Saturday, November 16, 2019

"Universal Soldier" - Fun with Cyborg Zombies

*I write these articles with SPOILERS.

I’m getting into my monthly groove a bit late this month, but better late than never, especially when the movie I’m covering is Universal Soldier. This was the beginning of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s bigger budget work, and the success of this film is a big reason why he became a ‘90s action mainstay. The film could easily be dismissed as a kind of Terminator-ripoff, but who cares when it’s treated with such a fun, light tone? They weren’t going for an Oscar, so why not make something in Van Damme’s wheelhouse? Playing a robotic, fish-out-of-water type is perfect for Van Damme. Much like Schwarzenegger, it makes his accent less noticeable, and he knows how to play it for laughs (much like he does in Replicant). It had been years since I watched this, and I was as pleasantly surprised with it as director Roland Emmerich and writer Dean Devlin were when they recorded their commentary.

What a Great Time for Action Movies. 

I watched this with the audio commentary, and it was actually pretty insightful. It was a decent commentary because it was one that was recorded years later for the special edition DVD rather than recorded before the movie was even released (which is the case more often than not on these old commentaries). Because of that, Emmerich and Devlin are reminiscing just as much as they are providing behind the scenes tidbits. It seems like they haven’t seen the movie in years, and they are genuinely surprised by how good the movie is and what they were able to get away with at the time. They’re looking at the movie from a 2004 lens, and I can see why they feel the way they do.

The early 2000s was not a place for rated R action movies. PG-13 was the name of the game (we’re currently in the middle of a bit of a R-rated renaissance right now), and it was likely that Emmerich and Devlin could not get a project off that ground anymore unless it was rated PG-13. So these guys are nostalgic for the action days of the ‘90s, and they were great times.

First and foremost, action movies that involve a lot of violent death simply should be rated R. There’s nothing more hypocritical than claiming that a PG-13 rating is to spare our nation’s youth from glorified violence, and then just clean up all the death and destruction to get by sensors. Implied or bloodless death is still death. At least in the ‘90s studios still had the balls to say, “This is a violent movie, and it should be rated accordingly.” 

Since it was the ‘90s, this also meant that the action had to be almost completely practical. There are so many squibs and real explosions in this movie that it’s refreshing to watch compared to most current action films. There’s nothing groundbreaking about the action in Universal Soldier, but it feels real, and that’s more important than style.

Finally, the ‘90s were a time when a violent action movie could still be goofy and fun. We’re talking about a movie in which a soldier makes an ear necklace (twice!), and there are many moments of goofy humor. Hell, Lundgren even holds up the ear necklace and talks into it! There are still fun action movies, but I feel like this particular type of fun action is dead. It’s because the action is not the funny element, it’s all the character stuff happening around the action. It’s Van Damme eating a dozen plates of food followed by a scene with Lundgren killing a doctor by jamming a hypodermic needle into his skull (those moments didn’t happen back to back, but you get the idea). 

Action movies of this era didn’t take themselves very seriously, and that is what made many of them great. No matter the serious implications in a plot about reanimating dead Vietnam soldiers to become cybernetic killers for the government, you still have to look at such a plot and acknowledge how silly it is. Universal Soldier embraces this silliness, and the film is better because of it.

A crazy, sci-fi Interpretation of Apocalypse Now.

Dolph Lundgren’s character makes it easy to compare Universal Soldier to Apocalypse Now. He’s a more straightforwardly crazy Colonel Kurtz. He spent enough time in the war to start to think that only he knows the right way to run things. 

Lundgren was obviously game for all this as he’s clearly having a lot of fun with the role. He’s a more animated, or re-animated, Kurtz. I’m just imagining Marlon Brando giving crazy speeches as he makes his way across the country, blowing up everything in his path. 

I suppose what made the comparison stick out to me the most was the setting of Lundgren’s speech halfway through the film: a grocery store. If you remember, in Apocalypse Now, Kurtz says that Willard is “an errand boy sent by grocery clerks.” Did Devlin and Emmerich (who refer to Lundgren as Kurtz in the commentary, by the way) think of this when they conceived of the scene? Probably not, but maybe. Either way, I just found it funny to imagine this film as a version of Apocalypse Now, and why not? There’s already three versions of that movie, why not add a fourth?

Van Damme Shows Emotion Better When He’s a Robot Zombie.

Universal Soldier is kind of a zombie movie, what with the re-animated soldiers. But it’s also a kind of robot movie, as well. These two character types are perfect for Van Damme, and I’m not being a smart ass. 

