Imagine a world where wars were no longer fought by new recruits into the military or battle-hardened veterans that have returned for another tour of duty. Instead, picture the wars being fought by those who had already served their country and died on the field of battle years before. This type of world and future of warfare is exactly what screenwriter Dean Devlin (“Stargate”) and director Roland Emmerich (“2012”) envisioned with their science-fiction action hit “Universal Soldier”.
“Universal Soldier” follows two American soldiers, Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren), who died by each others hands in Vietnam. Now, resurrected by a secret project within the United States military, Luc and Andrew are leading members of a group of elite fighters known as Universal Soldiers (or UniSols). The plan is for the UniSols to simply exist for the sole purpose of carrying out orders for their handlers, with no memory of their previous life. However, when a mission triggers a flashback causing Luc and Andrew to remember their deaths, the two quickly become engaged in a deadly game for survival.
I enjoyed my experience re-watching this movie recently, as it had been several years since I had last seen it. I hadn’t actually given “Universal Soldier” much thought in some time, and honestly, my opinion of the movie had become somewhat tainted by the lesser quality of its “official” sequel, “Universal Soldier: The Return”. I use the word “official” because there actually were two made-for-TV sequels (“Universal Solider 2: Brothers in Arms” and “Universal Soldier 3: Unfinished Business”) that aired prior to the latter’s theatrical release. However, the recently released (and fairly well-received) “Universal Soldier: Regeneration” renewed my interest in revisiting the original film, if for no other reason than to brush up on the details of the story before watching the newest installment.
The story for this film is a fairly straightforward actioner, only with a sci-fi slant. The plot moves along at a brisk pace, as one would typically expect from such a movie. The action sequences are always entertaining and not in short supply, but they never really threaten to overshadow the story for the film. There had been some criticisms leveled at this movie when it was released and even since then, that it is nothing more than yet another shallow action flick with zero brains and all brawn. However, I tend to disagree.
While the framework of the film, as I stated earlier, is essentially a straight-up action movie, there are some more emotional elements that did manage to surprise me. Examples would be the portions of the movie dealing with Luc and Andrew’s time in Vietnam, the desire to return home that Luc feels upon regaining his memories, and the psychological issues that Andrew endures. All of these elements featured in the film focus upon much weightier issues than one would typically find in a run-of-the-mill action movie.
To their credit, writer Dean Devlin and director Roland Emmerich took a fairly reasonable amount of time exploring those facets of the story, essentially mining for an emotional anchor in the movie with which the audience could relate. Granted a little more time could have been spent dealing with the issues, especially the more traumatic ones; however, this wasn’t intended to be an Oscar worthy film. So, as far as action movies go I was surprised this one got as heavy as it did and one shouldn’t expect much more than that. I think too many people chose to just write this movie off based on its lead actors rather than pay attention to what was actually happening within the story.
The cast was led by two of the rising stars in terms of action heroes at the time, Jean-Claude Van Damme (“Bloodsport”) and Dolph Lundgren (“Rocky 4”); however, both men have had a tough time crawling their way out of the Direct-to-DVD realm of movies in recent years. Jean-Claude as the hero of the movie, Luc Deveraux, gives what is quite possibly his best performance in what is probably his best movie as well. His acting has never been stellar by any means, yet in this film he does stretch his emotional boundaries a little more than we’re used to seeing from the so-called “Muscles from Brussels”.
Dolph Lundgren as Andrew Scott, a soldier whose war has never ended, is equally more diverse in this role than any others I’ve seen him in. Typically, he portrays an emotionally detached individual, whether a hero or villain, but here he injects much more life into his performance. From Andrew’s sick and twisted sense of humor to his psychotic breaks with reality, Dolph plays the various aspects of the character with surprising ease and creates a villain that is much more complicated than your stock action movie character tends to be.
It’s too bad that both actors didn’t deliver more performances like the ones in this film, not to mention being smarter about finding good material to work with along the way. For example, Jean-Claude did “Street Fighter” really seem like a wise decision? I think not, and I’m sure at this point you would agree. Maybe if the two of them hadn’t been willing to settle for whatever project would come their way, no matter how potentially damaging it could be to their careers, then perhaps their careers could have avoided hitting the skids in the late nineties and into the present. Just a thought.
Alongside the two leads is actress Ally Walker (TV’s “Sons of Anarchy”) as a reporter who inadvertently stumbles across the government’s military secret of creating reanimated soldiers. The role is essentially flat and one-dimensional, but Ally takes it one step further by making her character somewhat of an annoyance for much of her time in front of the camera. It’s not until two-thirds of the way through this film that she finally gets some control of herself and attempts to make her character more realistic and not your prototypical nosy reporter that always gets into trouble. It’s too bad that it took Ally so long to realize that she had created such an annoying character, because I’ve seen her in other movies and TV shows and she is a much more capable actress than one would be led to believe from her work in this film.
The bottom line is that “Universal Soldier” is a sci-fi/action movie that delivers the prerequisite goods in terms of hard-hitting fights, some quick bits of humor, and a fast-moving, easy-to-follow storyline which is exactly what its audience expects. While at the same time, the movie does offer some surprisingly deeper, quieter moments as well. All of this when mixed together makes for a movie that will satisfy the hardcore action junkies, and those looking for something with more substance than the latest Seagal movie has to offer.
“Universal Soldier” is rated R for violence and language.