Though it’s credited as an adaptation of a novel, the sci-fied, muscular actioner “Solo” owes most of its inspiration to classier vintage films from the likes of Kurosawa, Peckinpah and Coppola. It’s a high-concept, low-execution programmer with a few bright spots unfortunately, too few. Though the Mario Van Peebles starrer has some ethnic appeal, it still shapes up as a fast playoff theatrically with vestigial appeal on tape and cable.
The title character is literally a fighting machine a prototype military android described as the “perfect soldier.” He’s 10 times stronger and faster than your typical flesh-and-blood mercenary. He’s fixable when scuffed, disposable if seriously damaged, and there’s no letter of grievance necessary to assuage a family back home.
But as far as his superiors are concerned, there are still a couple of glitches in his program that need to be corrected. Basically, he finds it distasteful to kill innocent bystanders. Built with a fuzzy logic system, he amasses information and can reason, form value systems and develop other human frailties that get in the way of a pure killer instinct.
That shortcoming virtually undid a covert operation against Latin American rebels. So the order goes out that Solo’s to be sent back to Palmdale to be retooled. He picks up the message on the Internet and goes into his self-protective mode, hijacking a helicopter and outmaneuvering a pursuit team. But in the process his batteries virtually go dead. The Mexican villagers who stumble onto him in the jungle believe he’s died from a snake bite and, like Lazarus, he arises conveniently when the prologue rebels return to wreck havoc. His adroit dispatch of the villains leads him, in movie logic, to teach them how to defend their stinking patch of dirt.
“What do you know about fighting?” he asks the farmers. It’s the same query posited in “The Seven Samurai” and its official sequel, “The Magnificent Seven.” Despite being shorthanded, he teaches them a few tricks.
They learn well, and their incendiary reprisal is hot enough to set off the sensors on a spy satellite. Col. Madden (Bill Sadler) and a team of crack killers are dispatched to bring Solo back by any means deemed necessary.
The movie certainly introduces a number of intriguing ideas related to artificial intelligence, armed combat, minorities and Latin American relations. But scripter David Corley is content merely to raise the issues and segue into an array of action set pieces. The outing probably would have been better served as simply a mindless onslaught of mayhem.
Van Peebles appears above it all. This is clearly a vehicle for the actor, and he revels in the stoicism of his black superman. He’s a slightly less foreboding “Terminator,” with a smattering of self-parody.
The rest of the cast is saddled with thankless, caricature parts. Military honcho Barry Corbin is a cracker with a penchant to elongate expressions like “Gaaah dammittt,” and Sadler is just mean, unpleasant and unmotivated as Solo’s nemesis. The central-casting peasants are the worst atrocity, clearly experiencing the bucolic life for the first time. Abraham Verduzco and Seidy Lopez as the prerequisite young boy and his sister fluctuate between the unintentionally hilarious and patently embarrassing.
The best one can say for Norberto Barba is that he directs a slick piece of goods. But no amount of fast cutting or tempo can disguise the material’s simplistic, thoughtless nature. It’s difficult to assess whether astriking visual homage to “Apocalypse Now” is homage or parody, and that’s the height of complexity in this so-low “Solo.”