“Who the hell are these guys?”
When UNIVERSAL SOLDIER arrived on screens on July 10, 1992, it launched Jean-Claude Van Damme to a new level of movie stardom. DOUBLE IMPACT, with its wide release, increased budget and improved acting performance had been a big reach into the mainstream for the star of Cannon fighting tournament movies, but it just wasn’t the big crossover hit he needed. UNIVERSAL SOLDIER was.
Part of the appeal was that it pitted JCVD for the first time against fellow action icon Dolph Lundgren (in his followup to SHOWDOWN IN LITTLE TOKYO). They tried to play up some sort of rivalry between the actors, even staging an argument and shoving match on the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival. Produced by Carolco (FIRST BLOOD, TOTAL RECALL, THE PUNISHER, T2), distributed by TriStar Pictures, and featuring the sort of badass metallic title font one should expect from those origins, it was a $95 million hit in theaters, proving that these guys were more than just the stars of videos you rented to watch with your buddies.
I already reviewed this one back in 2008, and it’s a pretty good review, so check it out. But I figured it was worth another look in the context of ’92. It’s an interesting study in summer releases because it’s in that sweet spot between a b-movie and a blockbuster. It was Van Damme’s most expensive movie to that point, but that still meant only 2/3 the budget of LETHAL WEAPON 3, and less than half of BATMAN RETURNS or ALIEN 3. Director Roland Emmerich did not yet have a track record of making blockbusters – this was his second English language movie, following MOON 44 (1990) starring Michael Pare. The success of UNIVERSAL SOLDIER would get Emmerich in the door to do STARGATE which would hook him up to do INDEPENDENCE DAY, which would apparently give him a life long pass to make gigantic, very stupid movies that everybody complains about and swears are worse than the earlier one they like.
Emmerich didn’t originate the project. Andrew Davis had been attached to direct, coming off a run of CODE OF SILENCE, ABOVE THE LAW and THE PACKAGE. He reportedly made changes to the script by Richard Rothstein (DEATH VALLEY, BATES MOTEL) and Christopher Leitch (TEEN WOLF TOO), but is not credited. When Emmerich took over he had Dean Devlin, an actor who had co-starred in MOON 44, do rewrites. Devlin would remain Emmerich’s writing and producing partner up until THE PATRIOT (2000).
I am not the world’s biggest Emmerich fan, which is a nice way of saying I’ve always thought he sucks. I suppose he has his own unique voice, which I appreciate, but this is his one and only film that I can enjoy non-ironically, so I still consider it his best. And of course I’m grateful to it for spawning two legitimate sci-fi action classics, UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: REGENERATION and UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING.
But here’s the one that started it all – in this case “it all” being the premise of rogue military figures using the ol’ mad science to resurrect Vietnam-era KIAs as video-monocle-wearing super soldiers. These Universal Soldiers require alot of maintenance (some brainwashing, some freezing) but they have elite counterterrorist combat skills and the ability to survive bullet wounds. Part of the idea is that they’re mindless drones who will follow any order, but unfortunately for their creators a couple of these guys start to remember some things and think for themselves. One is our hero, Luc Deveraux (Van Damme), the other is Andrew Scott (Lundgren), his sergeant who went crazy during the war, massacred a bunch of villagers, wore their ears on his necklace, and made tasteless jokes about it. When Luc starts to remember parts of his humanity he goes on the run with reporter Veronica Roberts (Ally Walker, RAGIN’ CAJUN). But when Andrew also goes rogue and starts reliving his delusions, terrorizing people in a grocery store meat department and stuff, Luc has to stop him.
The Vietnam War and our country’s misgivings about it had been exploited by many action movies throughout the ‘80s. To the credit of this movie by a German director, with Belgian and Swedish stars, they don’t get delusions of RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II and try to heal America’s wounded national psyche. Instead they make Luc heroic with a flashback where he tries to put an end to his sergeant’s spree of war crimes. While RAMBO worked as sort of a do-over of the war where “we get to win this time,” UNIVERSAL SOLDIER is a do-over of Luc’s attempt to minimize the damage of a war that should’ve never happened. And for the other Universal Soldiers it’s a rerun of following orders that they really shouldn’t.
