Why write about something as silly and seemingly random as Universal Soldier? It goes back to being a teenager who fell in love with the movies while on an adventure with friends. When I was 16 years old on a June day in 1992, myself and three friends decided to see a movie. We intended only to see Batman Returns, the sequel to 1989’s blockbuster Batman starring Michael Keaton. Once we saw that film however, we hatched a sneaky idea.
The theater was extremely busy. Batman was selling tickets fast and the staff was harried and distracted. When we finished Batman we noticed that the baseball movie A League of Their Own starring Tom Hanks was about to start. We decided, we were going to sneak in and see another movie. This sneaky teenage capering (which I am aware is akin to stealing, forgive my aimless, amoral youth) led us to try and make it three movies in a day. We chose the Eddie Murphy comedy Boomerang which had the extra benefit of being R-Rated.
Once that film ended and night was beginning to fall we made one more rash decision. We decided to sneak into a 4th movie. This one would not be easy. Universal Soldier was R-Rated and by this time in its release, it was not well attended. This meant, we’d be rather visible in a slightly empty theater, in an R-Rated movie. We’d be in a situation where a vigilant staff member might notice us. We went ahead with our scheme anyway and here we are with Universal Soldier.
Regardless of how remarkably bad Universal Soldier is in terms the art of cinema, it’s general silliness is irresistible. The film stars Jean Claude Van Damme as Luc and Dolph Lundgren, Ivan Drago from Rocky IV, as a pair of Vietnam vets. I say vets, but when we meet them first they are in Vietnam fighting the war and fighting each other. Scott has lost his mind and wants Luc to help him execute a pair of innocent villagers. When Luc refuses, the two get into a gun battle and end up killing each other.
It’s a curious start but that brings us to present day 1992. Luc and Scott are suddenly alive again although they don’t remember their past selves, yet. Now, the two are elite super soldiers in the Universal Soldier program, a secret sect of American Intelligence. The UniSols are called on when no other soldiers can solve the problem. They are so deep cover that no one has seen their faces, that’s probably also out of fear that someone will recognize the supposedly dead soldiers.
After a particularly difficult mission, Luc begins to recover his memory. Scott as well is regaining some of his psychotic tendencies and when he tries to execute a journalist, played by Ally Walker from TV’s The Profiler, who gets to close to the UniSols, Luc flashes back to Vietnam and tries to save her as he tried to save the Vietnamese villagers. This leads Luc and Ally to go on the run with psycho Scott and the rest of the UniSols on their tale.
Universal Soldier was directed by schlockbuster director Roland Emmerich who would go on to direct Independence Day and Godzilla before the 90’s big dumb action movie trend began to die off. Emmerich is not a director who does subtle. His every scene is a bombastic, shouty, sloppy mess that occasionally coalesces around a plot point or a sight gag. Universal Soldier is Emmerich at his most Emmerich-y.
The film is the apotheosis of the Emmerich style of action movie. In the span of about 20 minutes, Van Damme and Walker manage three consecutive narrow escapes and three straight sight gags, two involving Van Damme’s well-toned backside. Each scene ends with a hail of bullets or a glass busting fists and kicks fight scene each played with the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the head.
Universal Soldier is big, dumb and loud and not particularly well crafted but it has a knowing sense of its own limitations. For all his flaws as a filmmaker, I can’t argue that Roland Emmerich doesn’t have a sense of humor, no matter how disjointed or forced the gags may be. The pair of sight gags featuring Van Damme’s backside are legitimately funny and a scene of Van Damme battling a diner full of rednecks has some unintended wit from Van Damme’s placid silence.
There is an almost endless stream of unintentionally laugh out loud moments in Universal Soldier. The film is a gold mine for fans who love to riff jokes during a movie. The incompetent direction and the honestly, intentionally funny moments, collide to make the film a modest pleasure. The film is pure camp, a muscled up, frothing testosterone-fueled kind of camp, but camp nonetheless.
I can see where 16 year old Sean probably earnestly enjoyed the silliness in the same way that the adult me appreciates the camp quality of the movie. As a less discerning teenage filmgoer it makes sense that I would be attracted to this nonsense. As an adult and a critic I am equally drawn to the movie but for more nostalgic and unintentionally hilarious reasons. That doesn’t make Universal Soldier any kind of classic but it’s certainly a movie I won’t ever forget and a surprising part of why I love the movies.