Title: Universal Soldier (1992)
Director: Roland Emerich
Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, Ally Walker
Universal Soldier is a film that’s primarily known for uniting two huge action stars from the 80’s/90’s; I of course talk of Jean Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren. Now, back in the day this was a big deal because Van Damme was the action star of the moment. Before Universal Soldier came along, he’d done a string of extremely successful action films like Cyborg (1989), Kickboxer (1989), Lionheart (1990) and Death Warrant (1990). The good thing that Van Damme had going for him was these films were low budget action films that managed to make their money back. Just as an example: Cyborg cost about 500,000 dollars to make yet grossed more than 10 million! Kickboxer cost 1.5 million yet grossed more than 14 million! Van Damme career kept growing, each movie getting just a little bigger. Universal Soldier was the biggest film Van Damme had been a part of up to that point. On the other side of the ring we have Dolph Lundgren who started his career with a small role as a henchman on A View to a Kill (1985), then hit the big time by starring as ‘Ivan Drago’ in Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky IV (1985). He then took a stab at starting a franchise (and failed miserably) with Masters of the Universe (1987), then worked on a series of low budget yet enjoyable flicks like The Punisher (1989); which by the way is still the best Punisher film out there if you ask me. He also made the sci-fi action film I Come in Peace (1990) which I’m dying to re-watch, I Come In Peace is such an obscure sci-fi flick that seems to have simply slipped through the cracksn and disappeared. As you can see, both of these actors had respectable action star careers at the time when their careers crossed paths on Universal Soldier, so of course, it was a major event to see them working together on a project. Question is was this movie big enough for the both of them?
Universal Soldier starts out with these two American soldiers on active duty in Vietnam. One of them goes completely bonkers (Lundgren) and starts killing off innocent Vietnamese people without mercy, even going as far as cutting off their ears and making a necklace out of them! In comes Van Damme, the good natured soldier, to try and put an end to his madness and bring the crazed soldier back to reason. Unfortunately Lundgren’s character is too far gone into his madness and so they end up kicking each other’s asses until they kill each other! In comes a special military unit who bags their bodies and ships them off to somewhere. That somewhere ends up being this special program called UNISOL, which basically brings soldiers back from the dead and turns them into these zombie soldiers which the government has complete control over, or so they think! These zombie soldiers don’t look anything like zombies, far from it! You see, the government has apparently developed away to get the Unisol’s skin to regenerate when exposed to the cold. Don’t ask me why; just chalk it up to bullshit movie science. Anyway, it isn’t long before the animosity between these two soldiers reawakens and blamo, we are right back where we started, with these two soldiers trying to kick the living crap out of each other.
This film was directed by Roland Emmerich, a director who is currently known for directing big budget summer blockbusters like Independence Day (1996), Stargate (1994) and 2012 (2009). Recently he directed White House Down (2013). But back in 1992, it was Universal Soldier that ended up being his first truly big budget Hollywood film, it was Emmerich’s big break to prove himself to the big Hollywood moguls. Before it, he’d made a string of small pictures like the supernatural family film Making Contact (1985) and the Michael Pare starring sci-fi film Moon 44 (1990). Universal Soldier ended up being Emmerich’s Hollywood training wheels, after that there was no stopping Emmerich from becoming the successful filmmaker he became. I mean, here’s a filmmaker that plays the Hollywood game every step of the way, he makes the movies that Hollywood producers love. How so? Well, if Hollywood likes PG-13 films because they’ll make more money, then he’ll give them a PG-13 rated film! Hollywood likes a happy ending? Emmerich will give it to them! They don’t like nudity or foul language? He’ll go with that as well. There’s no denying that Emmerich’s films are squeaky clean, he gives Hollywood the formula they want, he plays by their rules and they love it. Now, here’s the interesting thing about Universal Soldier: it comes from another time in Hollywood, another era, and so, here we have a Roland Emmerich film that’s actually rated R, filled with nudity and violence! Who would’ve thought it?