Notably in the prologue the military already has a protocol for covering up war crimes. They don’t want to admit to Andrew’s atrocities so they call in a “Code Zebra,” which means the dead soldiers are declared M.I.A. and their bodies are sent to the Universal Soldier program. But later the movie pulls its punches politically by blaming the existence of the program on Colonel Perry (Ed O’Ross, ACTION JACKSON) doing things he says “those wimps at the Pentagon” would never allow. A bad apple, not systemic.
If there’s anything sincere about the themes here they’re obviously saying something about the military, but I think today the Universal Soldiers make a pretty good symbol for cops. They robotically follow orders no matter how wrong, except when they go crazy and just kill people, at which point their bosses plant drugs on the victim and blame it on somebody else. Also they just do stupid shit like shooting in a place where it’s gonna start a fire and blow up the whole place.
In the present day the Universal Soldiers are used as an elite squad sent in to stop a hostage situation at the Hoover Dam. Alot of what they do, like rappelling down the dam, seems like it could be done by non-undead soldiers. But GR76 (Ralf Moeller between CYBORG and BEST OF THE BEST 2) takes some gun fire and then gets up again like Michael Meyers. And later we see that he will heal quickly if put on ice.
It’s sort of implied that Luc’s awakening comes from seeing Asian-American hostages crying. It gives him a flashback of the villagers he tried to save from Sarge in ‘Nam, kicking off this whole adventure.
Veronica gets involved after reporting on the hostage incident live from the dam. She shows up late, is fired for being unprofessional, but she tries to investigate these weird soldiers she saw in an attempt to get her job back. She sneaks onto their secret base and is spotted moments after photographing GR78’s corpse coming back to life in a metal container full of ice. Apparently not too shaken by the ramifications of this discovery, she happily says “Redemption!” and kisses the film roll as she flees.
In my original review I complained about Walker jibber-jabbering too much or something, but I’m not sure what I was on about. I liked her fine this time. In my research I learned that Roger Ebert (who did not like the movie) really liked her, writing “she has a screen personality that implies wit and intelligence even when the dialogue provides her with nothing to work with. She has some of the same qualities as Debra Winger, and brings scenes to life simply through the energy of her presence.”
I wouldn’t go that far, but she won me over on this viewing. At first I wasn’t impressed by her smartass skills, but then I got to the part where she’s escaping from the base, chased by the Universal Soldiers, and her cameraman Huey (Joseph Malone, a dancer in the “Smooth Criminal” video) – apparently the worst driver who ever lived – immediately drives straight into a structure causing the truck to explode and launch into the air. Then from inside the upside down wreckage she deadpans, “You think we lost ‘em?”
Shit turns serious and history repeats itself when Scott executes Huey, against orders. This triggers Luc’s memory of protecting the villagers, so he drives off with Veronica. She gets blamed for Huey’s murder. So now they’re both fugitives and it’s kind of a road movie where they get to know each other, but he doesn’t understand human behavior, leading to some comedy.
Since I’ve reviewed this before let me just mention some favorite parts. I like when Luc is riding in a car trunk filled with bags of ice. And when Andrew punches through a glass helmet and squooshes a guy’s face. I like when Andrew gets thrown through the window of a car, because they have an impressive dummy gag shown from two different angles.
I like when Luc is at the diner and doesn’t understand paying, so the cook comes after him and he beats him up, then all the regulars come after him and he beats all them up too. It’s all a big misunderstanding but of course all action movies should have the scene where a bunch of pool playing tough guys in a bar or diner try and fail to beat up the hero.
Similarly, it’s just fun to watch the bad guy fuck with people who have no idea who they’re dealing with, like in this scene where he holds a guy by the ankle like one might hold a dead rat by the tail.
There’s a NEMESIS-esque part where the other Universal Soldiers shoot at them in the motel and Luc breaks through walls to escape. Though you might expect a movie where Van Damme has super strength to end bigger than his other movies, it has a pretty traditional, intimate action movie finale: they fight to the death on a farm at night. Of course, Andrew wrecks a police car with Luc’s head, and Luc drop kicks Andrew through the side of a barn. And I suppose it’s because he’s a super soldier that after Luc impales him on a thresher, Andrew opens his eyes again. But let’s be honest, that kinda shit happens with non-undead bad guys too.
