Dolph may lose, but he’s clearly the better actor (as these things go). Roland Emmerich’s first Hollywood movie starts as he means to go on, dropping the things his masters want you to hear, or fear, into a science-fiction context and giving them just the right amount of veneer to pass smoothly down the gullet.
Actually, it may just have fortuitously worked out that way in this case; Emmerich and Dean Devlin had attached themselves to Joel Silver’s Isobar – a monster loose on a future train with Sly; sounds like Snowpiercer but with less cannibalism and cheap social commentary – after Sir Ridders dropped out. That was a Carolco production, so after the studio’s Universal Soldier stalled over disagreements, they took it over from Andrew Davis and rewrote it accordingly.
The interweaving of fiction, disinformation and reality – at very least, if they can think of it, the military will have tried it – with regard to super soldiers makes any degree of certainty as to the programme’s specifics, despite those who come forward as ex-participants, difficult to ascertain. It’s been around as an idea at least since Steve Rogers was administered a serum that transformed him into Captain America. Subsequently, Steve Austin got himself rebuilt as the world’s first Six-Million-Dollar Man, Roy Batty’s was a limited-shelf-life combat model replicant in Blade Runner, and they were cast as human-alien hybrids in The X-Files (incorporating the black goo that also features in genuine accounts). Dabbling in genetics does appear to be a running theme, although Emmerich’s movie places more emphasis on technical augmentation.
Local: Nice necklace. I’ve got one just like it made out of noses.
Emmerich and Devlin set the genesis of the programme during the Vietnam war – 1969, to be precise – which is notable, given the CIA/MKUltra activities rife during that period, and the number of “serial killers” popping up who were veterans and had a background of institutional “treatment” (see Dave McGowan’s Programmed to Kill for further detail). Dolph’s Sergeant Andrew Scott basically is a serial killer, of the kind who were highly productive in Nam, going feral and scaring the bejesus out of the locals with every depraved activity going. By such standards, Scott is relatively reticent, other than a severed ear fetish and a penchant for cracking terrible jokes about the same (“What the hell happened here?”: “They wouldn’t listen”; “I’m all ears”).
Colonel Perry: Do you think for a second those wimps in the Pentagon would allow the regeneration of dead soldiers, American soldiers?
The Nam scene is somewhat regrettable, filmed in typically high-gloss style by regular Emmerich DP Karl Walter Lindenlaub, and on a golf course in Arizona. Although, the jungle looks infinitely more convincing than Jean-Claude Van Damme does as a GI. Officially – always officially, and obedient parrot Jon Ronson was on hand to lap up the gospel – the US military was unsuccessful with its soldiers, and while Universal Soldier wasn’t (at least, that I’m aware) made with military cooperation, it does its bit in suggesting this is an unsanctioned, black-budget programme. That’s it has taken these scientists twenty years to get this far isn’t a vote of confidence (three successful missions have been completed at the point we see them called out).
Brenda: We’ve got ourselves a deadbeat back here.
Hank: Hey, punk, I’ve been slaving all day over that slop.
Psycho Scott and Private Deveraux (JCVD) are reanimated, having previously killed each other in a slow-mo altercation infused with rapid gunfire, but wouldn’t you know it, whatever programming overrides have taken place are less than effective. Deveraux goes rogue after recalling Scott is a deranged loon, and the picture has soon settled into an extended pursuit in a big truck, with occasional hilarious stop-offs for JCVD to do a man-child act (it’s baffling that he remembers Nam but not that he used to eat food) and an obligatory scene in which he high-kicks his way through a diner of angry hicks.
The soldiers, we learn, were created through “hyper-accelerating” their bodies; it was discovered they could turn “dead flesh into living tissues”. Which pretty much means that, if you lower their body temperatures, they will regenerate from most wounds, short of being fed through a threshing machine. Raw steaks are popular too. Deveraux, having gone short of serum top-ups, is initially no match for Scott, so it’s lucky he’s able to grab a syringe and go super strength during the climactic battle (where, notably, Emmerich is obsessed with framing him just in front and to the right of some atmospheric flames). In early scenes, they have Borg-esque eye/communication pieces that are quite nifty – and suggest cybernetic attachments not really seen later, aside from tracking chips – but they’re otherwise just super jacked.
The essential trick here is that these texts make enhancement seem pretty cool – in aid of the transhumanist ideal of becoming a god – despite the trauma required to get there. Even Robocop offered a natty suit of armour as a compensation for all that body horror (okay, the 2013 version was not so cool). Consequently, we don’t want Luc Deveraux to become normal and recover; we want him to jack up and kick people to death. During this climax, Luc meets up with his parents, who entirely fail to ask him why he still looks – I don’t know, how old was he supposed to be in Nam? – but that may be because, in the alternative ending, they’re revealed as fake parents. This fits, as Rance Howard is Little Ronnie’s dad, and Little Ronnie, like Roland, is rumoured to be a 33rd degree Mason. And the Howards seem like such a nice, swell, wholesome family! Why, Bryce is going great guns as a woke Wars director.
Emmerich does his best to make Van Damme look pretty, but it doesn’t really stick
(still fairly radical compared to his average movie, though). Not the way it does with James Spader in Stargate, presented as a TImotei advert personified (so amusing given his current “haircut”). There is much emphasis on Jean’s spanky Belgian butt, though, with Ally Walker having to give him a thorough cavity search. Walker’s a budget-level Meg Ryan here, and passable, while there are stock roles for Ed O’Ross (dodgy colonel) and Jerry Orbach (dodgy but okay doctor).
My understanding is that the more recent sequel/retcons of the series under John Hyam have received glowing notices from some quarters, so maybe I should check them out. Emmerich and Devlin singularly fail to make this one’s proceedings very interesting, though; Universal Soldier is exactly what you’d expect from a budget Carolco offering featuring two popular STV stars. In that sense, you can’t really complain either way (it didn’t do well enough to sink the slide in the company’s fortunes). Alas, there’s no Donovan on the soundtrack; you’ll have to make do with some Ice-T instead.