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Universal Soldier
Tonight's Feature Presentation

UNIVERSAL SOLDIER (1992)

Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, Ally Walker, Ed O'Ross, Jerry Orbach, Leon Rippy

Written By: Dean Devlin, Richard Rothstein (story), Christopher Leitch story) Directed By: Roland Emmerich

The Short Version

Universal Soldier is one of those classics that seems to have sneaked up on people.

Jean-Claude Van Damme plays this one on the understated side, but he’s fun all the same.

Surprise!  Dolph Lundgren is a good actor, and proves it.

This flick is actually much more polished than you’d expect.

If you like action, Universal Soldier is definitely worth your time.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

CHIMAY TRAPPISTE AVEC BIERE.

The best of two worlds!  Cheese made in a Belgian monastery and washed in Belgian beer.  Nutty.  Hoppy.  Go figure.


Pairs Well With...

SVEDKA ON THE ROCKS.

I can’t imagine why I’d suggest chasing down the Belgian stuff with some Swedish Vodka here.  Better keep it over ice, though.  No good to overheat, soldier!

“I just want to eat.”


Ah, the early 1990s.  They were such a fun time to go to the movie theatre.  Hollywood hadn’t sanitized itself yet (though it was coming quickly).  An “R” rating on an action movie was still respected, and generally meant that there was going to be some actual blood and gore and ass kicking involved.  Guys named Seagal, Van Damme, and Lundgren still headlined on the big screen.

In 1992, two of those three headlined Universal Soldier, and life was good.

The theatre where I first saw Universal Soldier was torn down shortly after I saw it (what replaced it is too depressing to think about), but all of these years later, it’s nice to know that there are some parts of the good old days that still pass muster when you go back and revisit them.  Indeed, in the case of Universal Soldier, I appreciate it even more today than I did the first time around.

Our story begins in Vietnam.  The year is 1969, and Private Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme, Street Fighter) is at the end of his tour.  He just wants to go back home to his family’s farm in Louisiana, but unfortunately, the Sergeant of his platoon, Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren, The Last Warrior), has chosen this particular moment to go crazy.  Deciding that he’s surrounded by traitors, he’s killed everyone else in the platoon, and has started slaughtering innocent villagers.  Deveraux tries to talk the Sarge down, but it’s not happening, and soon after, the two men have killed each other.

Or have they?  Hours later, another Army unit sweeps in and collects the bodies, but the Privates are told to report the men as MIA and not KIA.  Seems the brass has some plans for these dead soldiers, and that plan starts by putting them on ice…

Flash forward to the “Present Day,” which later dialogue suggests is 1994 instead of 1992.  Terrorists have taken over Hoover Dam, and they have no problem executing hostages.  In response, the military deploys their newest weapon: the Universal Soldiers, a squad of seemingly superhuman men who can swim a mile and a half in four minutes while wearing full gear, take bullets without flinching, and generally kick ass from wall to wall.  Funny thing, though: the one they call GR-44 looks a lot like Luc Deveraux, and the one called GR-13 looks a lot like Andrew Scott, despite the fact that the audience just finished watching both get killed in 1969.  Needless to say, the UniSols get the job done, but when the mission’s over, GR-44 starts having flashbacks, and when he turns back toward GR-13, there’s a look of horrified recognition on his face.

Meanwhile, outside, star reporter Veronica Roberts (Ally Walker, Kazaam) has just been fired by her network, but she doesn’t give up easily.  Figuring that a good scoop is all she needs to get her job back, she tails the UniSols back to their base.  She gets caught, but GR-13’s handling of her capture causes GR-44 to flash back again, and he fights his own comrades in order to save her and get her away to safety.  Now the Army has two problems: a rogue reporter who’s seen too much, and a rogue Universal Soldier.  Cleaning this up is going to be messy…

It’s amazing how many things you can do with the Frankenstein concept, isn’t it?  (And did you even think about the connection, I wonder?)

Universal Soldier is one of those classics that kind of sneaked up on the mainstream world.  Even the newspapers willing to acknowledge it as a well made movie still called it “trash,” but audiences didn’t give a damn about what the Washington Post had to say.  They knew awesomeness when they saw it, and they rewarded the producers of Universal Soldier with a hundred million dollar payday at the box office.  (Makes you wonder why it took those producers so long to cough up some sequels, really.  But, anyway.)  Since then, Universal Soldier has come to be recognized as one of the best remembered action flicks of the period, and one of the high points on the resumes of its two leading ass kickers.

Though their fortunes would reverse in the direct-to-video market later on, at this point, Jean-Claude Van Damme was looked upon as the bigger draw.  That and his affable smile get him the hero’s role, and while this isn’t the best work that Van Damme’s ever done, it certainly isn’t his worst, either.  It’s obvious that his understated acting here is an artistic choice meant to convey Luc’s status as a man coming to realize that he is, in fact, a man returned from the dead, but it doesn’t do him any favors, and ends up being a bit overdone.  With that said, he’s still fun to watch, playing the straight man to his own jokes with his usual superb sense of comic delivery (the one liners rarely feel forced from Van Damme), and, most importantly, delivering the goods whenever it’s time to give his action muscles a workout.  He gets a few martial arts exhibitions in (featuring, of course, his signature backspin kicks, but without any splits this time), including some very nice stuff during the final duel, but he’s equally enjoyable in the “standard” action sequences, too, whether they involve jumping off a moving bus or crashing through a solid wall.  And hey, ladies (and interested gents, of course) – Mr. Van Damme is also giving one of his famous “everything but the plumbing” nudity exhibitions, just for you.