Anyway, I was a little concerned Luc wasn’t gonna turn the thresher on, but it’s a fake out. He does it. Thank you, Roland Emmerich. That’s all we wanted.
Oh, and also we wanted a Body Count song on the credits! So thank you for that! Okay, no, actually we never predicted that. It’s a weird choice. The lyrics are: “Body Count’s in the house.” It is definitely about the band Body Count and not the body count that happens during the course of the movie, but I’m okay with it.
Wikipedia summarizes UNIVERSAL SOLDIER’s critical response as negative: “Mainstream critics dismissed it as a TERMINATOR 2 clone, or as a typical, mindless action film,” and Rotten Tomatoes rates it 34%. But the contemporary reviews I could find aren’t as bad as that sounds. Desson Howe of The Washington Post may have been a little condescending, but he seemed to appreciate it in the spirit it was intended, writing that “by its own deliriously rock-bottom standards, UNIVERSAL ain’t half bad,” and it really doesn’t come across as negative when he describes “the hysterically awful finale.” In the same paper, Richard Harrington wrote that “the whole affair is enjoyable in a mindless way,” and even complimented Van Damme on his “flair for light comedy.”
I did not notice any reviews saying much about Emmerich’s flair for light comedy or anything else. Thankfully it’s less jokey than his later stuff, but there are hints of the corny humor that will soon start making his movies hard for me to stomach. For example, you can hear Dr. Ruth talking on the TV that an old lady is watching in the motel lobby, and later when Luc walks outside naked the same old lady sees him and licks her lips. You get it, because it’s funny for an old lady to be horny. (See also: Eartha Kitt in BOOMERANG. Okay, she actually did make that funny.) And during the mostly enjoyable scene where Andrew makes a crazy speech in a grocery store I think Emmerich lays it on a little thick with the comical reaction shots of shoppers, with Muzak playing softly in the background.
Not too bad though. It’s fine. And let me give Emmerich credit for a couple parts that I think are well executed. First of all, the scene where Luc asks Victoria to leave town on a bus for her own safety. He’s still there, by a car, looking super fuckin cool like James Dean or Steve McQueen or somebody, when the bus pulls away and she’s still standing there, having decided not to get on.
And he’s happy to see her but then when another bus behind her pulls away it reveals an army of cops standing there with their guns drawn.
(This screen grab might make it look like she set him up, but she actually doesn’t realize they’re there. It’s a good visual gag.)
Another directorial touch I liked was not a gag at all, just unabashed awesomeness. It’s after Luc has been beaten down badly and dragged around in the rain and mud. But after Andrew seems to blow up Veronica the score by former Tangerine Dream member Christopher Franke (Babylon 5) turns, I don’t know… Wagnerian? And Luc slowly rises in front of the flames, eyes furious, head tucked like a bull getting ready to charge. And he does – he runs in slow motion toward the camera, toward Andrew, who responds with a great “oh, fuck” deer in the headlights expression right before getting kicked in the face.
Beautiful. So I will hand it to Emmerich for that one. He’s not without some chops. You don’t deliver on action movie thrills like that unless you’ve got a little filmmaking in your blood, so I can’t blame him for not retiring after peaking with this one.
P.S. I don’t know how I never noticed Michael Jai White in this – he’s the third person you see and hear. He only has that one line, though. Something about getting the hell out of here. I don’t believe we ever see him turned into a Universal Soldier. Interesting, though, that they had him play S.E.T.H. in UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: THE RETURN without tying it to his character in the first one.
UNIVERSAL SOLDIER actually got a video game for the Sega Genesis. It was actually a game called Turrican II modified to fit the movie. There was also a Game Boy version, but I don’t think anybody could possibly guess it was UNIVERSAL SOLDIER without seeing the title, and it doesn’t have any of those cute pixel art depictions of the actors that I enjoyed from the T2 and ALIEN 3 games.
There was also a 3-issue comic book adaptation published by NOW Comics. It was written by Clint McElroy, who also did a FREEJACK adaptation. I just ordered it from ebay so I’ll let you know if it’s any good.