The combination of martial arts studs Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren on one marquee–plus a complete disregard for life and property–should help this summer warrior bayonet strong early box office returns, overcoming a terrible premise and script. The Carolco production’s appeal will be less universal than it might have been, however, had there been a brain powering those chiseled bodies.
Despite its not-insignificant production values, the story feels like a late night sci-fi movie patched together from snippets of earlier films–a mix of elements from “Robocop” and “The Terminator,” with a dash of Captain America comic books–that leaves behind almost as many derisive laughs as dead bodies.
During the introduction, for instance, a crazed Vietnam platoon leader (Lundgren) refers to his thickly accented subordinate (Van Damme) as “farmboy,” a confusing allusion not explained until nearly 90 minutes later.
The two soldiers waste each other prior to the opening credits during a 1969 Mai Lai-type massacre, only to pop up 23 years later as re-animated corpses, brought back by the defense department to act as an elite terrorism-fighting unit.
Something goes wrong, however, and Luc (Van Damme) begins to recover his memory, taking off accompanied by a pretty young reporter (Ally Walker), with Lundgren–his mind still addled with ‘Nam hysteria–and other brigade members in hot pursuit.
Thanks to the premise, the film is on the wrong foot from the get-go, since it’s difficult to have much empathy for walking corpses with superhuman strength whose flesh regenerates when punctured.
The central story also brings governmental paranoia to heights that might alarm even Oliver Stone, although it’s so obviously a plot device (and a bad one at that) that there seems not a shred of conviction behind it.
In an equally damning commentary on the acting and Roland Emmerich’s direction, Lundgren and Van Damme are both more realistic as stoic cadavers than they are once their memories start to return.
Although both have proven convincing action stars in the past, neither fares particularly well here, and their climactic encounter is shot so murkily that it’s often difficult to tell who’s clobbering whom.
The shift from their mummified state to delivering rapid kicks and snappy one-liners (including anachronisms like “Are we having fun yet?”) also makes no sense whatsoever, in keeping with the rest of Richard Rothstein, Christopher Leitch and Dean Devlin’s screenplay.
After his rendition of twin brothers in “Double Impact” Van Damme offers nothing new here other than baring a little more of his physique, in “Terminator” fashion, than had been the previous norm.
Lundgren remains an imposing physical presence who hasn’t been properly used since “Rocky IV,” though he’ll probably score some points with youngsters thanks to his character’s morbid penchant for collecting victims’ ears. In this regard, “Soldier” proves notably repulsive in places even by standards of the genre.
As the reporter, Walker is the modern damsel-in-distress blend of tomboy tough and conveniently available, with a few Fay Wray shrieks thrown in. Most of the other roles fall into the category of either non-verbal behemoths or cannon fodder, with Jerry Orbach in an extremely briefcameo as the doctor who masterminded the project.
Tech credits are generally OK, although some edits prove confusing, and the final sequence is too dark to follow. Considering the scope of the production, it also sorely lacks memorable action sequences–the exception being a scene where Van Damme eludes pursuers by crashing through a series of flimsy motel walls.
The urge to escape from “Universal Soldier” isn’t quite that strong, but it comes close.