**½/**** Image A- Sound B+ Extras B
starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, Ally Walker, Jerry Orbach
screenplay by Richard Rothstein & Christopher Leitch and Dean Devlin
directed by Roland Emmerich
by Bryant Frazer You might expect an early-1990s T2 knock-off starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren to be a bit of a romp, but Universal Soldier is pretty dark from the get-go. It opens with a cut-rate Vietnam War-movie pastiche that has Sergeant Andrew Scott (Lundgren) going on a My Lai-style rampage, stitching human ears into a necklace, executing innocent civilians, and decrying the horrified American soldiers around him as traitors before shooting them, too. Private Luc Devreux (Van Damme) manages to jam his bayonet into Scott's gut, ending his murderous spree but earning a lethal volley of return fire in the bargain. Both men end up bleeding out in the mud before the U.S. military spirits their bodies away and declares them AWOL. Fast-forward 20 years or so, and the government has figured out a way to revive and power up dead soldiers and repurpose them as an unbeatable tactical force. We see these so-called "universal soldiers," including Scott and Deveraux, working as a unit to take out a group of terrorists in an action set-piece that was, impressively, shot at the Hoover Dam. All goes well for a while, until both Scott and Deveraux start recalling their former lives--and remembering they don't like each other very much.
Universal Soldier saves the man-on-man action largely for its final reel, structuring itself as a chase scene across the desert territory. For convoluted story reasons, Devreux ends up in the company of a newly out-of-work TV journalist (Ally Walker) who hopes that figuring out his origins will be a scoop that can help her get her old job back. The sadistic Scott follows close behind, growling about the "traitor" Devreux while taking his overmatched government handlers out of the picture one by one. Every so often, Scott--travelling in a big, unfriendly-looking vehicle that expands after it's parked (kind of the Blackwater USA equivalent of a Volkswagen pop-top camper)--catches up with Devreux, precipitating a spirited action sequence that gives director Roland Emmerich ample opportunity to demonstrate he can whip up an explosive kerfuffle without spending much money. For one scene, the production built a motel from scratch in the town of Ash Fork, AZ, just so they could fill it with bullet holes and drive a car through the lobby. For another, a gas station was constructed in the middle of nowhere and then destroyed in a huge fireball. There's even a chase scene on the rim of the Grand Canyon, which would have been more visually impressive if Thelma & Louise hadn't claimed the setting as its own a year before Universal Soldier's release.
In between those showpieces, things slow down considerably, and the film incorporates more humour as the script works its way from point A to point B. Interestingly, the pivot to comedy doesn't come across as a tonal shift. Instead, it plays as knowing counterpoint to the testosterone-jacked action. It's also a clever way to modulate Van Damme's persona to come across as a little less of a killing machine and a little more of a leading man. The main reason Universal Soldier is compared to the Terminator movies is because it uses Van Damme the same way Cameron used Schwarzenegger. Casting him as a pumped-up zombie-soldier turns a stiff performance into an asset. But Universal Soldier firmed up his career not just by attesting to his bona fides as a tough guy, but by revealing a winning dorkiness under the beefy exterior as well. Where Cameron treated Arnold's Terminator 2 physique like an eighth-world wonder, Van Damme's body, while cheerfully displayed, is depicted with much less reverence. ("Is my butt in focus?" he's said to have asked Emmerich, through his thick Belgian accent, before the camera rolled behind him.) The Universal Soldiers' bodies are prone to overheating and must be supercooled, so we get scenes with a depleted Van Damme reclining in a bathtub full of ice; shots of him sweating profusely due to exertion serve to puncture the übermenschlich atmosphere surrounding other movie strongmen, who rarely need to catch their breath, let alone mop up flop-sweat halfway through an action set-piece.
The film is full of low-key slapstick, like an exhausted and overheated Van Damme making a Looney Tunes face at the camera before dropping straight down out of frame, or the way Walker reacts when she sits down to make a call from a motel room and the waterbed's wave action nearly ejects her onto the floor. (She is excellent, working in a screwball-comedy register throughout.) Towards the end of the film, proceedings turn serious again, as Scott finally tracks Devreux down and prepares to execute his finishing move. It was initially more serious, until test audiences convinced Devlin to rewrite the ending to amp up the action and eliminate its decidedly melancholy denouement. (That alternate ending is a supplement on the film's most recent home-video reissues.) The result was a big hit with action audiences worldwide, enough of a genre touchstone to launch no fewer than five sequels--including the improbably excellent Day of Reckoning--between 1999 and 2012.
Given his relatively generic visual style and lackadaisical attitude to story logic, I used to think of Emmerich as an irredeemably slapdash filmmaker, but over the years I've warmed to his sensibility, which is so completely free of pretense that it can yield a film that is, like this one, as committed to its dumb action premise as it is gleefully self-mocking. As one example, there's a scene set in a small-town diner where, thanks to a misunderstanding about the many meals the famished Devreux puts away, he is forced to inflict Van Dammage on some of the locals with elbows, fists, and feet. In case you doubt the filmmakers are aware how utterly gratuitous and artificial this business is, Van Damme stops in between beatings to literally munch some popcorn. On a darker note, Lundgren is genuinely dislikable as a walking manifestation of American military misadventures. He's not simply a strongman--he's a bully. One of the film's wildest ideas is having his character take over a supermarket deli counter while ranting contemptuously at hapless shoppers about the war he imagines still raging outside. It's funny because it's ridiculous, and yet it's not, because you hear tough guys like this on talk radio all the time. I don't mean to posit Universal Soldier as a critique of U.S. policy, though it's surely no accident that the film's opening gambit is a wartime atrocity, its primary antagonist a xenophobic sociopath, and the overarching enemy a runaway military-industrial complex. At one point, someone asks Lundgren's character, "Can I have a word with you?" And Lundgren again holds up the grotesque human trophy acquired in the first reel, which he has somehow kept with him this whole time, and smugly declares, "I'm all ears." That's scary-funny, and the atrocity is the punchline--comedy merging with horror. It's in poor taste, yeah. But kicking the stuffing out of this guy is Van Damme's patriotic duty.
