Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Film Review: UNIVERSAL SOLDIER (1992, Roland Emmerich)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 102  minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Jean-Claude Van Damme (BLOODSPORT, KICKBOXER), Dolph Lundgren (MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE, ROCKY IV), Ally Walker (SONS OF ANARCHY, WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING), Jerry Orbach (LAW AND ORDER, DIRTY DANCING), Leon Rippy (STARGATE, THE PATRIOT), Rance Howard (Ron's dad, FORCED TO KILL, CHINATOWN), Ed O'Ross (LETHAL WEAPON, RED HEAT), Eric Norris (son of Chuck, DELTA FORCE, TOP DOG), Tiny Lister (EXTREME PREJUDICE, JACKIE BROWN), Michael Jai White (SPAWN,  BLACK DYNAMITE).  Music by Christopher Franke (member of Tangerine Dream, MCBAIN, THE TOMMYKNOCKERS).
Tag-line: "The ultimate weapons of the future have just declared war... on each other."
Best one-liner:  "Say goodnight, asshole!"  –"Good night, asshole!"

UNIVERSAL SOLDIER.  Oh yeah.  This is probably the movie that should have been called CYBORG.  For starters, it's actually about cyborgs, unlike CYBORG, which is actually about post-apocalyptic fashion-conscious nomads who happen to be named after popular guitar brands.  But let me get back to UNIVERSAL SOLDIER.  We've got Van Damme as 'Luc Deveraux,' an ambiguously Belgian-American soldier who died in Vietnam while fighting his mortal enemy Dolph Lundgren (as 'Andrew Scott,' an ambiguously Swedish-American soldier.)  Then, their bodies are reanimated and turned into cyborgs by Jerry Orbach, and then they continue to fight each other, all the way to the Grand Canyon.  Toss in an endless bunch of TERMINATOR homages (and rip-off elements), an obligatory truck vs. bus chase, a grocery store shoot out:

 a blown up gas station:

 Technically, it's not an action movie unless they blow up a rustic, Southwestern gas station.

and that's pretty much the movie.  But what a movie it is.  I mean, it came from the minds who made THE HITCHHIKER– what do you expect?  (Note that I said THE HITCHHIKER, not THE HITCHER.)  As I often say, it's the little things that make a movie special, and I'm about to name a few of them.

Where to begin– well, let's see... how about the fact that Dolph Lundgren's sole character motivation seems to be the desire to make human ear-necklaces, and then make groan-inducing puns about them.


In fact, maybe this movie should have been entitled EAR AND LOATHING IN THE GRAND CANYON or THE SWEET EARAFTER or something, because I'm starting to think that UNIVERSAL SOLDIER is too classy a name for this thing.  I mean, it's presumably purloined from a 1960s Canadian folk rock song.  Eh, no matter.

Anyway, Dolph runs rampant across the greater American Southwest, trying to hunt down Van Damme and delivering soliloquies such as "Well, I'm fighting this thing man, it's like kick ass or kiss ass, and I'm busting heads!"

He steals rednecks' belts,

and at one point, a dummy of Dolph flies through the front windshield of a car, prompting the one-liner, "He should have buckled up."

Above all, Dolph realizes what movie he is in, and he's having a hell of a lot of fun with it.  He's given more to do than, say, in ROCKY IV, and he knows that the line "Now where are we gonna shoot her?  In the stomach?  Naaah.  In the chest?  Noooo...  I think... we... should shoot her... IN THE HEAD!" is ridiculous.  I mean, the man was a chemical engineering Fulbright scholar.  So he does his cartoonish best.  I only mention this, because on the opposite side of the coin is a man who's taking this material seriously.  Very seriously.  And that is the subtle majesty of Jean-Claude Van Damme.



Oh, no!

Van Damme is an Actor, with a capital A.  Don't believe me?  I offer proof:


Sometimes Acting requires a long, lingering shot of Van Damme's ass cheeks.

 The immediate aftermath of a long, lingering shot of Van Damme's ass cheeks.

Sometimes Acting requires a plot point that Van Damme must get naked and cover himself in ice every two hours.

 Insert one of Schwarzenegger's Mr. Freeze one-liners here.

And sometimes Acting requires THIS, the context and precise nature of which I shall refuse to explain:

 Make sure nobody gets poked in the eye or anything?

I love how almost every JCVD film feels that, despite whatever other mind-boggling suspensions of disbelief are in play, his accent must be addressed.

