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Back to the Past : Universal Soldier

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Universal Soldier
Came Out : 1992
Directed by : Roland Emmerich
Starred : Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren

There’s a definite age window for certain movies. You’ll notice it most for ones you’ve seen, liked, and let go for a while. When you finally go back, things have changed. The film is thicker in the head and you in the middle. It happens. ”Universal Solider” (1992) was directed by Roland Emmerich, the successful German writer/producer/director responsible for such saccharin spectaculars as ”Godzilla”, ”The Day After Tomorrow”, and ”2012”. To his credit, his pen did not touch paper for ”Universal Soldier”. The film borrows fist-sized chunks from other man-machine films of its time, notably ”Terminator” and ”RoboCop”. They’re scotch-taped into something that resembles both here, with a pin prick of the entertainment value. It might be passable enough for fans of its lead actors though, B+ movie icons Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren.

As the film opens, we’re dropped into foliage so dense it can only mean Vietnam. And so it is, in 1969. A panicked soldier tears through it, leading us to private Luc Devereaux (Van Damme) with disturbing news. Their squad commander Sergeant Andrew Scott (Lundgren) has cracked and killed a score of their own men. Luc finds him in a rain-soaked village, putting the finishing touches on a necklace of human ears and muttering something about traitors. Two innocent villagers kneel trembling by his side. “You’re a traitor too, aren’t you…farm boy?” he asks Luc, who denies it. Luc is nearing the end of his tour of duty and only wants to go home. Not good enough for Scott. The scene ends with both villagers murdered and the soldiers dying in the mud, each shot by the other. They’re being zipped in plastic by morning.

Nothing to worry about. The next we see of them is in the present day as UniSols, genetically enhanced supra-soldiers reanimated from dead flesh (a scientific feat that could be put to better use). They wear hi-tech headsets, function zombie-like on repressed memories, and are given orders from a mobile command center, essentially an elongated garbage truck that hisses open from the sides. But there’s a problem. During a hostage mission at the Hoover Dam, Scott (codename GR-13) puts a little too much of his former war-torn self into the job. Luc (GR-44) takes notice, then begins experiencing flashbacks of his brush with Scott in Vietnam. UniSol commander Colonel Perry (Ed O’Ross) shows concern and then doesn’t. “He just got a little mixed up, that’s all.” The technicians repress the soldiers’ memories again, but it will be the last time. That night, our men in bulk nab a snoopy journalist, Veronica Roberts (Ally Walker), on the UniSol command base. Scott gets trigger happy and Luc steps in to protect her, mimicking the scene with the villagers in Vietnam. Luc and Veronica then escape together, pursued by Colonel Perry and the UniSols across state lines. All your favorite movie cliches are waiting: the cheap motel owner, the beefy brawling hick and (let us not see this again) the sweet old lady who fills in the punchlines.

Universal Soldier makes use of an idea we’ve seen before, that a human modified into something more will eventually become self-aware and try to uncover its past. There are variations of course. Darth Vader is fully aware of his past in Star Wars but takes a series of films to adjust his attitude while ”Blade Runner”’s replicants are engineered humans with the potential of developing emotions. ”Universal Soldier” follows a similar line as 1987’s ”RoboCop”. Early in this film, Detroit police officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is bested by a violent criminal gang. He is savagely gunned down, dies and is then resurrected as a law enforcement weapon. His memory is also wiped to ensure his missions are free of any human complications (”Universal Solider”” uses serum injections), but flashes of his family and his final moments raise questions, namely “Who am I?” He goes looking for answers. Luc too. His time on the lam revives his memory and human feelings somewhat, as well as his desire to go home. Unfortunately, Scott is making even faster progress. He kills Perry and begins a somewhat thrilling ”Terminator”-style pursuit of Luc and Veronica.

But what the film doesn’t do is fit what its borrowed/been influenced by into a more compelling story. Oh, the UniSol thing could have been a story, the way say RoboCop was a character in a larger world of cops, robbers and corporate criminals, but for ”Universal Solider” the chase is all it has. It’s the reason we were dropped into Vietnam in the first place, to introduce a conflict that will continue 20-some years later. It’s not a bad idea, but as this pair are as much strangers to us (and each other) before their deaths as after, and as Scott’s sole motivation for hunting Luc is, well, because traitors must die, it’s just not going to be enough. I wonder what Lundgren thought about playing Scott, a psychotic whose dimensions you could count on a thumb. The most important side of this character, his backstory, isn’t even hinted at. What happened to him? What was his relationship with Luc before the film’s opening? Depending on your politics, this is a soldier who’s been victimized by the military twice. Could have been an interesting angle. He’s nothing but pure villain here though. Too bad. I hate to close a perfectly good window.

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