Universal Soldier is a well thought out film in some ways, it was made by a group of people who knew the kind of film they were making and who they were making it for. For example, yeah sure, action films are largely seen by a male audience because we like the action, the explosions, the guns, but it’s no secret that both Dolph Lundgren and Van Damme were a huge hit with the ladies as well, this is probably the reason why the filmmakers decided to include many a scene in which Van Damme’s character stripping. Now if you’ve seen many of Van Damme’s films, then you know that he was in the habit of showing his bare on ass on most of his films. I mean in terms of ass shots, Universal Soldier has got to be some kind of record for Van Damme! There’s this whole scene that revolves around the female protagonist having to look through Van Damme’s whole body for some sort of a tracking device that is hidden beneath his skin, the scene takes a while as the girl slowly but surely makes her way through Van Dammes pectoral muscles and thighs…you get the picture. The filmmakers knew the ladies would get a kick out of these scenes, in fact, just the fact that they had a woman as the lead lets you know that the filmmakers kept the female audience in mind. There’s even a scene with an old lady checking out Van Damme as he walks naked through the street and her son tells her “shame on you!” So yeah, the film is both aimed to please the dudes in the audience (with the action) as well as the ladies, with all of Van Damme’s nude scenes.
In terms of the action, the film satasfied but didn't exceed my expectations. There’s a couple of action set pieces that are pretty cool, like a chase sequence between a bus and the UNISOLS big ass tank/truck/laboratory thing that takes place in around the Grand Canyon, it’s pretty explosive. And the ‘piece de resistance’ is of course, the big final fight between Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren which is satisfying. By the way, Dolph Lundgren is completely over the top as “GR-13” the crazed UNISOL who goes on a rampage, killing women and children, cutting off peoples ears and then saying sarcastic lines like “I’m all ears!”. Van Damme plays the good guy, he plays the role with a naivete and a vulnerability that goes in clash with Lundgren’s whacked out performance.
The film ended up reminding me of a couple of films, like for example Robocop (1987) because just like officer Alex Murphy worked for the police department in Robocop, these Unisol’s used to be soldiers for the U.S. Army. In both films the robots/zombies are experimental in nature and in both films the units in question begin to remember when they used to be human, so their human memories come rushing in at some point and clash with their robotic natures. But most of all Universal Soldier felt a bit like The Terminator (1984), some scenes seem to be copy pasted from both Terminator films. Even the musical score sounds like the pounding electrical sounds from The Terminator soundtrack. All these similarities with The Terminator franchise make perfect sense when we take in consideration that this film was produced by Mario Kassar, one of the biggest producers to ever walk through Hollywood and also the guys behind Carolco Pictures and one of their biggest hits: Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). By the time Universal Soldier was being made, Carolco Pictures was knee deep in debt, and so they needed for Universal Soldier to be a huge hit, if not, it would go completely bankrupt. Now here’s something I’ll never understand, how a studio can have a hit as huge as T2 yet still manage to be bankrupt? I guess it goes to show how deep in debt these guys get in order to make these big budget movies. It also shows that to play the Hollywood game you have to have nerves of freaking steel. So yeah, a lot was riding on this film; a whole freaking studio to be precise! Thankfully, though Universal Soldier wasn’t as big a hit as they expected, it did make its money back in the U.S. with some healthy earnings from abroad. So with the success of Universal Soldier and a couple of other hits like Cliffhanger (1993) and Stargate (1994), Carolco Pictures kept on living for a couple of more years, until the dreadful year of 1995, when they decided to produce Renny Harlin’s Cutthroat Island (1995), a film that ended up being a gargantuan failure and also the last nail on Carolco Pictures coffin.
So anyhow, what we got here ladies and gents is a decent action flick from the time when action flicks where still violent and graphic; when Hollywood produced violence unabashedly. Sadly, those days are gone and we’re left with washed out action pictures that are nothing like the blood drenched, explosion filled action films of the 80’s and early 90’s. By the way, the dvd includes some nifty extras including a retrospective featurette in which Van Dammage and Lundgren muse about their experiences making the film, also, it includes the original ending which was a whole lot grimmer then the one we actually got, it’s worth a watch. This film was followed by a bunch of lesser sequels like Universal Soldier 2: Brothers in Arms (1998), Universal Soldier: The Return (1999), Universal Soldier Regeneration (2009) and Universal Soldier Day of Reckoning (2012), this last one reunited Van Damme and Lundgren once again, alas in a far smaller take on the Universal Soldiers universe. Now don’t ask me about these cheap ass sequels because I’ve never bothered seeing them, they all look like they’re not worth my time, but this first one? A decent action flick which served as a stepping stone for Emmerich’s career.
Rating: 3 ½ out of 4