In the ’80s Sylvester Stallone took action movies through a whole cycle of American self esteem issues. In FIRST BLOOD he dealt with Vietnam vets coming home and feeling abandoned. In FIRST BLOOD PART 2 he actually flew back to Vietnam, discovered the war was not quite wrapped up yet, and took home the gold with an amazing hail mary pass to save the POWs. In ROCKY IV he moved on to the Cold War and sewed that one up through a sporting event. Only in 1991 did notorious shitmakers Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin dig up Stallone’s ROCKY IV enemy Dolph Lundgren, pit him against Jean-Claude Van Damme, and cut into those Vietnam wounds again. You know, for a super soldier movie. Don’t worry, it’s not exploitative. They’re artists.
What did happen to all those MIAs in Vietnam? FIRST BLOOD II said some were still alive, being tortured by sadistic Viet Cong who’ve yet to move on with their lives. UNIVERSAL SOLDIER posits that they were killed in action and their bodies were experimented on by Jerry Orbach, who resuscitated them as mindless super soldiers with super-healing powers when kept at low temperatures.
Dolph plays a sergeant gone nuts, wearing a necklace of ears and trying to get Jean-Claude to kill some villagers. Jean-Claude tries to save them, he and Dolph shoot each other and their bodies are donated to science. One great touch: closeups of their faces being zipped into body bags before each of their names on the credits.
So in the early ’90s they’re alive again, wearing camcorder eyepieces and raiding a terrorist takeover at a dam. Jean-Claude starts to have memories from ‘Nam and fails to take his regular injection. Then when a reporter (Ally Walker, later of THE PROFILER) is sneaking around the base there’s basically a repeat of the past: Dolph kills an innocent, Jean-Claude disobeys orders to protect one. He goes on the run and the movie is basically a cross-country chase with Jean-Claude trying to find out who he is and Dolph and the Universal Soldiers (including Ralph Moeller and Tiny Lister) trying to kill him. There’s plenty of kicking (including a bar fight), a bus flipping, some guns, explosions, gore. Jean-Claude shows his ass again but does not do the splits.
Jean-Claude has gotten better as he’s done more movies, so it’s funny to see him giving up and just imitating the Terminator. He pulls it off I guess. Dolph is more animated, crazy and sarcastic. I liked him. The ear cutting thing is a little on the nose, though, the go-to cliche for a Vietnam vet who’s lost his mind. Of course, on the commentary track Emmerich asks “Where did we get that from?” as if it strikes him as a stunningly original cinematic invention.
I did not enjoy Ally Walker. Way too panicky, never stops complaining and since Van Damme doesn’t talk much it’s extra noticeable. Sometimes movie characters oughta just be quiet.
I have to say though I like this movie way better than INDEPENDENCE DAY and all that other shit by these guys. It doesn’t make alot of sense, but it’s easier to forgive that in a Van Damme vs. Lundgren movie than in an expensive summer blockbuster type. Plus there’s less of the bad comedy and better action. When it’s time for some explosions instead of cutting to the work of the digital effects studio and the model shop they cut to the work of second unit director Vic Armstrong. So that’s better.
To be honest I don’t really understand what’s so super about these soldiers. Yes, they can heal, but you gotta put them on ice for a while first. It doesn’t seem to help them during combat. They also have super strength, but it just comes from steroids, they don’t need to be dead for that. From a military command standpoint I’m sure part of the appeal of this program is the idea of soldiers who take any order without question. But both Jean-Claude and Dolph show that’s not something they can count on.
I would say the Universal Soldier program is a failure, not just because two of them went rogue but because it was a stupid idea in the first place. These scientists don’t consider the moral and spiritual implications of bringing people back from the dead not because they’re bastards but because they’re too stupid to even understand that’s what they’re doing. They thought they had mindless drones, but these guys have memories. Doesn’t that mean they have a soul? They are alive and conscious. And the best thing you can think to do is give them steroids? How about using this technology to save lives instead? You don’t want a Nobel prize, you just want some mildly super soldiers? That’s your choice I guess.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.