I mentioned at the beginning that playing a robot/clone/etc. is perfect for Van Damme. He does a good job selling his emotionless state, and he brings effortless humor to most of his scenes. But as a sentient zombie, he gets to show his range as an actor, even though that role might seem inhibitive. 

For all it’s goofiness, Universal Soldier is a movie about young men who died in war and are brought back as emotionless soldiers, but their memories are still there waiting to come forward. The horrifying aspect is when they start to regain their consciousness. Van Damme has multiple scenes in which he acknowledges he is actually dead. That’s pretty heavy for such a silly movie. And he truly sells it, too. You see this sad look in his eyes when he discusses his death. Van Damme is not only conveying his melancholy for his own lost life, but also his inability to truly feel his emotions as he’s still a product of a military experiment. 

Granted, Universal Soldier does not focus on these grim details, but when it does take a second or two to acknowledge how fucked up this experiment is, Van Damme is more than capable of handling the work. I’m not surprised by this, but Dean Devlin was, and he’s not afraid to admit to it in the commentary. But this is why I love Van Damme. Sure, the kicks and splits and all the twin movies are fun, but the guy is seriously capable of conveying complex emotions without saying a word. This is to be expected of most actors, but to see it in an action star, especially during the ‘90s, is special. That is what makes Universal Soldier stand apart from other Van Damme films.

Why Do I Own This?

It’s a Van Damme movie, and a top tier one at that.

Random Thoughts 

Van Damme's commentary is naturally incomprehensible. I do like how he refers to this movie as "U.S. 1."

Holy shit, that's Michael Jai White at the beginning! He plays the villain in Universal Soldier: The Return. But they don't mention him as one of Van Damme's fellow soldiers. Why not?

Seeing Leon Rippy as a scientist is distracting. I'm too used to him as a slightly crazed hillbilly-type.

Dolph Lundgren stomps the neck of an already dead terrorist; science guy monitoring this: "I think homeboy likes this shit."

I did not realize Deebo was in this. Maybe that's why he is such a badass in Friday. Is Friday a spinoff of Universal Soldier?

Huey was right to worry about Ronnie's plan. Poor bastard.

The part with Van Damme cooling his dick off with the air conditioner in the motel was actually behind the scenes footage they ended up using in the movie.

"What accent?" Yes! Acknowledge it and make a joke about it.

Emmerich: "You know, this movie's better than I thought." In the commentary, he and Dean Devlin are constantly surprised that they like their own movie.

So a redneck outside a titty bar sees a dude in fatigues wearing an ear necklace, and he cracks a joke about it. I don't think I would fuck with the ear necklace dude.

Lundgren's grocery store rant is great as is, but the soldier in the background eating a raw steak really puts it over the top.

"You're discharged, sarge." That's pretty fucking awful.

God damn, I forgot how gruesome Lundgren's death was.

There’s an alternate ending, and it is terrible. Lundgren kills Van Damme’s mom, then the ending happens as it does in the normal version. Then Van Damme’s dad pulls a gun on him, and the scientist who started the program shows up (Jerry Orbach). They explain that Van Damme’s parents are fake (his real parents still think he’s dead, then they shoot Van Damme a few times and talk about how he needs to give up and come with them. The cops, and Ronnie’s former news channel, then show up. For some reason local podunk cops have jurisdiction, and all the government guys are arrested. Then a news producer hands Ronnie a microphone and wants Ronnie to give a newscast over the dying Van Damme (why are the cops allowing this?). She can’t because she loves him. Then there’s an epilogue in which Ronnie tells us that Van Damme was reunited with his real parents and decided to let himself die on their farm. She hung out with him for his final two months. The end. I’m okay with the scientists showing up, and Van Damme’s parents being undercover agents, and I’m even okay with Van Damme deciding to die, but the cops just swooping in and the news stuff is just random. And if Van Damme is going to die, give an actual scene of this; don’t just use B-roll footage and explain it in a voiceover.


Tuesday, November 5, 2019

"House of 1000 Corpses" - "Run, Rabbit, Run!"

*I write these articles with SPOILERS.

Finishing up my late Halloween month set of movies, I decided to revisit House of 1000 Corpses (the lack of a comma in 1000 has always bothered me…). After thinking about Dog Soldiers director Neil Marshall and whether or not I actually like his films, it made me think of Rob Zombie. I’m in the same boat with his films (and with 3 from Hell out, I wanted to revisit the first film), though I can definitively say I am not a fan of a lot of his work. I was, however, very excited about him in the beginning.

