Universal Soldier

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.

Universal SoldierDolph 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.

This entry was posted on Sunday, December 28th, 2008 at 4:50 am and is filed under Action, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

7 Responses to “Universal Soldier”

  1. Me and my brothers just watched Universal Soldier after reading your review.

    The Univeral Soldier division must have run out of money at some point, since they couldn’t afford peremiter security for their plane and also dollar chin straps for their camcorder eyepieces to keep nozy reporters from easily ripping the camcorder eyepieces from their soldier’s heads.

    What do you think happened when the trailer truck had to drive somwhere and the sides came in? Did everybody have to stand up and squeeze together for the ride?

    I wish they had shown a musical montage of van damme and walker driving the cop car from the Grand Canyon to Louisana that would have been awesome.

    Also, the end credits song where they kept repeating the line “body temp” was really funny.

    I did like the shot of the universal soldier’s repeling (or reverse repeling? whatever you call it when you walk down head first) down the dam. I miss the days when stupid action movies would at least have a great shot of something that you don’t normally see, instead of some animated cg crap.

    Thanks for the review, Vern, it was fun to watch.

  2. Man, this one might be a dealbreaker with Vern – I actually had a huge schoolboy crush on Ally Walker when this movie came out, and I think this might even be one of my favorite B-movie performances.

    Even though she was obviously attractive (nice short skirt the whole movie), I had honestly never seen a character like her in a testosterone-filled action movie at the time. They didn’t try to make her Sarah Connor, but they didn’t try to make her whatever-that useless chick’s name was from Double Impact. Part love interest, part comic relief, part audience/exposition device, I dug that she seemed like a real person – even her weird, stammering dialogue, and the way she keeps calling Van Damme “man” seemed totally off-the-cuff and natural, kinda like Shia Lebeouf in Holes (his only really good performance). I’m pretty sure Sandra Bullock’s acting in Speed owes alot to this performance, even though I actually found her annoying in that one and unwatchable in Speed 2. Probably the way Vern felt about Walker here (to each his own)

    Other than that, yeah, the movie doesn’t age too well. The low budget shows, and the horror movie-esque scenes with Dolph killing a bunch of people are fucking tedious. He’s actually kinda terrible here (and I actually think he’s pretty good in most of his movies). But it’s still passable 90s fare and makes a good double-bill for the much superior sequel.

    Oh and Lukey – the end credits song says “Body Count” over and over, which isn’t as terrible as “Body Temp” but is also kind of ridiculous since that was the name of Ice T’s band that played it.

  3. I only noticed in the credits, but there’s a small appearance (possibly left on the cutting room floor) for future Vern favourite Michael Jai White at the beginning of the movie.

  4. I remember noticing him and telling my friend: “maybe that’s the body the evil computer A.I. regenerated as it’s own in UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: THE RETURN.”.

  5. Could MJW have been one of the soldiers in Vietnam?

  6. Just saw this for the first time (I’m catching up on JCVD) and noticed that Tiny “Zeus” Lister is standing behind Dolph when they’re in line at the start.

    I liked this! Easily Emmerich’s best movie. I thought Ally Walker was fine!

  7. Roland Emmerich started his career by trying to prove that even in his native Germany they could pull off cool 1980s special effects. Making Contact/Joey had a nonsensical plot but served its purpose a proof-of-concept special effects reel. Moon 44 had a good story and nice effects and production values for its budget, and was his best movie. It was all downhill from there.

    Universal Soldier does a good job of what it tries to do, with good action and effects and props. There’s too much desert, and the middle of the movie is one long chase, so it starts to lag there. Still it has some science-fiction-y ideas to explore.

    Stargate was not as good as Universal Soldier. Independence Day was not as good as Stargate. Godzilla is maybe tied with Independence Day for badness. It gains a point for being less tiresome to sit through than Independence Day but loses a point for getting Godzilla wrong.

    The love interest yelling and summarising everything that’s happened so far is a recurring action movie trope. Not necessarily a good one but there was ample precedence for it. There was one in “I” Come in Peace too. That was still a great movie. It was an obvious bit of business but I still liked how Ally Walker’s character was trying to quit smoking but kept lighting a cigarette. Gave a little extra texture to her performance as a normal person feeling overwhelmed by the paranormal events happening to her. Also it’s a reminder that back then a lot more people smoked.

    One thing that’s super about these soldiers is that they don’t age! Van Damme and Lundgren look exactly the same as when they were in Vietnam, except with shorter hair. It’s also possible that any chronic health problems they may have had were healed by the same technology that heals all battle damage. The implications of this are explored further at the end of the two Canadian made-for-TV sequels, when [SPOILER] Burt Reynolds, as a powerful politician who finds out about the Universal Soldier program, agrees to support it if they make him a Universal Soldier, thereby halting his aging process and curing him of his disabilities. (Before, he couldn’t walk, and then after he’s converted, he sits up really fast like the Undertaker and grins.)

    Under-appreciated supporting actor: Ally Walker’s cameraman is played by Joseph Malone, one of the three male cast members from the original 1980s Tracey Ullman Show.

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