Universal Soldier (1992)
By: Stuart Giesel on May 5, 2016 | Comments
Universal | Region B | 2.35:1, 1080p | English DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono | 103 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Roland Emmerich
Stars: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, Ally Walker, Ed O'Ross, Leon Rippy
Writers: Richard Rothstein, Christopher Leitch, Dean Devlin
Country: USA
The passage of time can make you see what was once an unfavourable film as an overlooked gem, perhaps because of your shifting tastes as a viewer or simply due to the fact that you are seeing the film in a new light. Sometimes watching a film ten or even twenty years after the fact simply reinforces your original opinion of it. Or, as is the case with Universal Soldier, makes you wonder why you liked it so much when you first saw it. Not to say that this early Roland Emmerich-directed actioner doesn't have its merits, but it's safe to say it hasn't aged all that well.

The film is ostensibly a play on The Terminator with its "action star(s) as unstoppable violent machines" motif, but instead of time-hopping indestructible cyborgs we have a squadron of genetically-enhanced super-soldiers who had been killed but have now been reanimated (yes, essentially, they are zombies), have had their memory wiped and are forced to undertake various missions under command of Colonel Perry (Ed O'Ross). The "Universal Soldier" program is apparently not officially authorised and off the grid, but not so much that the powers-that-be don't give much of a shit about secrecy or excess media coverage. Vietnam soldiers Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren) are two members of the program. But problems arise when their harrowing memories of the war - specifically, Private Deveraux's traumatic witnessing of unhinged Sergeant Scott murdering two civilians - return. Luc goes AWOL with a reporter, Veronica Roberts (Ally Walker), and as the remaining Uni Sols hunt them down, Scott's returning memories make him a tad unpredictable, meaning he becomes less prone to following orders and more obsessed with taking down Luc, regardless of who gets in the way. The result is predictable and bloody chaos, competently staged but hardly breathtaking.

Director Roland Emmerich, now better known for big budget disaster epics like Independence Day, 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow (as well as the disasters-in-a-different-sense Godzilla) proves himself here to be a decent action director, thankfully shooting in a solid (if somewhat workmanlike) manner rather than burying the action scenes in a haze of quick edits and sloppy camerawork. Back in 1992, the pairing of action titans Van Damme and Lundgren was certainly something of an event in action cinema, even if the ultimate box office receipts probably weren't as outstanding as anticipated - although Universal Soldier did well enough to warrant numerous sequels including a dull, damp theatrical sequel (1999's The Return) and some direct-to-video sequels (most notably, 2012's brutal Day of Reckoning).

The reason most people will watch this is to see Van Damme and Lundgren fight each other, and in that respect Universal Soldier delivers the goods. Van Damme does his prerequisite stuff, including spinning kicks and butt shots, but Lundgren's the real joy here, going balls-out insane whether it's stringing severed ears into a makeshift necklace or yelling maniacally at shocked onlookers in a grocery store after he's dragged in some wounded comrades. There are some decent action scenes including a memorable hostage crisis at the Hoover Dam and a rain-soaked showdown between Deveraux and Scott. The forced humour is pretty eye-rolling, but there's plenty of gung-ho mechanics for action fans. When it was first released in Australia, I do recall Universal Soldier being mercilessly edited down to an M rating, although the R-rated version was eventually made available on home video. Here, on Blu-Ray, we have the complete unedited movie (or at least, how the film was after the MPAA got its hands on it), now having warranted an MA rating. It's still a pretty violent film, a reminder that back in the day action films didn't care about embracing that PG-13 middle ground in pursuit of additional box office bucks.

The supporting cast, which includes Jerry Orbach, is fine and make do with what they're given, but of course the film is really about Van Damme and Lundgren beating the shit out of one another. Twenty-something years later, however, you can see that Universal Soldier certainly feels a lot more dated than The Terminator films (even if you ignore the mega-budgeted T2, the original low budget Terminator make in 1984 still feels fresher). The Vietnam village set looks and feels like exactly that - a set. The cinematography feels flat and murky in spots, and costumes and props tend to look a tad cheap, including the silly, cumbersome cameras that the Universal Soldiers have connected to their faces - possibly somewhat understanding considering the budget was $20 million, a fraction of Terminator 2's budget. However, when the action ramps up and the movie disperses with the yawnsome dialogue you really don't mind all that much. Other than the aforementioned scene at the Hoover Dam and the final fight, there's a nice bus chase at the Grand Canyon and a great gas station explosion - if nothing else, Emmerich tried to put as much of the budget on the screen as he could.

Universal Soldier will probably always live in the immense shadow of the first two Terminator films, and the then-unique pairing of Van Damme and Lundgren is now, of course, diluted thanks to the sequels and other cinematic ventures such as The Expendables 2, but this remains a cheesy and fun actioner with more than enough blood and biceps to satisfy undemanding fans.
The Disc
Universal Soldier wasn't the most flattering movie to look at, being a very brown movie, and this Blu-Ray release won't convert anyone, but it's a decent transfer for a twenty-plus year film: blacks are deep, and colour is acceptable when it does happen to show up via the odd explosion. Sound effects aren't quite as punchy as you might expect for a 90's action film and the whole thing isn't particularly immersive.

The audio commentary with director Emmerich, his writing partner Dean Devlin, and stars Van Damme and Lundgren is worth a listen for fans, providing some interesting and amusing sidenotes, with Devlin doing the lion's share of the talking. The disc provides two making of features. "Guns, Genes and Fighting Machines: The Making of Universal Soldier" is your standard by-the-numbers, "everyone's great" making of, but the second feature, "A Tale of Two Titans" is much better, providing a look at Van Damme and Lundgren's early cinematic careers, covering their growing up, influences and their martial arts training. Other than a trailer, which amusingly (and somewhat ironically) features some of the score from Terminator 2, there's an alternate ending which has a lot less biffo than what ended up in the final cut and ends with an utterly WTF? ending which is, to say the least, a lot less typical than the ending of your standard Hollywood actioner.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Come for the Van Damme/Lundgren interplay, stay for the carnage as well as for Lundgren's amusing, demented turn. Universal Soldier is silly, undemanding fun, hardly a high watermark for action cinema and certainly feels a lot more dated than the films that inspired it (Terminator, Robocop, etc), but sometimes you just want to watch something with your brain set in neutral.
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