Do I Actually Like This Movie? (SPOILER: Yes, I do.)

I’ve been a fan of Rob Zombie since the White Zombie days. I’m mainly a fan of his music, but his videos were always a bonus since he was so clearly a fan of all things cinema. It was not surprising when he made the move into directing, especially since he had been attached to projects over the years (I seem to remember reading about a planned Crow reboot directed by Zombie that never happened). So when House of 1000 Corpses finally came out, I was pretty amped up for it. 

For the most part, I really enjoyed this movie the first time around. But I do remember liking the characters more than the actual story. Captain Spaulding was an obvious favorite with his “Fried Chicken and Gas” store, but he wasn’t in the movie all that much. I found Baby more annoying than anything, though I think that’s the point of her character. Otis was a standout, as well, mostly thanks to Bill Mosely doing a zany Charles Manson impression. 

The general vibe of 1970s horror was nice, as well. But looking back, I can’t help but see this movie as Zombie figuring out what he wanted to do. It’s more of a pratice run than a fully realized film. That doesn’t mean it’s bad. In fact, I like it more than ever after this viewing. But there was a time when I looked at this as a lesser effort. I blame The Devil’s Rejects for that.

I like House of 1000 Corpses, but I love The Devil’s Rejects. Once I saw that film, I felt that Zombie had figured things out. He had a more cohesive story, and he realized the best thing he could was get the three main characters from the first film out of the house and let them go wild. 

It’s not fair, but I started to judge House based on its follow-up. Looking back at it as its own movie, I find a lot more to enjoy. And while I like Rejects more, I still think House is better than most of Zombie’s other films (his Halloween films, as I remember them years later, felt too brutal and not nearly fun enough). On its own, House of 1000 Corpses is a weird, fun, disgusting, disturbing tribute to ‘70s horror.

This Movie Is a Lot More Messed Up than I Remember.

While Zombie’s first two films are borderline comedies, they are still based in horror. This is more the case for House than Rejects (which I consider to be more of an Easy Rider movie with serial killers). 

The family is messed up, of course, as they are Zombie’s version of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre family. But it’s what the family, mainly Otis, does that makes this film disturbing. Otis as Manson obviously makes this film pretty fucking dark, especially with the stuff with the missing cheerleaders early on. 

Otis’s later creation of Fish Boy out of Rainn Wilson’s corpse is an image that has stuck with me over the years. And his donning of the skin suit made out of the old dude from Saving Private Ryan is showstopping in its grotesqueness. I mean, he comes out wearing this skin suit and tricks the dead guy’s daughter into thinking he’s her dad. She only realizes it’s only his skin when Otis starts tongue-kissing her through her father’s dead lips. This movie is fucked up. 

Perhaps that’s why I prefer Rejects. The main characters are still terrible and do awful things, but nothing as bad as this. You feel just a bit better rooting for them in that film. Otis becomes a more likable Manson in that film. 

Okay, I’m not too thrilled with some of the sentences I’ve created in writing about this movie, so I’m just going to stop here.

Why Do I Own This?

I think I bought this without seeing the movie. I don’t think this came out theatrically near me, and I really wanted to see it when it came out on video, so I think I just bought it. I’m glad I did. It’s an experience worth having every couple of years.

Random Thoughts

The interactive menus are actually a little funny, and they're definitely an artifact of a different era in home video releases. My favorite part of the menu is Captain Spaulding reading a porno magazine while he waits for you to pick something.

"I don't like chicken, and I hate clowns!" Okay, I get the clowns, but who the fuck hates chicken?

My least favorite part, and the most amateurish part of Zombie's filmmaking, are the random shots of "creepy" stuff in between each scene. Just go from one scene to the next.

It took way too long for Hardwick's character to get hit with a bat.

It's weird to see Walton Goggins play a half-assed normal role.

The cop-killing sequence does show promise for Zombie's filmmaking abilities. The long wait for the final killshot is effective at creating the mood that evil is happening, and it's quiet all around. No one will be saved.

But them again, it seems at times that Zombie only makes movies as an excuse to show his wife's ass.

"The End?" Adding that question mark is the cheesiest part of this movie by far.


"Dog Soldiers" - It's like "Trainspotting," but with Werewolves Instead of Heroin.

*I write these articles with SPOILERS.

