Retro Reviews: Universal Soldier
February 6, 2011 2 Comments
One of the original intentions of Retro Reviews was to get a chance to return to and reassess movies that I had seen previously. It was the opportunity to apply a more learned (at least I hope) eye to things. In that sense, it’s a project that plays with memory and nostalgia, bringing me back to films that I had seen in my youth, uneducated, raw, and nearly devoid of aesthetics, except for those instincts and the immediate impact of what I knew. So here we are with Universal Soldier.
It is important to note that I loved this movie when I was young. Merely the idea of it was enough to make it awesome. And so my liking of it was a foregone conclusion. I was raised on action movies. My father would only watch action movies. He had a lazy mind and simple tastes when it came to film; all he wanted to see were action movies. And even in action movies he was too lazy to stay awake. In talking parts he would doze off (sometimes snoring embarrassingly in the theaters) and ask that my mother wake him when an action scene was coming up. Thus I was raised on a healthy diet of action flicks by the Planet Hollywood triumvirate, Steven Segal, Chuck Norris, Wesley Snipes, and everyone else that you wish was in Expendables. He did, however single out one action star as a target for self-loathing, an action star whose films he regularly avoided: Jean Claude Van Damme. He considered Van Damme something of a, well, pardon the language but this seems the most apt, something of a pussy. Van Damme lacked the machismo and the power of other action stars.
I was inclined to disagree with my father, I loved Bloodsport and heck, I even watched Street Fighter. Sure Van Damme did one split too many too often, and they always had to think of some goofy explanation for his accent, but a flurry of kicks or some of that acrobatic ability he showed off in Hard Target showed that he was worth watching.
So we come to Universal Soldier, which features Van Damme going head to head with Dolph Lundgren who has played a number of the most bad-ass characters in sometimes good, sometimes middling, and at times bad flicks. This dude was Ivan Drago, The Punisher, He-Man, and the martial arts expert in Showdown in Little Tokyo.
Van Damme and Lundgren pay soldiers in the Vietnam war. Lundgren’s mind has gone off the reservation and he’s massacred a village. Van Damme tries to stop him and they wind up killing each other.
Many years later a top secret government project, for which the film is named, is using reanimated bodies of former soldiers, turning them essentially into remote control soldiers. That doesn’t last as their memories (or at least the two main characters’) come back. They are stuck in their last moments, Lundgren playing into his paranoid maniac fantasies. Van Damme playing protector and trying to stop him.
Sounds good, let these two action stars just have at it right? but with a new viewing, I could not help but wonder how a film could be so bad.
It is directed with extreme incompetence by Roland Emmerich, who would inflict us with the reboot of Godzilla and 2012. The action scenes are badly choreographed and badly shot. Things are always too tight to give a sense of space. And though this is supposed to be a way-out-there flick, one can’t help but laugh at how big and absurd it gets. Also, there’s this weird need for Lundgren to keep throwing one-liner quips that are supposed to be funny, but are really just bad, lazy puns.
You can imagine how I could have liked this flick as a youth. But seeing it now, and after having seen so many action films, Universal Soldier just doesn’t measure up. It’s not just that it’s absurd. It’s that it’s also terribly incompetent and well, worst of all, it’s really boring. There’s just nothing to keep your eyes on the screen. If I weren’t going to write this review, I would have just turned the thing off. All the cheese and schmaltz and cliche are ever-present, and there’s little enjoyment to derive from a film that plays everything by the numbers, and does it badly.
Ah well, I can only hope that other Van Damme action flicks can stand up to the test of time. Maybe Hard Target or Bloodsport would be better. As it stands, Universal Soldier is spectacular only in how it fails to entertain.