Sunday, January 13, 2013

Universal Van Damme: Universal Soldier (1992)

This is the beginning of a new, irregular series of write-ups concerning the work of Belgian kicker of THAT KICK, hero and villain of many a direct-to-video movie, and now curiously dignified elder statesman of action cinema, Jean-Claude Van Damme. Because I'm not strong enough to confront Cyborg or that thing with Dennis Rodman right at the start, I ease myself and you into his body of work with a major career milestone.

The US Army, as represented by Colonel Perry (Ed O'Ross) is up to its old tricks again. Namely, turning killed in action Vietnam veterans like Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren) into brain-washed, will-less, near indestructible killing machines. Some time in the 90s, though, things start to go wrong with the Universal Soldiers (or UniSols). On a mission, Deveraux begins to remember the rather traumatic circumstances of his death by the hand (well, gun) of the psychopathic Scott, and Scott is not far behind him.

Things really go wrong when disgraced TV journalist Veronica Roberts (Ally Walker) tries to regain her job by sneaking around the UniSol truck (one suspects they're so off the book they can't afford an actual base or decent transportation). You can barely say "I don't think this is a good idea, Mrs Journalist" before Scott murders her camera man against orders and Deveraux goes on the run with her.

Chased by the remaining UniSols, Veronica and a Deveraux who is slowly regaining his identity are trying to find proof for what happened to Deveraux and expose the decidedly immoral doings of the military. It gets rather more dangerous for the couple once Scott has a full-on psychotic break, kills off his handlers and takes the pursuit into his own, rather more violent hands.

If you're too young to remember, you might not believe it, but there was a short time during his career, when uttering the frightening words "directed by Roland Emmerich" wasn't another way to call a movie total crap, made without respect for an audience or the most basic coherence. In fact, Universal Soldier may well be the man's best film, replacing the usual shallow dumbness of Emmerich's films with entertaining silliness, and containing none of the sins of horrible editing that ruin everything he did starting with Independence Day (well, one could argue it's the scripts that ruin most of Emmerich's films, but I'd be perfectly alright with them being overblown b-movies if they only had a sense for pacing or storytelling).

What surprises most about Universal Soldier's script is that it makes visible, continuous efforts to fill the spaces between the action sequences with things that don't feel like filler; well, that and often horrible comedy, but trying to suck all tension out of his movies with bad comedy is one of Emmerich's trademarks, and I've endured much worse (and longer) in his movies. The script has a pleasant interest in providing details that demonstrate that at least a few minutes of thought were put into them. Take for example the film actually explaining Van Damme's accent (though not Lundgren's) by making him a Cajun, or its clichéd yet clever short-hand characterisations of everyone our heroes meet.

It's also worth mentioning that I can really say "heroes". Walker's character may be a walking (sorry) cliché but she's also shown to be rather competent in various dangerous situations, keeping her away from the "useless female" and the "damsel in distress" tropes. On paper, this sort of thing doesn't sound like much, but it really helps sell the film's silliness as un-annoying and turns its competent following of a standard genre plot from predictable to pleasant, as minor yet important variations of a theme should do in good genre filmmaking.

Despite them being Universal Soldier's meat, I don't have a lot to say about its action sequences. They are more than competently done, rather exciting, not that violent (seen from today's point of view), and lack - like much of US action cinema - any concept of the poetry of moving bodies or an idea of beauty. In other words, they'll never surprise, charm or shock anyone but they're very good at being fun and loud, which is perfectly fine with me (today).

On the acting side, the jaded viewer will have to cope with a bit of broadness, Van Damme, starting his short stint as a movie star in the more classic sense, is probably a bit to wide-eyed once Deveraux starts remembering his humanity but he's actually rather good in his two or three more subtle moments, and really, a degree of broadness seems perfectly appropriate in a movie about undead super soldiers. Lundgren, on the other hand, gets way too broad too fast, turning every stupid one-liner he has to say (obviously, the film would work better without any one-liners at all) into a cringeworthy one-liner. But hey, he also clearly has grimacing, scenery-chewing fun when going psycho, so who am I to be too hard on him? It's better than not trying to act at all in any case. Plus, he and Van Damme get very naked a lot of the time, if that sort of thing floats your boat. Walker's performance one will find either somewhat annoying or somewhat charming. It's pretty clear she's the only traditional actress in a lead role on screen, but she's neither attempting to turn the film into a one woman show nor does she ever have to be "the pretty one".

So, if you have a slight tolerance for 80s/90s action movie humour, and like the idea of people kicking and shooting at each other, there's no reason not to re-watch Universal Soldier twenty years later.

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