US Rating: R- Strong Graphic Violence and Strong Language
Film Length: 102 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Audio: English 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio
Subtitles: English SDH, English & Spanish
The Film - out of
Universal Solider is good stuff. Action movies in the eighties had mostly been about overt machismo and body count and the nineties seemed to be more about thick muscles mixed with martial arts. Van Damme, Segal and a few others now ‘passed their prime’ stars embodied that wave.
Universal Soldier begins in Vietnam with Luc Devreaux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and Sgt. Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren), coming to deathly blows after Sgt. Scott goes off the deep-end, killing innocent villagers. As heavy rains drench the village, these two American Soldiers lay dead, the victims of each others violent assault. Rather than being taken back to the United States in body bags, they are adopted into a secret government program to create the perfect soldier. 25 years later, with the ‘Universal Soldier’ program making some news for having a flawless record saving the day, these genetically enhanced, programmed warriors, with Devreaux and Scott in lock-step, begin raising questions about who they are. When a reporter gets a little too close and her camera man is killed in cold blood, repressed memories are sparked in Devreaux and Scott that ignite the fight they started back in Vietnam. Now these ‘Unisol’s’; unfeeling machines with guns have gone AWOL, regressed to their last emotional state before they died and off leaving a trail of carnage in their wake.
The general plot of Universal Soldier can only be described as silly, but boy is it fun. Directed by Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, Godzilla), who has focused his directorial adventures on people facing the end of the world, shows flair here with this action outing, kicking it off with fire, rain and two action stars smashing fist first into each other like freight trains. With some well placed slow-motion, great camera work and a fair balance of action-movie toys (transforming truck, hi-tech command center), it won’t ask anything of your intelligence, but appeals in a very visceral way. Tagging along with the bravado, menace, punches and Van Damme’s high air kicks is a healthy sense of humor. Not a self referential wit or comedy thread, but a better than expected levity that actually works. Besides the trite but likable one-liner quips that pop-up, there are whole scenes that are designed to prod grins such as the diner scene where Devreaux rediscovers food.
Jean-Claude Van Damme has fun with this role and his disposition is perfect as the pre-programmed killing machine with an innate good guy sense and lightning reflexes during fights. He pulls off the almost childlike persona very well, a surprise for Van Damme to have been this good considering the merely moderate talent he displayed in his other successes. He is a likeable actor with slim range and a few signature fighting moves that typically work best in slow motion accompanied by a macho howl when inflicting it upon others. He is matched in the film, at least talent wise, by the chiseled C movie action star with sullen but mean eyes, Dolph Lundgren. Besides his turn as the Russian iron man behind the iron curtain, Ivan Drago in the silly (but fun) Rocky IV, Lundgren hasn’t really been able to catch a break. A shame since he was actually rather good here, chewing up the scenes he’s in with an unhinged maniacal glee and a fun to watch annoyance at the ordinary world that doesn’t act like the Vietnam he thinks he’s still in.
Ally Walker stars as Veronica Roberts, the reporter who cares more for a story than sanity, reason or any modicum of common sense and overplays the role. She has been seen recently on Boston Legal as a lawyer and was good in that capacity, but here, with the clumsy script (a norm for Emmerich flicks), she borders on aggravating. It is nice to see Jerry Orbach (Law & Order’s Lenny Brisco) in the small but almost mostly throwaway role of Dr. Christopher Gregor too.
Universal Soldier might very well be my favorite Van Damme movie, next to Timecop, simply because it has an idea and it runs headlong into it, asking us to not only suspend our disbelief, but fire it outright. It is dedicated to its premise, is made very well and has enough punches, kicks, gunshots and explosions to rank with the best lower budget action movies that the 1990’s had to offer.
It was followed some years later by the absolutely dreadful Universal Soldier II: The Return
Lionsgate deploys Universal Soldier on Blu-Ray for the first time with a 1080p High Definition transfer in 16X9 widescreen edition preserving its theatrical ratio of 2.35:1. It has never looked better. This film has been released a few times, with a special edition version on DVD just a couple of years ago, but this blu-ray version, while imperfect, has a great deal going for it. The image is sharp, bright and with deep blacks in all the right places. A lot of the action in the film takes place in the daytime and there is a sandy yellow tone to it. At night, however, the steely blue tone comes into play and looks superb. This is a very clean image, although there is a huge piece of debris noticeable at around 45:45. I even spotted a little shimmering in the brightest spots, but this really is a good looking image and the best this film has looked.
With a piercing English 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio track, Universal Soldier sounds terrific. The downpour falling in the opening scene at the Vietnam village is entirely immersing, surrounding you in the enveloping rains and following up with chest smashing bass hits that come with the pounding gunshots of our two leads trying to kill each other. The directional effects are great, missing no opportunity to use them to full effect. The dialogue in the center channel sounds a few years old and isn’t as crisp as the rest of the sound, but not to worry, the audio for this film is good stuff and will put a smile on your face.
With the exception of the ‘advanced trivia track’, all these features are ported over from the special edition DVD.
Director, Writer and Talent Commentary – Jean Claude Van Damme kicks off this reasonably good commentary and is joined by the director (Roland Emmerich), co-writer (Dean Devlin) and co-star Dolph Lundgren. Recorded separately, it feels a little disjointed at times and I am never a fan of commentaries by lots of folk pieced together. The dynamic energy that comes from group commentaries works much better and it seems odd when those commentating refer to others that are also on the commentary track. Jean-Claude talks about getting involved with the film and a little about working with Dolph. Devlin and Emmerich, whose comments are used the most, talk about making the film, working on a tighter budget and the tenets of 90’s action films.
Alternate Ending – (13:08) – An alternative ending that resembles the final cut with only a few noticeable difference until the very end where it takes quite the different path, much darker and far less optimistic.
”Guns, Genes and Fighting Machines” – The Making of Universal Soldier – (18:54) – This is a great feature that really digs into the making of and about the studio that afforded the filmmakers the creative freedom to make it. As with most features for films like this, it is over far too quickly, but what you have is worth watching.
”Tale of Two Titans” - Featurette – (14:13) – A look at the two actors who play the muscle-ridden Zombified ‘Universal Soldiers’. They discuss what got them into the physical activities that bulked them up and the breaks that helped them become action heroes. The big roles for Van Damme and Lundgren, Bloodsport and Rocky IV respectively, are interesting to hear about.
”Out of the Blu” – Advanced Trivia Track – Like VH1’s once hot pop-up video, facts sporadically and infrequently informing of tidbits of information that are of varying degrees of value.
Universal Soldier is perfect blu-ray fodder for those looking for a little action movie throwback to the 90’s. There were certainly better action movies in that decade, but for the budget and the relative novice talent behind the camera, Universal Soldier packs quite a lasting punch. For a film that sets itself up as good guy versus bad guy with a promise of a showdown, it delivers the goods. Enjoy!