Universal Soldier (1992)

Do anything long enough, and there’s a chance you’ll become the thing you despised when you started. In an early review, I mentioned the two STV sequels to “Universal Soldier”, and that I’d never seen them – anyway, life was too short to watch such movies. And here we are, five years later, and I’m about to watch the series from the beginning, including the STV sequels. Ah well, I’d have only wasted the time anyway.

The super-soldier genre is pretty durable, I guess because if you want to make a movie starring a “proper” fighter, having them a robot is a simple solution to the lack of acting ability thing. We’ve covered plenty of them, from “TC-2000” to “Digital Man” to the “Nemesis” movies; but there are so many more out there. “Universal Soldier” can be seen as an early stage towards the Cannon-isation of cinema, where even the big companies are making trashy B-movie style product?

During the first scene, set during the Vietnam war, you can feel free to ponder what Army would employ the Swedish Dolph Lundgren and the Belgian Jean-Claude Van Damme (although they pretend that Van Damme is American, from Cajun country). Luc Devereaux (JCVD) is a moral fellow, but Andrew Scott (Lundgren) has gone full Kurtz, slaughtering innocent people and making a necklace out of the ears he hacked off them. They come to blows, obviously, and in the ensuing mega-fracas kill each other.

A curious beginning for the two stars, but the guys cleaning up the slaughter put them on ice because, apparently, they’re good candidates for the UniSol program (there’s a lovely moment as we see their faces, being zipped up into body bags, as their names pop up on screen for the beginning of the credits). Propelling forward to the present day, a group of emotionless but super-powerful soldiers, including GR-44 (JCVD) and GR-13 (Lundgren), are being sent in to take Hoover Dam back from a group of terrorists.

It’s at this point you remember that this isn’t your average trashy B-movie, but a real genuine Roland Emmerich blow-out. Two years after making this, we’d get “Stargate”, then “Independence Day”, and a steady stream of big-budget disaster movies. Okay, he probably doesn’t put this on his highlight reel, but it’s very much of his style – very slick, lots of explosions, nothing too complicated in terms of character motivation.

Throw in Veronica, a reporter who definitely doesn’t play by the rules (Ally Walker, best known for lots of TV work down the years), to give GR-44 someone to save and break his programming for, and you’ve got yourself a movie. The two of them go on the run, and the rest of the UniSols are tasked with bringing him back. They’re a curious team – the story is all about him trying to remember who he is and go home; but she has to do most of the acting while having zero arc of her own.

It’s Dolph who’s the superstar of proceedings, though. In action-movie terms, he’s a great actor and as his programming starts to fail, too, and his psychopathic self comes to the fore, he has a great time. There’s a speech in a supermarket which is basically gibberish but he gives it his all! He’s like the worst of both worlds – all the ignoring innocent life of a poorly programmed robot, and all the cruelty of a poorly programmed human being.

There are some great scenes, like the supermarket, and there’s a cracker inside a diner too, and the scene where the cops are revealed at the bus station is one of those lovely bits of business that your average low-budget movie just wouldn’t bother to do. So, it’s rarely boring, and the plot cracks along. There’s also plenty of “That Guy” spotting, with Ralf Moeller and Tom “Tiny” Lister as other UniSols, Robert Trebor (“Hercules: The Legendary Journeys”) as a motel owner / comic relief, and Michael Jai White in a tiny scene near the beginning – I only noticed him in the credits.

But there’s a problem, and it’s a logic one, which may not be apparent on first viewng (you’ll be checking out the explosions and manly fighting). The supersoldiers break their programming pretty much immediately, and there’s like ten of them (although if you go by their serial numbers, even more than that). Maybe try one out first, stress-test him, see how that goes? But as soon as their first mission is done, JCVD is out the door at the first sight of a pretty face, and Dolph isn’t far behind. They seem to have no problem remembering their past lives too, so it’s a bit on the confusing side. Plus, they need to be kept on ice when they’re not on a mission, or they malfunction; and it doesn’t appear like they have metal skin or any ability to soak up damage (they are pretty strong, though).

It’s a bit daft, but it’s fun to look at. In the grand tradition of sequels to big-budget genre movies, though, all the sequels are dirt cheap and I presume we’ll not have the best time watching them. Well, up to “Regeneration” and “Day Of Reckoning”, which we loved.

Rating: thumbs up

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