UNIVERSAL SOLDIER. Still strong sci-fi action cinema

When I reminisce about the cinema of the 90s, I have the impression that every month saw the release of at least a few films that I wanted to watch.

Tomasz Bot

30 December 2023

UNIVERSAL SOLDIER. Strong, sci-fi action cinema

And I’m not even talking about blockbuster titles like Pulp Fiction, Natural Born Killers, Trainspotting, or The Fugitive. Around them, there were regularly budding films that were “only” very good or good – action movies, thrillers, or science fiction. For enthusiasts of solid entertainment cinema, it was a wonderful time when, paraphrasing one of the characters from Total Recall, you almost wished you had four heads to see more. In this garden full of flowers, among Speed, The Rock, Twister, The Fugitive, and Alien 3, among many others, there is also Universal Soldier. It may not be the favorite film of our readers (nor mine, to be honest), but it’s a movie that many of us remember as an example of strong, substantial action cinema that doesn’t play games with the audience. It’s hard to believe, but a quarter of a century has passed since the premiere of this film. It’s a perfect opportunity to see how time has treated it.

Vietnam, 1969. Sergeant Andrew Scott has gone mad – he kills both civilians and his combat comrades. Another soldier, Luc Deveraux, tries to stop him. Both engage in a fight and die. However, in the USA, the military decides when you live and when you don’t. Both gentlemen are revived and enrolled in a top-secret program – they become super soldiers without memory and personal identity, but with incredible strength and efficiency. Can GR44 and GR13 (because those are the new names of the soldiers) forget their experiences in Vietnam and their mutual hatred? Universal Soldier it is.

Universal Soldier Jean-Claude Van Damme Dolph Lundgren

This was the first film directed by Roland Emmerich – the later creator of Stargate, Independence Day, and Godzilla – on American soil. Two years earlier, he made a decent SF spectacle, Moon 44, in Germany, which earned him some trust from American producers and $23 million for his new title. It was also the first project in which two action cinema icons – Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren – could play together. At that time, both were considered proverbial hotcakes, and their posters could be found in gyms and above teenagers’ beds. Above all, they proudly represented the beloved genre and the macho code. The film was produced by Carolco, a studio known for releasing hits that often turned into classics (Terminator 2, Total Recall, Basic Instinct). Universal Soldier didn’t turn out to be a huge box office success. It broke even and even made a profit, but it didn’t make a splash in theaters. Of course, it later performed solidly in the video market, where it naturally fit.

The film was a must-see. Watching it years later, the film makes surprisingly good impressions – provided you like simple, straightforward, and brutal movies. It is a nightmare for sensitive people who appreciate peace and harmony, those seeking heartening stories, or casual viewers with a positivist approach to cinema as a source of useful knowledge. Universal Soldier is a very foolish but very enjoyable rampage.

Universal Soldier Jean-Claude Van Damme

Plot-wise, we have a variation on the theme of reanimating dead tissue, another version of Frankenstein, but in an explosive-military sauce. The story is as simple as a wire, and its development is intended solely to multiply more action movie attractions like “they killed him, and he got away.” And that’s good; just keep looking and enjoying. I’ll start by saying that everything looks tip-top for a $23 million film. The B-class plot is surrounded by a solid muscular fabric of good performance and coated with the oil of good intentions. The thing is spectacular from the first scenes. The Vietnam scenes are good, full of darkness and drama. The hostage rescue action at the Hoover Dam is excellently presented. The entire military-medical background is convincing and spectacular. We don’t have to be fans of military themes to appreciate a well-made overall image. The truck-laboratory is fantastic, serving to transport and monitor the condition of the universal soldiers. It’s a massive, frightening vehicle with unfolding modules, resembling a futuristic spaceship inside. It contains a lot of electronics and medical equipment with a futuristic look. Usually, the truck is shrouded in steam. Its chase after a police bus right on the edge of a cliff is a small festival of spectacular destruction and tension. The desert landscapes of Arizona are incredibly atmospheric and contribute to creating a sultry, tense atmosphere for the deadly confrontation. The soldiers themselves look quite stylish: sand-colored jumpsuits, a camera on the eye, and modern weapons. Nothing groundbreaking, but it works.

