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Universal Soldier (1992)

by on 2010/03/20

I remember clearly the first thing I said, alone but aloud, the moment the end credits rolled on Universal Soldier.  It was the same thing Bill Murray said early on in Scrooged: “Oh my gosh, did that suck.”

How did this cinematic pablum spawn a franchise, including a series of TV movies and two distinct feature sequels?  Even more perplexing:  most of the sequels ignore each other, and recognize only the first as canonical.  This approach suggests the presence of something redeeming in the original, which none of the follow-ups could themselves achieve.

Unfortunately, while all evidence may support that line of reasoning, my own look at Universal Soldier suggests that there’s not much more to it than simplistic sound and fury.

Jean-Claude Van Damme stars as Luc Deveraux, an American Private in Vietnam, who kills — and is simultaneously killed by — his Sergeant, Andrew Scott, played by Dolph Lundgren.  The mutually fatal standoff does little to end their military careers, however.  Their bodies are packed in ice and sent back to America for an experimental super-soldier program.  Their promising early days as Zomborginators (my word, not theirs) hits a bit of a rough patch when some ineffectively-suppressed memories begin to resurface.

I’m tempted to make a comment here about suppressing my own memories of this experience but, in truth, it wasn’t bad per se.  It just wasn’t particularly good, either, but I feel more disappointment than scorn.  I really wanted to enjoy this movie.  I didn’t expect a five-star experience but, given my affection for similar B-level action flicks like Die Hard, Rambo, Raw Deal, and Under Siege, I didn’t expect to be so let down.

By “disappointment” I don’t mean to suggest “irretrievable awfulness”.  The movie simply felt empty and unremarkable.  It couldn’t even muster up the courage to sink to the level of entertainingly incompetent.  In short, it was neither good nor bad enough to work for me.

Not that UniSol doesn’t have potential . . . all the parts are there.  I know I’ve enjoyed Van Damme in other movies, particularly Hard Target.  I have nothing in particular against Dolph Lundgren.  And while writer/director team Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich have what might charitably be called a challenging output, I wouldn’t discount a project based solely on their involvement.

In fact, given the low-budget origins of this movie, the result is relatively impressive.  But while the set-piece stunts are successful, they serve to punctuate an insubstantial vacuum.  While clearly imitating Terminator 2:  Judgment Day, this movie enjoys none of that film’s inspiration.  Elements of Commando (the motel brawl), First Blood (the wound-cauterizing), and Total Recall (the tracking implant) decorate the structure, but the filmmakers do nothing to change, elevate, or even honour them.

With the release of Universal Soldier: Regeneration (this movie’s fourth sequel of sorts), there’s no denying I fell victim to the hype.  “Before I see Regeneration,” I thought, “It makes sense to see the original, at least.”  So while I regret the time lost to Universal Soldier, I take comfort in knowing that I wasted only two hours, and not four or, heaven forbid, ten.  I have no doubt that, by the end of such a gauntlet, I’d be a Zomborginator myself.

* *

Rated 18A for nudity, profanity, and violence

102 minutes

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