THE 4K UHD DISC
Lionsgate's UHD BD, drawn from a new master created by StudioCanal, is a suitably big improvement over previous releases. The picture is uniformly very sharp, with excellent detail retention from edge to edge. Film grain, present to a greater or lesser extent throughout, has been well preserved through the compression process. (No doubt it helps that the disc is encoded at a generous average video bitrate of 64 Mbps, with an extra 16 Mbps tacked on for the Dolby Vision layer.) Colour rendition seems to be on target, accurately conveying the cool blues endemic to action films of the era, offering up well-balanced skin tones, and capturing the way pinkish-red flares light up the otherwise intensely monochromatic greens of the opening jungle sequence. The brighter green neon of the Lucky Motor Court is suitably lush, and even the darker and dingier shots here look exceptionally film-like. Even though only daylight exteriors (and the occasional fireball from something blowing up real good) benefit much from the expanded brightness offered by HDR, the wide colour gamut does enhance clarity throughout. This is an exceptionally crisp transfer and the opening titles really pop--on close inspection, it looks like they were recreated and digitally composited into the shots, avoiding the generational loss inherent in the original elements. Meanwhile, the 5.1 DTS-HD MA audio doesn't have quite as much presence as the most aggressive action-movie tracks, although it is robust when it needs to be, employing plenty of directional effects, with deep bass bolstering the aforementioned big explosions and underscoring a home-invasion scene near the end of the film with a low, throbbing heartbeat sound effect. (Oddly, the Carolco theme that plays under the opening logo exhibits wow and flutter à la an old cassette tape.)
Two audio commentaries are on board, one featuring Emmerich and Devlin with occasional interjections by Van Damme and Lundgren (the actors seem to have been recorded in separate sessions), the other offering only Emmerich and Devlin. Google searches indicate that the former track is held over from its initial appearance on a 2004 DVD release. I haven't been able to nail down the provenance of the latter, but since it mentions Ally Walker's lead role on NBC's late-'90s hit "Profiler", it can be no earlier than 1997 or so, and therefore I'm assuming it was the earlier recording. Both tracks are mediocre, with too much dead air; both are dominated by Emmerich; and both cover a lot of the same territory. You'll hear about where the film's Vietnam scenes were actually shot, why certain decisions during the production would be made differently were the film shot today, and what they did with the two weeks of reshoots after test screenings. The 2004 commentary might be a little more lively thanks to the lead actors' contributions, yet Emmerich's and Devlin's recollections seem to be fresher in their earlier take.
If you'd rather spend only a half-hour or so with this special edition, you'd learn almost as much from the two mini-documentaries included. "A Tale of Two Titans" (14 mins.) looks at the life and times of Van Damme and Lundgren, starting with their childhoods in Belgium and Sweden, respectively, and continuing through their filmmaking careers. Van Damme shares some adorable family photos and recalls that David Carradine's "Kung Fu" was the formative influence that sent him to karate school. Van Damme went to dance school to learn how to stretch, and was inspired by the women around him to incorporate a sense of beauty in his own regimen. Lundgren remembers that he was unusually short as a child and took judo classes until a traumatic experience underneath a fat man led him to choose a path in karate instead. Lundgren was successful enough that he ended up fighting in championships and winning heavyweight titles around the world before studying chemical engineering in college. Maybe basic stuff for JCVD and Lundgren superfans, but a pretty informative short for the rest of us. Next up, "Guns, Genes & Fighting Machines" (19 mins.) is a couple of steps above the average talking-head-and-B-roll featurette, featuring some interesting behind-the-scenes footage and leaning heavily on contributions from Van Damme and Lundgren, though Emmerich and Devlin are also interviewed. Among other nuggets of Universal Soldier lore, it's here we learn that the title of the screenplay by originally credited writers Richard Rothstein and Christopher Leitch was Crystal Knights, and that the Vietnam War element introduced in Devlin's rewrite was Emmerich's idea. (I wonder if these two had Buffy Sainte-Marie's protest song of the same name in mind when retitling the film--"He's all of 31 and he's only 17/he's been a soldier for a thousand years.")
The film's original ending (13 mins.) is reproduced here, apparently scanned from workprint at what amounts to DVD quality. I wouldn't say it's an improvement over the theatrical release, but it's definitely interesting to see how close Emmerich and Devlin came to making a huge commercial error. If you love B-roll, Lionsgate has you covered with a 15-minute reel of behind-the-scenes footage sans voiceover or interview cutaways, and a rough-looking theatrical trailer (2 mins.) is here for Universal Soldier completists. (All of the extras have been upresed to HD from the 480i originals.) A digital download code is tucked into the box.
103 minutes; R; UHD: 2.35:1 (2160p/MPEG-H), Dolby Vision/HDR10; BD: 2.35:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); English 5.1 DTS-HD MA, Latin American Spanish 2.0 DTS-HD MA (Stereo); English, Latin American Spanish subtitles; BD-100 + BD-50; Region-free (UHD), Region A (BD); Lionsgate