As for Dolph Lundgren, my theory is that once mainstream critics got a hold of his monosyllabic breakthrough performance in Rocky IV, they wrote him off in the “Neanderthal” category and stopped paying attention.  It’s too bad, too, because for anyone who is paying attention to what he does in Universal Soldier, it’s plain to see that there’s some genuine acting going on here.  It would have been easy to play Sgt. Scott as just a raving psycho and be done with it, but Lundgren doesn’t do that.  Instead, he very clearly plays the role as someone who’s gone to the edge of the PTSD precipice and jumped.  Yeah, he’s nuts, but he’s nuts because he’s very obviously in pain, too.  Just watch him in the scene where he drags his comrades into the grocery store freezer.  He cares about them.  The script would have let him get away with just raving, but Dolph puts some real heart into this.  When he’s so malicious against the med team, it’s because of what they did to him.  (Would you enjoy memory clearance time?)  Yeah, Dolph kicks ass when it comes time to brawl, throw a grenade, or put a gun to someone’s head, but if you want to pick out his single greatest strength in Universal Soldier, it’s his acting.

Our two leading butt kickers also get to look good thanks to a tight screenplay and to some spot-on direction from some guy most people hadn’t heard of before named Roland Emmerich.  (His next two projects would be little affairs called Stargate and Independence Day.)  The screenplay is exactly as detailed as it needs to be in order to avoid the accusation of being “thin” while at the same time carrying no extra baggage that could be called “fat.”  It’s lean and mean and linear; the audience knows everything that it needs to know, and isn’t left sitting for even one scene that comes across as inconsequential.  Emmerich, for his part, takes his cue from the tight script (penned by his frequent collaborator Dean Devlin) and keeps the film moving at a very snappy pace.  He handles every type of scene with equal skill, whether that involves showcasing combat, forwarding story, or setting just the right atmosphere for humor to work without feeling silly.  If you’re looking for any wrong notes to be hit from the director’s chair, you’re only going to find one: after a spectacular setup featuring some excellent visuals of stuntmen rappelling down the face of Hoover Dam (seriously; it looks great, and deserves to be appreciated on the biggest screen you can come up with), the initial UniSol confrontation with the terrorists feels too easy.  Yeah, it’s supposed to set them up as badass, but when the terrorists look like they’re just laying down and there don’t seem to be too many of them, it rings a little disappointing.  Emmerich quickly makes up for it, though, and never looks back, but if you need to find a flaw, there it was.

As for the polar opposites of disappointment, look no further than the two action sequences that bookend Universal Soldier.  The Vietnam era opening (the last you’ll see of that once-standard convention, by the way; it was already out of fashion when Universal Solider came out, though it is sensibly and effectively used here) has all of the grit one would expect of any full-out Vietnam War film (which is all the more impressive given that it’s actually being filmed at an Arizona golf course).  It’s wonderfully acted by both Lundgren and Van Damme, and you can cut the tension with a bayonet.  As Deveraux approaches the village and sees the mutilations, you know this won’t be pretty, and when you see Scott’s horrific ear necklace, you also know that punches are not going to be pulled.  The duel is dramatic, the action well showcased, and the mutual death scene as powerful as it needs to be.  A great way to kick off the movie all around.

Now flip to our final duel at the Deveraux farmhouse.  It is very much a callback to the opening in as many respects as possible, and even features the only other tree lined setting in the film.  It is not, however, a carbon copy of that scene.  Whereas the opener was all about capturing the essence of a Vietnam War film, the closer feels like nothing so much as it does the climactic battle in a Friday the 13th movie, complete with nasty farm implements.  This is fun, this is tense, and this is brutal.  Everything comes together beautifully in this scene, which truly lives up to the promises made by the rest of the film in every aspect, from the drama to the action, and even closes off with a two-for-one special on “I just kicked your ass for the last time” one liners that we 1980s and 1990s action fans love so well.  Again, Emmerich showcases it all beautifully, and both actors come alive for it.  It is exactly the ending this movie needed.

Which makes me especially glad that the “Alternate Ending” you’ll be able to check out on some home editions of Universal Soldier is just that: an alternate ending.  Without mincing words, folks, the alternate ending sucks, and had it been used in place of the real one, I am firmly convinced that Universal Soldier would not have come to be regarded as the classic it is today.  That ending is just crap, plain and simple.

Fortunately, though, Universal Soldier did not have to suffer from that catastrophe, and so it is a true action classic, and one that’s definitely worth revisiting if it’s been a while for you.  Two different sequel arcs would eventually spawn after a long delay, and now there’s even talk of a television series, but really folks, if you want to see something great, you have to go back to where it all began back in 1992, when action was still king and guys like Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren had yet to taste the dust of the direct-to-video shelf.

Bottom line, Universal Soldier rocks.  Body Count’s in the house.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, December, 2011


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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