*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.
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.