It wasn’t until 2010’s The Expendables that 80’s action titans Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone finally stood together in the same movie that wasn’t counting a promotional video for their restaurant chain, Planet Hollywood. It was a historic moment to be sure, but if one were to cast their eye to their B-list equivalents, you’d find that Jean Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren managed to pair their pulsating biceps and decisively beat them to the punch by a good 18 years by combining their talents for Universal Soldier.
If this wasn’t enough, leading the charge from one of those folding director’s chairs was none other than Roland Emmerich, who was using this epic clash of the also-rans (sorry fellas, but it’s true) to leap-frog out of the world of low budget ghost comedies and cheapo sci-fi thrillers and into the big time.
After wigging out during the Vietnam war in 1969 and slaughtering a peaceful village of natives, nutso, ear necklace wearing Sergeant, Andrew Scott, is put down in an act of self defence by well meaning Private Luc Devereux that results in both soldiers mutually killing each other in battle. However, instead of a pine box and a folded flag, the bodies of both men are put on ice and are resurrected decades later for a super secret military project known as the Universal Soldier programme where their minds have been wiped and their bodies have been genetically fiddled with to make them vaguely superhuman. However, after a successful mission liberating the Hoover Dam from terrorists, Devereux seems to regain some of his memory as the sight of a couple of hostages jerks his memory back to his days in ‘Nam and much to the frustration of his superior officer, the grizzled Colonel Perry, the conflicted “UniSol” member becomes unresponsive.
Adding some metaphorical lighter fluid to this potential inferno is plucky (read: desperate) journalist Veronica Robert’s who has recently been fired for reasons the movie can’t be arsed to explain properly (she’s really good – but isn’t?) who hopes to get her job back by sneaking illegal photos of the secretive UniSols out to her network. Of course, she gets spotted, but when Scott’s psychosis resurfaces much like Luc’s memories, he blatantly overrides his capture orders and executes Veronica’s cameraman causing Devereux to revolt, attack his teammates and go on the run to keep the panicked reporter protected.
This comes with some problems, with the first being that without frequent spells in below zero temperatures, Devereux’s enhanced abilities causes him to dangerously overheat; the second is that the bigwigs in charge of the UniSols are about to experience a bloody mutiny at the hands of an impressively insane Scott who wants to continue his paranoid rampage that started back in ‘Nam.
I remember watching Universal Soldier back in the day and finding it something of a lackluster experience, especially considering that it came in the sizable wake of Terminator 2 that had shaken the sci-fi/action genre to its core only a year earlier. In comparison, JCVD and big Dolph’s stint at playing super soldiers brought back from the dead just seemed a little cheap compared to what James Cameron had served up earlier with the action and plot coming in a distant second to liquid metal assassins and a shotgun twirling Arnold.
However, after a recent, much needed rewatch, a strange thing happened; the movie itself – much like it’s blank faced leads – seemed to have gone under some sort of regeneration itself over the years and instead of being a violent, actioner that saw two B-movie meat heads bash their skulls together in a hope to keep up with the big leagues, Universal Soldier, enfused with the power of nostalgia and finally out from T2’s shadow, has become an immensely enjoyable, 90’s action throwback.
The trigger for this is oddly the action which, while being of decent vintage considering it’s a mix of explosion and typical Van Damme kicks, doesn’t exactly break new ground as it breaks bones – no, where Universal Soldier becomes more – well, universal is in its character beats and the suprisingly fun way it skewers certain action tropes.
Knowing full well that the movie isn’t exactly being lead by a couple of Oscar winners, Emmerich (still a few years away from nuking the White House) instead decides to cheekily play with the types of roles both Van Damme and Lundgren are known for and subverts them in fun ways once their mind-wiped, Terminator-esque mannerisms fade away. Dolph, usually known for the strong, silent types like Ivan Drago, gets to go full Dennis Hopper, ranting, raving and slaughtering anyone who even looks at him funny as he sweats more profusely than a politician in a decency hearing. In short, he looks like he’s having the time of his fucking life as he waves his necklace fashioned from human ears at horrified onlookers and screams at casual shoppers at a supermarket about how the world is full of “dirty traitors” before opening fire on a gang of security guards.
On the flip side, JCVD’s Devereux, horribly disconbobulated by the inconvenience of being dead for the last 20 years, conveys more of a childlike innocence, casually stripping off every 20 minutes to get Ally Walker’s flustered journalist to check his absurdly sculpted physique for tracking chips or lecturing his female companion on the dangers of smoking because he’s promised to keep her safe. In fact, the scene where Devereux absent mindedly destroys the patrons of a cafe who demand that he pays for his order while he rediscovers the joy of what it’s like to eat something again may be one of the best instances of physical comedy the muscles from Brussels has ever managed to pull off. Admittedly, Ally Walker’s female lead does do most of the heavy lifting while Van Damme mostly kicks people in the face while pulling puppy dog eyes, but it adds another dimension to a big, hulking, militaristic action flick that ends as predictably as it began.
Still, apart from the camp nature of some of the scenes, the violence is typically nasty (hypodermic through the face, countless headshots suggest it should have been call R-Rated Soldier) and watching our lead go through his usual possession of climactic, slow motion spin kicks in the rain has always been fun, especially when its aimed at a fellow action stalwart.
It ain’t rocket science, but it’s knowing riffs on sci-fi action tropes (along with T2 and Demolition Man, male butt shots are imperative) means that it plays a lot better now than it did thirty-odd years ago.
Old school action, it seems, is universal.