Universal Soldier Dolph Lundgren

The film gained a lot by the fact that the creators abstained from using a computer. Everything we see on the screen is handmade. Things were genuinely blown up and actors were set on fire. Thanks to this, individual sequences make an impression and don’t allow us to look away from the screen. As we can see, Universal Soldier is a film rich in numerous advantages. However, it wouldn’t be what it is if it weren’t for the two residents of youthful imagination for many of us. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the biggest excitement in this film is the Belgium-Sweden match. Van Damme was riding high at the time, practically signing only hits with his name (including Bloodsport, Kickboxer). He still had a lot of youthful charm, and maybe even then, he believed he would rather act than kick. Dolph Lundgren didn’t have as many commercial successes as his colleague, but he had a solid position as a strong action movie actor (established by films like The Punisher or Red Scorpion). Setting these two muscle men against each other didn’t result in electrifying encounters on the scale of Heat, where putting Robert De Niro and Al Pacino together resulted in a cinema classic. No, it wasn’t that good. But it worked…solidly. The gentlemen are undoubtedly trying, and we are drawn into their ballet of hatred. The role of the “brought back to life” was a test of Van Damme’s acting skills. It had to be enriched with dramatic and humorous elements. The former is expressed in a lost look and louder than usual howling (the star of Hard Target can scream wonderfully in slow motion), and the latter shows up in a bar scene where Luc consumes tons of food and then, bewildered, watches people mumbling about the need to pay. We won’t find sophisticated humor here. In fact, Van Damme plays here as usual – a likable teddy bear who doesn’t want to harm anyone if he doesn’t have to.

Universal Soldier Ally Walker

Things are more interesting with Lundgren. Sergeant Scott is a man whose psyche was twisted by Vietnam to such an extent that killing became a natural way of functioning for him, and paranoia – the only available option. Scott still thinks the war is ongoing. He also demands absolute obedience from the whole world. The sergeant – with his low, sometimes genuinely possessed voice and inhuman, camouflage-like face – evokes genuine horror. It can be seen that torturing others gives him orgasmic pleasure. Not to mention his passion for unusual necklaces… Lundgren’s role, practically based on physical conditions, can make our hair stand on end. The actor pushes the film from the realms of action cinema toward a heavy thriller about psychopaths, giving the film strength and a sinister expression. Ally Walker also did well in the role of an energetic journalist. The actress proved that she could partner with Van Damme in a film for teenagers without becoming a naive, botoxed kitten with long legs. Her character is well-drawn and convincing. She also adds some humor to the film, which, however, does not diminish the tension. Moreover, the whole film can be described as strong and drastic. Violence strikes violently. Blood flows from wounds. Characters swear, scream, and fiercely attack each other. Innocent people and civilians die.

Universal Soldier Dolph Lundgren

I honestly admit that I miss cinema now, which so consistently and mercilessly draws us into a dark world. Roland Emmerich entered American cinema with a bang. He didn’t invent anything new. He didn’t experiment with the convention. He put together American action cinema schemes, added a bit of humor, an SF setting, and made sure the whole thing remained spectacular and not overdone. Christopher Frank’s music, a former member of Tangerine Dream, doesn’t surpass the image, serving as a solid sheet of darkness. There is no shortage of shootings and explosions. All of them look good and provide solid nourishment for fans of old-school action cinema. A few million dollars less, and we might have ended up at the level of movies where cardboard laboratories produce dilapidated cyborgs (played, for example, by Matthias Hues or Don “Dragon” Wilson), appearing against the backdrop of conservative explosions. It didn’t happen that way, and we have a mature, full, and endorphin-releasing film. Some viewers strongly complained about the end of the film, accusing it of primitivism. However, I have nothing against the fact that the final showdown takes place in a barn, using upper and lower limbs and the old-school, burning hatred of two opponents. After all, it’s the lack of greater ambitions and narrative simplicity that give this film its strength!

Universal Soldier Jean-Claude Van Damme Dolph Lundgren

It’s a bit of a shame that soon after, Emmerich traded effectiveness for spectacle and started making blunders (The Patriot, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012). The Universal Soldiers soon returned – this time without the German creator. Van Damme, Lundgren, and the idea for the whole thing were also missing. Universal Soldier 2 and 3 are weak Canadian TV productions, feeding on the popularity of the original. True trash. However, in 1999, a film called Universal Soldier: The Return was made, starring Van Damme. The film had nothing to do with the Canadian productions and was more skillfully made, but it still tasted like stale plastic. It wasn’t until 10 years later that John Hyams (son of the creator of Sudden Death and End of Days) presented a successful continuation of the story of the revived soldiers to the world.

His Universal Soldier: Regeneration is a surprisingly interesting return. Van Damme and Lundgren are on board, and the Chernobyl setting serves as the background for Luc’s fight against terrorists. The industrial atmosphere and solid action scenes make it a solid entertainment. Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, also directed by Hyams, was equally interesting. Again, we got the two antagonists from the first part, but this time, Van Damme was bald and… evil. The main character was John – a new character in the series, played by Scott Adkins, a great karateka of the new generation. Additionally, the film looked as if it had been directed by David Lynch, inspired by Apocalypse Now. I recommend fans of the first Universal Soldier to familiarize themselves with these last two positions. And I wouldn’t mind if the series continued – as long as energy could be squeezed into this seemingly dead tissue.