Later, he's revealed to have vaguely Cajun heritage.  Also, his dad is Rance Howard.  Which, I think makes him Clint Howard's brother.  But I digress.

There's also a wonderful plot element that means JCVD's cyborg-self is always hungry.  This leads to him eating an entire diner's worth of food, which, when he has no money to pay for the feast, leads to a brawl with the chef and several patrons, and some lunch-related one-liners are thrown in there, too.

After kick-blasting everyone into submission, he gets his hands on a complimentary plastic basket of bar popcorn, and the look on his face may very well be the purest distillation of "childish happiness" ever captured on film, at least since Michael Jackson got to live out his "claymation duets and giant transforming robot saving the world" fantasies in MOONWALKER. I mean, look at him:
How could you not be charmed by that kiddie-level sincerity?  Awwww, allllllrightGive him the popcorn, says the audience.  Give him ALL the popcorn.  He earned it.  (Ask me later about my conspiracy theory that JCVD was paid for his role in this film exclusively in popcorn.)

Anyway, it all leads to a final, ridiculous martial arts duel that ends with one of our two combatants suffering a Lucio Fulci-style impalement and then being SHREDDED TO DEATH BY A HAY BALER.  If that's not worth four stars, I'm not quite sure what is.  

Thanks for everything, UNIVERSAL SOLDIER.  Four stars.

-Sean Gill

Also, many further thanks to the wondrous featurette on the DVD called "A Tale of Two Titans," which features interviews with Dolph and JCVD, ridiculous low-budget re-enactment cutaways of everything they're talking about, JCVD doing a Menahem Golan impersonation, Dolph plugging his new production company "Thor Pictures," and the following archival photos of them as youngsters!

4 comments:

Brian Collins said...

You gotta love the fact that the movie is about two American Vietnam vets, and who do they cast? Jean-Claude "The Muscles from Brussels" Van Damme and Dolph "Ivan Drago" Lundgren. Maybe Hollywood was making up for years of casting iconic American actors such as John Wayne and Charlton Heston as Mongolians and Mexicans in flicks like The Conqueror and Touch of Evil. That would explain why Van Damme, Lundgren, and Schwarzenegger were so consistently cast as Americans.

Anyway, this is by far Roland Emmerich's best film. And have you seen the recent Universal Soldier: Regeneration? Shockingly good. It didn't have enough Lundgren, but it barely even looked like a DTV flick and the action scenes, particularly the fantastic Lundgren/Van Damme fight at the end, were much better choreographed, shot, and edited than most of Hollywood's recent shaky-cam/quick-cut offerings.

Chicken's good... said...

"Reddeh? BANG!! ...It's empty!"

I just watched this again after reading your excellent (as usual) review... I hadn't seen it in a few years.

And only now did I notice Gene Davis (the killer from "10 to Midnight") is in it! He`s the "Lieutenant" who`s standing around in a few scenes, mainly in the Lab Truck. He gets one line before Dolph puts a bullet in his head. haha!

Mike B. said...

Much obliged for more Van Damage! I must confess to never really loving Universal Soldier, as it always seemed unnaturally slow to me, even as a youngster. However, my affection for Van Damme (and later, Lundgren, who as you point out, is surprisingly self-aware here) makes it mandatory. You covered all the bases here, so all I can really add is how I noticed that the reporter gal seemed to be an archetype that was basically out of favor in action movies even in 1992, and that I haven't noticed at all since. That being, the brassy, scoop-chasing journalist chick who you can tell has an "edge" because she smokes a lot of cigarettes. Where did all those ladies go? Anyway, thanks for the review, keep 'em coming!

Sean Gill said...

Brian,

I do indeed love the casting of Dolph and Jean-Claude as Americans, whether it's penance or not, I'm all for it. Have not yet seen REGENERATION, but it's near the top of my list– sounds like just what I'd hope for.

Chicken's Good,
Glad you enjoyed– and holy shit, I didn't even notice Gene, though 10 TO MIDNIGHT is a Cannon fave. Maybe it's because he wasn't naked and covered in blood?

Mike,
Thanks, man. It is funny how the chain-smoking full of moxie reporter did kind of fade away into nothingness. As a side note, the actress who plays her, Ally Walker– who's kind of laughable here– went on from roles like this and KAZAAM to a fairly nuanced, meaty recurring role on SONS OF ANARCHY. I say she must've been taking acting lessons from Van Damme!