the source material, allowing too much in the film that just doesn't work on the screen. Pet Sematary, for instance, was a movie that could have withstood a couple dozen cuts here and there. Especially the scalpel wielding midget at the end. Gordon remained faithful to the novel for the most part and only changed it in a few key places. Such as the entire ending.
But, as Mr. Gordon himself explains, the changes to the ending were not arbitrary. The entire film has a different message from the book. Not a vastly different message, but a message that is not served by the original ending. So Gordon tweaked here and there and gave the film a new meaning. And it works. He hasn't mistreated the source material, he has made it palatable in a completely different medium and imprinted it with his own touch. It's not a happy ending, it's not a cheerful upbeat message about how everything will turn out all right. It's just different.
Gordon's casting choices are a part of how he's changed the book. Wallace Langham (then Wally Ward) adds a playful dimension to Archie that I don't remember being present in the book. Archie is still a force to be reckoned with, capable of twisted manipulations, but he's having a hell of a lot of fun in the process as well. John Glover as Brother Leon is another alteration to the book. Glover's Leon is earnest in his duplicity, the teacher who's almost too much of a nerd and wrapped up in school spirit, to hide a dark core. And yet that core is there, and he manipulates and twists and rules the students in spite of his chipper front.
The main problem with the film is Ilan Mitchell-Smith, who plays Jerry. When stacked against Langham and Glover, he's just not enough of a presence to make an impact. He's less the hero of the movie and more a pinball, bouncing off all of the other characters, there one minute and then gone.
The second major problem is the soundtrack, which dates The Chocolate War like nothing else. There is no score, but a variety of songs that say loud and clear, "This movie was made during the '80's! We love keyboards!" By the end of The Chocolate War I got used to the music, but it really just doesn't work all that well and puts a bold timestamp on everything.
The transfer is decent, with picture coming through clean. Every synthetic sound comes in loud and clear.
I enjoyed Keith Gordon's commentary, but it was made a little redundant by the interview included on the disc. He covers much of the same ground in the interview and in greater depth. If you're interested in the more technical aspects of The Chocolate War, then you'll enjoy the commentary, but otherwise you'll get more from the interview.
Gordon did a remarkable job of adapting The Chocolate War on a shoestring budget. He deviated from the source material in several places, but in a way that made sense and gave an added dimension to the work. It's a solid piece of filmmaking and only suffers from one or two missteps.
The Chocolate War is guilty of peddling low quality chocolates and having questionable taste in music, but is otherwise a damn fine flick.
Review content copyright © 2007 Dylan Charles; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Release Year: 1988
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Feature Commentary by Director Keith Gordon
* Interview-Director Keith Gordon Discusses The Chocolate War