It’s kind of hard to imagine now, but for a brief period in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Jean-Claude Van Damme was a bona fide action star who could pull down millions at the box office. Never really enormous numbers like Schwarzenegger or Stallone, but respectable amounts that firmly ensconced him on the second tier of action heroes. There was a point where I had seen all of his movies, including little-known stuff like Black Eagle, though I will admit that much of his later output passed me by.
To this day 1992′s Universal Soldier is Van Damme’s biggest hit, grossing more than $100 million. I’ll be perfectly honest and tell you that when I saw it, I was less than impressed, but the movie was showing on cable (in high-def!) and I thought I’d give it another try. I won’t say my opinion has changed drastically, but I feel it’s better than I remembered, if not as good as it could have been.
Universal Soldier was also the beginning of a real career for director Roland Emmerich. He’d done stuff previous to the film, but this was his first honest-to-goodness hit and marked the beginning of his many collaborations with screenwriter Dean Devlin. And to think: neither one of them were attached to the project in the beginning, having been brought on to whip the movie into shape when the previous filmmakers had gone off the rails. The halfway ownership of the picture may explain why Universal Soldier is so different from the effects-soaked extravaganzas that Emmerich became known for in later years.
But enough about Emmerich. What about his movie? Well, it’s the kind of thing that would probably go direct to DVD these days and a few sequels to the film have gone that route. It begins in Vietnam in the ’60s when Luc Deveraux (Van Damme) comes face to face with madness when his sergeant, Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren), goes on a one-man killing rampage, murdering soldiers and civilians alike in a rain-soaked village. I should pause to note that though Lundgren had appeared in a few movies prior to this — most notably as Ivan Drago, the giant Russian boxer in Rocky IV — he hadn’t gotten an opportunity to really show off his acting chops. In this film he gets to play crazy and he does it remarkably well, demonstrating that he could do more than just glower (though he’s really good at that). Anyway, Deveraux confronts Scott and in the process they end up killing each other. In the military cover-up that follows, their bodies are packed in ice and shipped off to parts unknown.
Skip forward to present day. A hostage situation has developed at the Hoover Dam and a special force of commandoes has been dispatched to resolve things. This group is called the Universal Soldiers and among them are Deveraux and Scott, though they act more like automatons than human beings. Whatever their situation, they cut through the terrorists like soft cheese and retire to their high-tech truck/headquarters where scientists fuss over them in an ultra-cold environment feeding them drugs that apparently regulate their memories. These are the same guys and they’re back from the dead.
Meanwhile a spunky female reporter (are there any other kind?) goes sniffing around the UniSols trying to find out the truth about this super-secret unit. Ally Walker essays the role and I’ll admit that of all my memories of Universal Soldier, my recollection of her character and performance were the most negative. It turns out she’s not half bad, even though her character is essentially a cliché and pro forma love interest for Deveraux, though there’s precious little of the latter element in the movie, and correctly so.
Through a series of machinations I won’t go into, Deveraux and Walker’s character, Veronica, end up on the run from the bad guys. Deveraux can’t really remember who he is or where he came from, but he knows he wants to get home or die trying. Veronica wants to get her story without being caught in the crossfire. And Scott? He’s gotten his memories back (sort of) and has let his crazy flag fly, co-opting the Universal Soldiers for his own use and pursuing the traitorous Deveraux.
There is nothing in Universal Soldier that’s going to set your world on fire, at least from an action standpoint. Many bullets are fired and there are car chases and explosions and intermittent bits of comedy to break things up. I’m kind of surprised that Universal Soldier was Van Damme’s biggest hit because truthfully he made better films before and after.
I think the appeal lies directly with the performances Van Damme and Lundgren. They’re both really good in the movie, and not just when throwing around kicks and punches. Van Damme starts off playing Deveraux as a blank, his memory erased, but then slowly comes out of his shell as he remembers how to be a person. It’s an appealing transformation with some endearing humor thrown in to keep the whole thing from being overwhelmingly serious and/or silly. He never plumbs depths of previously unknown acting ability, but he handles the light demands of the screenplay with skill and that’s perfectly good enough.
Lundgren, as I mentioned, really sinks his teeth into his bad guy role. It’s actually too bad that he doesn’t get more to do, as those scenes when he’s able to just be nuts work quite well. I’m thinking of a sequence in a grocery store where he tries to revive two of his fallen Universal Soldier brethren, in which his Vietnam-era paranoia and delusion manifests itself in an impassioned speech given to the customers about how hard the war is and how much sacrifice he’s been called upon personally to make. No, Lundgren doesn’t deliver some kind of award-winning performance, but it’s a promise of the work he would come to do later in life as a prolific direct-to-DVD action hero.
Universal Soldier is something of an artifact. There’s no room in today’s moviegoing marketplace for a modest, fairly low-budgeted actioner with less-than-bankable stars. These days it’s go big with a name star or carve out some space on the DVD shelf at the local Walmart. I tend to think we’ve lost something with that attitude, because there are worthwhile elements of Universal Soldier that make it entertaining. Van Damme and Lundgren aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel, acting-wise, but no one could say that Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone were acting geniuses, either. It’s just the way things shook out. Maybe we would have been better off if events had gone a different way.