Universal Solider is now 27 years old and is, despite all its clunky nature, is still a very entertaining concept action picture. It’s all preposterous and yet, wisely, doesn’t take itself too seriously. The blend of martial arts, gunplay, vehicular carnage, and solid action set pieces combine to make something surprisingly better than it deserves to be. Also surprising is how well the film holds up now that we’re just a few years away from its 30th anniversary.
The Production: 4/5
“You can’t run from this war soldier! Not under my command. You’re growing weak. You should have taken your… medication.”
In the chaos of the Vietnam war, Luc Devereaux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and Sgt. Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren), come to deadly blows after Sgt. Scott goes off the deep-end, killing innocent villagers. As heavy rains drench the village, these two American Soldiers lay dead, killed by each other’s hand. When discovered, they are packed in ice and slotted for a secret government program to create the perfect soldier. 25 years later, with the ‘Universal Soldier’ program making news for having a flawless record in saving the day, two of the the genetically enhanced, programmed warriors, a reprogrammed Devereaux and Scott, experience flashbacks to their Vietnam days. When a reporter gets a little too close and her camera man is killed in cold blood, the repressed memories sparked in Devereaux and Scott are fully reignited. These two ‘Unisol’s’, unfeeling human machines with guns and deadly skills, have gone AWOL, regressed to their former emotional states (before they died) and are leaving a trail of carnage in their wake.
The general plot of Universal Soldier is unabashedly silly, but it’s a heck of a lot of fun. Directed by Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, Godzilla), who would spend most of his later career focused on the adventures of people facing the end of the world, shows some exciting flair with this action outing, kicking it all off with fire, rain and two action stars smashing fist first into each other like freight trains. Some well-placed slow-motion, fun camera work, and a good helping of “action-movie toys” (a transforming truck, hi-tech command center), it doesn’t tax your intelligence, but will appeal in a visceral way to your action entertainment receptors.
Emmerich, working from a script written by Richard Rothstein, Christopher Leitch, and his former production partner, Dean Devlin, has fun mixing the bravado, menace, punches, and Van Damme’s high air kicks with a healthy sense of humor. The humor seems to recognize the ludicrousness of the proposition. A few groan-worthy one-liner quips aside, the film enjoys entire scenes designed to deliver grins, such as the diner scene where Devereaux 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-fast reflexes. He pulls off the almost childlike persona well, a surprise for Van Damme given how routine he seems in his other action vehicles. He’d later showcase a marvelous sense of comedic awareness in the short-lived Amazon series, Jean-Claude Van Johnson. Van Damme has always been a reliable, likeable actor with just enough range and a few signature fighting moves that work best in slow motion. All that promise is found here. He is matched in the film, at least talent wise, by the chiseled action star with sullen and mean eyes, Dolph Lundgren. Lundgren is terrific fun, chewing up the scenery with an unhinged, maniacal glee. The rest of the cast includes Ally Walker as Veronica Roberts, the reporter who cares more for a story than common sense, but she tends to overplay the role. She’s saddled with the weakest dialogue and borders on aggravating for too much of the film, though not all of that is her fault. It is also nice to see the late Jerry Orbach (Law & Order’s Lenny Brisco) in a small, 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 expel it completely. It is dedicated to its premise, handsomely made on a modest budget, and has enough punches, kicks, gunshots and explosions to rank with the best action movies the 1990’s had to offer.
3D Rating: NA
Featuring a newly scanned 4K master, Universal Soldier is quite the revelation on UHD. The higher resolution of 4K in this new version offer an exquisite level of detail. Daylight sequences are the most impressive for this new edition with a stunning clarity. Night sequences benefit nicely from the Dolby Vision/HDR with deep blacks and shadow detail, though can be a tad too dark in a moment here and there.
Colors are brighter and more vivid. Notice the warmth and saturated colors of the high desert truck chase and pay attention to the colors and detail in the mountains in the background. It’s exquisite.
The film doesn’t lack for film grain either. While most noticeably in the lower lit sets (the interior of the Devereaux family home, for example), it is apparent through the film. Skin tones are all natural and warm, the rain-soaked nighttime finale leans towards cooler colors and pops nicely. There are also moments where the level of detail is so good (such as Ally Walker standing on the front porch of the Devereaux home) it’s almost three dimensional.
Framed in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35.1, this is absolutely the best this film has ever looked.
With a piercing English 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio track, Universal Soldier still sounds terrific (this appears to be the same audio from the Blu-ray release). The downpour falling in the opening scene at the Vietnam village is nicely immersing, surrounding you in the 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 very good, rarely missing an opportunity to take advantage. The dialogue in the center channel sounds a few years old and isn’t as crisp as the rest of the sound, and is a little flat at times, but that’s a minor quibble for an audio engineered for the action.
Special Features: 3.5/5
Director, Writer and Talent Commentary – Jean Claude Van Damme kicks off this reasonably good commentary joined by 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 differences 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” – (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.
Behind the Scenes – (15:28) – A 15-minute assembly of behind the scenes footage. No meaningful interviews or commentary, just the footage.
1992’s Universal Soldier holds up very well and this 4K release is really quite terrific. While the 90s offered us better action movies, this film, for the budget and relative novice talent behind the camera, it packs a lasting punch. Lionsgate doesn’t have a perfect record with it’s UHD releases, and there have been questions over the titles they’ve chosen to get the UHD treatment, but Universal Soldier is a real winner and an absolute treat for fans of the film.