Universal Soldier – #2 in the US (July 10-12)
All-Time Domestic & Worldwide $36,299,898
Universal Soldier is a solid sci-fi entry in the Van Damme canon if generic at times.
Jean-Claude Van Damme, aka the Muscles from Brussels, was a made star by 1992. JCVD had broken out of the mold as Frank Dux in the cheesy martial arts classic Bloodsport in 1988. After that, his career shot to the stratosphere, starring in Kickboxer next and Lionheart after. Universal Soldier would be the closest he would get to having a Terminator or Rambo of his own. The film was also the first meeting with “The Swede That Killed Creed” Dolph Lundgren would make this a hell of a watch for late 80s action fans. Lundgren had some fun with Masters of the Universe, a turn as the Punisher, and the cheesy Showdown in Little Tokyo with Brandon Lee (I strongly recommend that film). The two together in one movie should be fun on the bun, if a bit ridiculous. Universal Soldier is precisely that, with director Roland Emmerich along for the ride.
Private Luc Deveraux (Van Damme) and Sergeant Andrew Scott (Lundgren) are part of a squad in Vietnam until Scott goes rogue, killing people in a small village and his squad mates. Devereux tries to stop him from killing two hostages, but both are killed by shooting one another. Cut to 1992. Their bodies had been cryogenically frozen and reanimated as part of the UniSols program under Colonel Perry (Ed O’Ross). While stopping a hostage situation at the Hoover Dam, Dvearux, now GR44, regains a form of conscience and goes AWOL with journalist Veronica Roberts (Ally Walker). They leave to find a doctor involved with the UniSol program (Jerry Orbach). Yet, Scott, now GR13, fully gains conscience and is determined to kill Devearux once and for all.
Universal Soldier is pure 90s cheese with a fun sci-fi concept that becomes the run-of-the-mill action film one expects. The film is a staple of syndicated television if I ever saw one. A definite template here will seem familiar if anyone has seen an action film involving an amnesia plot (The Bourne Identity comes to mind). It shares similarities with Terminator 2: Judgment Day in that they must find someone involved in UniSol’s project. It hits all the beats that have been hit before from beginning to end. Yet, it’s still a fun watch. That comes down to the fact that the two leads are damn good.
Van Damme is not the strongest of actors, but he can nail it when given the proper role. He is taking hints from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s performance as The Terminator by being a monotonous robot. The charm is there, though, with nailing humorous scenes like one in the diner chomping away dozens of plates like no one’s business. He is also a master in combat scenes using his martial arts skill and prowess. Van Damme is not a total brick shithouse like the other action Stallone or Lundgren, but don’t let that lack of build fool anyone. He is as strong as they come, akin to Jackie Chan in the way where his strength is the fact he is a natural fighter. Van Damme also is quite the looker and knows it given the gratuitous butt shots in this movie. Sadly, he did not do the split in the movie, which alone docks this film some points.
Lundgren, as the villainous Scott, rules the school. I have a major soft spot for Lundgren as an actor. Not many Masters in Chemical Engineering can kick as much ass as he can. Lundgren fell into it out of the left field after dating Grace Jones and has not stopped. Lundgren becomes a menacing threat and sells it using his dominant look to his advantage. He plays the typical stoic patriotic type ready to complete his mission that would be the hero in any other film. This film subverts that expectation to make him a monster and a bastard. He’s outright intimidating as a presence on screen.
The action is what one comes for, and it does not disappoint. A great motel shootout includes Van Damme breaking through walls and dodging bullets alongside Walker’s Veronica. It’s full of knockdown destruction. The Hover Dam sequence is impressive, being shot on location (or so it seems) with high-stakes going on. The final fight is also excellent, with Van Damme and Lundgren going toe-to-toe in the rain. It’s such a cliche of a fight, but it’s so enjoyable seeing these two dudes bring it with the best of them. It’s no fight between Dalton and Jimmy in Road House, but then again, what is? Emmerich directs solid action and e
The premise is also worth mentioning because genetically modified super soldiers have more association with superhero films and TV than sci-fi these days. It’s a concept that is nothing new but can be changed around. The version here in the movie is more akin to if Victor Frankenstein made Captain America using the dead bodies of soldiers to make them something more than man. It’s also great because it avoids going the cybernetic route which has been done before in The Terminator and Robocop prior. They have to recharge by getting put on ice like a football player, which is a silly choice but adds to the humor of trying to ice Van Damme any chance they get.
The movie’s fault lies with everything outside of the action beats. The rest of the film is pretty forgettable. The story outside of the premise is mediocre at best. Walker as Veronica Roberts gets nothing much to do besides react, and that’s it. Orbach appears briefly to spout exposition for a minute, then leaves the movie with a paycheck. It’s bland. It can be a bore at times. Yet, with that said, it might be a better watch with pals for a movie night rather than a solo viewing.
Universal Soldier is an enjoyable film in the Van Damme canon if a bit generic outside of great action beats. Lundgren is stellar as his foil by being the worst Captain America til The Boys’ Soldier Boy. The staleness can damper the experience, but seeing Van Damme and Lundgren face-off is worth the price.
Revue Rating: 3 out of 5
Next time, Wayne Szalinski’s shrink machine has been hit with the Uno reverse card because honey, he blew up the kid instead.