I bit off a bit more than I could chew (pun definitely intended) this Halloween. I had hoped to include this movie and House of 1000 Corpses in October, but time got away from me. I watched both films and had outlines for both articles, but I just never got around to writing them. Rather than abandoning the articles or saving them for next year, I decided to just post them now. So here’s the first late Halloween article.

Neil Marshall was going to be the next big thing, right?

The Descent (a movie I’ll cover next year for Halloween) is the first Neil Marshall movie I watched, and I loved it. Naturally, I had to check out his first film. Dog Soldiers, while obviously a bit cheaper and a lesser movie overall, did not disappoint. It was brutal and goofy. This was a director to pay attention to. 

His next movie was Doomsday, which is a movie I think I like. This is where things get weird with me and Marshall’s movies. I think I like the idea and promise of his films more than the actual films. I remember liking Doomsday but thinking it could have been so much more. Mad Max: Fury Road had not come out then, but that ended up being the movie I wanted Doomsday to be. But thinking back on it, I really want to watch Doomsday again to see if I’m wrong, and that it is actually pretty good.

Next came Centurion, a Michael Fassbender movie about a Roman legion behind enemy lines. I only know what it’s about because I just looked it up on IMDb. Once again, I remember liking this movie but not being blown away by it. After Centurion, Marshall worked more in TV, but he did direct the new Hellboy, so I need to check that out now.

My point is that Neil Marshall makes movies I like or should like, but I almost completely forget them. It’s the weirdest thing. This guy should be like John Carpenter to me, but something has failed to click. But I want it to. I feel like I’m somehow missing something with his third and fourth films. 

The only other director I can think of that I feel this way about is Terence Malick. Hear me out. The first time I saw The Thin Red Line and The New World, I hated them both passionately. But part of me wanted to like them. So I kept revisiting them to the point that I now love both films, and I loved The Tree of Life the first time I saw it. With Malick, I kept revisiting his films because he was regarded as this genius, and I just didn’t get it. Marshall isn’t that well-regarded, or known, for that matter. But his sensibilities are exactly what I look for in movies, so I keep coming back to these movies hoping something clicks and I finally feel like I truly love his work. 

I’m giving Doomsday and Centurion one more try. If I don’t see the light, then I’ll make my peace with the fact that I only like two of Marshall’s films, even if I should celebrate his entire filmography.

Trainspotting with Werewolves.

Dog Soldiers, aside from being a werewolf movie, is also a very Scottish movie. And by Scottish, I mean “turn on the subtitles” Scottish. This, along with the casting of Kevin McKidd, made me think of Trainspotting

Even though the main characters are soldiers, they respond to the existence of werewolves in a matter-of-fact way. Imagine how Sick Boy would respond if he saw a werewolf suddenly burst into a room and kill Renton; he would freak out, but he would also be a smart ass about it. That attitude is what sets this film apart from standard werewolf movies. 

But thinking about this movie in regards to Trainspotting just makes me want to see an actual Trainspotting movie with werewolves. Who wouldn’t want to see Begbie take on a werewolf in a bar? And the werewolves could be metaphors for each character’s addiction. If they survive, they get clean. If they die, they succumbed to their addiction. 

The beginning of Trainspotting could work as a werewolf movie, as well. Instead of the cops, they’re all running from werewolves. And Renton’s voiceover can be changed accordingly, “Choose staying inside during a full moon. Choose keeping silver weaponry on your person at all times. Choose running as fast you can away from bloody werewolves. Choose life.”

Why Do I Own This?

Honestly, I think I might’ve bought this on Amazon when I was drunk one night a few years ago. I mean, I like it, but I do not know why I thought I ever needed to watch this again.

Random Thoughts 

Apparently there's a special edition of this but I have the bare bones version. The IMDb has most of the stuff from Marshall's commentary, though, so I'll stick with this version.

Marshall never liked the title screen because he thought it looked cheap. I agree.

The killing a dog as the final test is the same thing from Kingsman, isn't it? Did they get that from this? Oh, and Liam Cunningham is serious about it. 

Having someone shoot a dog for no reason is a good way to signify that character is a villain. 

That story the sarge or whatever tells around the fire about his buddy getting blown up is the darkest story about an ass tattoo ever told.

"My guts are out, Coop!"
"We'll just put 'em back in then!"
"They're not gonna fucking fit!"

Forgot about Cunningham getting puked on. That's one way to keep someone from shooting a dog, I guess.

During one attack, a soldier throws a stick and tells a werewolf to fetch. That's why I like this movie. 

“Ryan, have you tried licking your own balls yet?”

So did The Hangover steal the pictures during the credits gag from this movie?