When the wretched idiocies and injustices of modern life pile upon you, don’t go on a killing spree: find a suitable target for your aggression. Something that can’t defend itself. Something that can’t fight back. Something that doesn’t break as easily as, say, puppies or children. Me, I review movies. The ultimate target. Nothing gets your ego big and hard like taking a shameless hack’s hatchet to something hundreds of other people poured their hearts and souls into.
Tonight’s example: Universal Soldier. You all remember this movie…don’t you…? Good. Neither did I. Universal Soldier is like the freeloading uncle no one talks about, since that time he tried to clean out the bank accounts. It may be the film most directly responsible for Roland Emmerich’s continued career. Yet no one shows this flick on cable anymore. The networks refuse to touch it. Crummy, straight-to-video sequels have failed to revive it and all of its stars have fallen…some harder than others.
To understand why, consider the prologue set in Vietnam. Private Luc (Jean-Claude Van Damme) takes time out from dodging mortars to encounter Sergeant Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren), who’s gone all Heart of Darkness on us. Even made himself a necklace of human ears to bring that out psychopathic shine in his Dolph Lundgren-y eyes. Luc, upright, moral, all-American that he is, steps between Scott and the few surviving villagers. Scott and Luc kill each other in a true blue Good vs. Evil blood bath, and along comes The Military to cover it all up. Naturally. Another Tuesday in Vietnam in the seventies.
Twenty years pass in a Roland Emmerich jump-cut. Pre-digital headset cameras inform us its 1992. Praise be to the most high. We catch up to Scott and Luc (who look pretty good, for twenty-years dead and all) as they deploy into the Nevada desert, two among a troop of armor-clad, automaton soldiers. all of them as blank-faced and wooden as…well…Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren. They’re doing their best Ah-nuld impresion this side of Stalone…who was, at one point, attached to a previous version of this picture, along with veteran Steven Segal-movie director Andrew Davis.
The studio probably caught sticker shock. They figured, Who better to turn in a zombie-soldiers film for under-$11 mil than the German director of Moon 44?
So this brick-faced, gun-toting group of jugheads we’re watching are the Universal Soldiers, a super secret military unit, designed to…do…something. That involves kicking ass. Scene One sees the “UniSols” kick terrorist ass, rescuing a bunch of huddling tourists from a hostage situation in the Hover Dam. Everything goes well (horrible bloodbath all around)…until GR-44 (Luc) starts having flashbacks…Stop right there. Can you imagine the Pentagon procurement meeting that went into creating the UniSols? Someone, somewhere in the belly of that Beast, must’ve convinced the Secretary of Defense, “Yeah, it’ll be great: we’ll save tons on recruitment costs over the long haul if we take the Herbert West route.” Someone, somewhere, must’ve signed off on reanimating the dead. And who was Secretary of Defense in 1991? None other than future-Vice President Dick Cheney. Unfortunately, the Army’s ideal corpses always seem to arrive…shall we say, “used”…every now and then, an original memory resurfaces. None of the doctors at UniSol Central can figure out why. Damn eggheads can bring the dead back to life, but damned if they know all the ends and outs of it.
Case in point: Ronnie (Ally Walker), who, as our Girl Reporter for the remainder of the flim, sneaks into UniSol Central, a camp somewhere. Take a left turn at Albuquerque and a right at Area 51.) Luc and Scott capture her, with Scott executing her cameraman in response to his own traumatic flashback. Luc, going with the flow, knocks Scott down and flees, towing Ronnie into the night. The rest of the plot follows their Sarah Conner marathon, on the lamb from both the UniSols’ controllers, the law, and especially Sergeant Scott. Over the course of the film, Scott remembers just enough of himself to recall what a maniacal asshole he was back in “the shit,” as they say.
Custom dictates I render the bad news first. But I’m pressed for space on this site. So let’s get the good stuff out of the way. I’m pleased to report that the action appropriate stunts and explosions come out pretty well, thanks Emmerich. The audience is never bombarded with shotgun editing-induced sensory overload. The climactic Luc vs. Scott bout (taking place around Luc’s old farm) is quite the showstopper. That’s literally what it does: stop the show. After the fight ends, boom, movie ends, leaving things ragged and unfinished, like those ears that Sergeant Scott loves to wear so much.
I told you the first scene set the tenor of things: violence, blood, and slow motion fights are a few of Universal Soldier‘s favorite things. Sometimes Devlin’s script attempts to question a few of its own sci-fi premises, but there’s just something missing. I can’t quite put my finger on what…
Oh yeah. Talent. Wow, you forget about that sometimes. It’s so rare in the Action genre. I don’t need to sermonize about Jean-Claude’s lack of skillz. However, I will sermonize about his uncanny ability to look and act like a completely brainless puppet, a Terminator without power. In my personal opinion, all of the great Action stars of our time (Sly, Van Damme, De Ah-nold) are at their best when they’re soulless automotonss. Look at the Terminator. Look at GR-44. Look at…. anything Sly has ever done. Great stuff right? But were these people trying to play human beings? No. And when trying to play a real human being, Van Damme he shoots himself and this flick. Lundgern doesn’t really have this problem, spending have the movie in a trance, the other half in a cliche. The cackling maniac who needs some doggy downers real bad. So far, only two people have been able to play his role without pissing me off: Jack Nicholson and Mark Hamill. Both men were playing the Joker.
Now, Ally Walker might just have something going for her. She frequently over-acts to compensate for Van Damme’s under-acting (nature abhors a vacuum), but on those rare, shining moments, she acts like the pampered prima dona Veronica (whatever her character’s last name is) is supposed to be. Her character’s development is a bit creaky, but that’s mostly the fault of the script. How can you play a character that’s basically a walking McGuffin?
As an action movie, US is a full count knockout, no question. It’s action-filled, has an insane villain, and is essentially plotless. But it’s not content with that. No. US really want’s to be a sci-fi pick when it grows up. Writers Christopher Leitch and Dean Devlin give it the old scouts try, but scouting sucks the big fat one. The science behind this fiction is never explained. Reanimate the dead? Great. How? Where were these bodies stored for the past 25 years? And who funded this project? If it ain’t the Pentagon, who is it? Big Tobacco? Resuscitating cancer victims so they’ll smoke after death? There’s one for The Lone Gumen.
As far as I can see, Universal Soldiers languishes in obscurity, and there it should remain. Nicely directed? Sure, but what about the plot? What about the acting? What about the fact that I don’t give a rat’s ass about our protagonist? In Van Damme’s hands, a role that could be milked for all the pathos in China falls flat. In Lundgren’s hands, a character that could’ve frightened the audience becomes a sideshow attraction.