1992’s Universal Soldier represents the perfect recipe for a big, dumb action spectacle – it features action titans Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren in their prime, and the production was under the command of action filmmaker extraordinaire Roland Emmerich. It’s hard to defend the film from any serious critical standpoint, but it’s a near-masterpiece on its own terms; a kick-ass red-meat actioner with plenty of explosions and violent R-rated action delirium, all played with tongue firmly planted in cheek. On this level, the film delivers, and does so in an effective fashion, with competent production values (despite the modest $20 million budget), some memorable one-liners, and a fair share of classic moments.
In 1969, Private Luc Devereux (Van Damme) and Sergeant Andrew Scott (Lundgren) killed each other while fighting in Vietnam. In the early 1990s, the corpses of the two men are reanimated and placed in the top-secret “Universal Soldier” program, which aims to manufacture a breed of elite, super-powered, emotionless warriors for counterterrorism purposes. But Luc begins recalling his traumatic Vietnam experiences, and is snapped out of his medical trance. When a curious news reporter, Veronica (Walker), is caught sniffing around the UniSol base hungry for a story, Luc escapes with her and goes on the run. Meanwhile, Andrew also regains consciousness, returning to his war zone insanity as he hunts Luc through the American Southwest.
No matter which way you spin it, the premise of Universal Soldier is patently ridiculous, and the science behind the central conceit is high school-level. This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Emmerich’s filmography, though, as flicks like The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 laugh in the face of believable science. Fortunately, Emmerich was aware of the preposterous nature of the whole enterprise, and Universal Soldier is therefore exceedingly tongue-in-cheek and goofy. Unsurprisingly, too, the film (written by Emmerich’s former blockbuster producing partner Dean Devlin) adheres to a standard narrative template, with little in the way of twists or turns, and there’s even a trace of romance that’s incredibly forced. This flat romantic subplot, coupled with a few slow patches, denote the movie’s only problematic flaws (beyond how amazingly stupid and cheesy it is).
Universal Soldier was designed as an excuse to have Van Damme and Lundgren beat the snot out of one another, and heavens me, it succeeds extraordinarily well in this respect. The two men have a background in martial arts, so their fights are often exhilarating to watch since the behemoths truly went for broke. Outside of the fisticuffs, Universal Soldiercontains a fair share of shootouts and car chases which were effectively implemented with old-school filmmaking techniques, making them refreshing to see in an era dominated by CGI. Stuntmen really repelled down Hoover Dam, and the pyrotechnics crew had the freedom to set off real explosions and destroy real vehicles. All of this material is delivered with R-rated action sensibilities, allowing for plenty of brutal violence throughout. And, of course, as with any action film from this period, Universal Soldier has some terrific one-liners. Altogether, it’s a lot of fun. Say what you will about the slipshod scripts of any of Emmerich’s movies, but he’s a competent craftsman who knows how to orchestrate exciting action scenes.
Surprisingly, Emmerich and Devlin actually used their brains while developing the picture – they took note of the strengths and weaknesses of the two leads, tailoring the material so as to highlight their strengths while masking their weaknesses. Van Damme’s dialogue was thus kept to a minimum, and Devlin shortened his lines even further during filming to give the illusion of good acting. It’s impressive that Emmerich and Devlin could use Van Damme’s wooden theatrics to their advantage. Although the Mussels from Brussels lacks charisma, and was obviously still struggling to master the English language at this point in his career, he suits the role of Luc Devereux. Lundgren, meanwhile, is terrific as psycho antagonist Andrew Scott. He steals the whole show; he clearly had fun hamming it up and generally taunting everyone in sight, all the while wearing a necklace of severed ears.
Some may find it hard to forgive Emmerich for some of the movies he has produced over the years (1998’s Godzilla being the most controversial), but it’s easy to remember the man for Universal Soldier. Yeah, it’s a goofy, illogical actioner, but it’s a wonderful slice of pure escapism, and its ridiculousness is all part of the movie’s charm. This is the very definition of big dumb macho fun – have at it!