“I just want to eat.” – Luc Devreaux
Just so I could rinse away the foul taste of the last Jean-Claude Van Damme film I reviewed from my palette (‘Street Fighter’ in case you’re wondering), I decided to revisit one of the “Muscles from Brussels’" earlier and much stronger efforts – ’Universal Soldier.’ Despite initially being panned by many critics as a poor man’s ‘Terminator,’ the film still did surprisingly well at the box office in North America and took off like a rocket overseas — raking in more than quadruple its twenty-three million dollar budget worldwide. While the premise of the story is ridiculous, the action is pretty standard stuff, and both leads aren’t exactly known for their wide acting range, somehow all of the components come together for a movie that actually works in more ways than it technically should.
The film begins sometime near the end of the Vietnam War as a platoon of American soldiers wrap up their tour of duty. To his horror, Private Luc Devreaux (Van Damme) discovers that his commanding officer, Sgt. Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren), has gone on an insane and murderous rampage slaughtering most of his squad and many innocent villagers. But when Scott orders Luc to terminate the remaining pair of hostages and Luc refuses, the hero and the madman engage in a brutal fight to the death.
Skipping ahead to the present day (which happens to be 1992 in this particular case), the U.S. Military has developed a classified program using the bodies of deceased soldiers to create an elite band of enhanced commandos known as “Universal Soldiers” or “Unisols.” Following two successful missions, the Unisols are dispatched to diffuse a hostage situation at the Hoover Dam, except this time the scientists monitoring the operation notice a small hiccup in the behavior of both GR44 (formerly Devreaux) and GR13 (Scott) when the encounter begins jogging repressed memories from their previous lives. The labcoats think it’s best to sideline the two pending further testing, however Colonel Perry (Ed O’Ross) barks out orders to keep them active. Just as a snoopy reporter named Veronica Roberts (Ally Walker) finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time, Scott resumes his sadistic killing spree—and only Devereaux has the necessary skills to discharge the psychotic Sarge.
‘Universal Soldier’ succeeds as an above-average mindless action flick because director Roland Emmerich and co-writer Dean Devlin actually used their heads during the development stages, tailoring the movie in such a way to highlight the strengths of the two leads while attempting to mask some of their major weaknesses. Devlin specifically mentions in the bonus features how he did his homework by renting a stack of Van Damme VHS tapes to study the actor’s previous work and applied what he learned to the script. Devlin made sure to keep Devereaux’s dialogue to a bare minimum and even shortened Van Damme’s lines further as filming went along. This “less is more” approach helped create the illusion of better acting, suited the personality of the character portrayed in the film, and inadvertently fluffed up elements of humor all at the same time. You have to give the guy some credit for being aware of how wooden an actor is and using it to his advantage.
As for Lundgren, he is by no means a thespian either, but here he’s given the freedom to go completely nuts—which in a sense works in his favor, too. I mean, it’s tough to mess up a role when the only real goal is to look and act like you’ve completely lost your marbles, and even though some of his actions could be considered as campy, they aren’t entirely out of place, either. It’s obvious just from the twinkle in his eyes that he’s relishing every minute of it, stealing the show as an insanely terrific complement to our all-too-serious hero.
The action sequences also hold up surprisingly well after all of these years. I wouldn’t say they're spectacular by today’s standards, but they’re very well done and it was refreshing to revisit old school techniques in an era where CGI has taken over as the definitive staple for creating movie magic. Stuntmen really repelled down the Hoover Dam, trucks were totally destroyed, and the pyrotechnics guys had a heyday setting off real explosions. It also didn’t hurt that both Van Damme and Lundgren have backgrounds in martial arts, so their fights didn’t seem hokey and were fun to watch.
Make no mistake, ’Universal Soldier’ is still far from a great action flick, but it isn’t nearly as bad as it could have been and is easily one of Van Damme’s and Lundgren’s best accomplishments. When I popped it in for this review, I fully expected it to be one of those films I remember enjoying as a teenager that severely degraded over time—and surprisingly that wasn’t the case.
To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much in terms of picture quality from a catalog title that’s nearly twenty years old, but Lionsgate sure hits this gorgeous 1080p/VC-1 (2.35:1 aspect ratio) transfer out of the park.
Colors as well as contrast are very realistic, even during the many night scenes, while black levels never show any signs of faltering. Strong depth gives the film a three dimensionality more often than not, and facial detailing is pretty impressive as I could see the pores and beads of sweat pooling on Van Damme’s face. Some of the most striking scenes take place before magnificent backdrops like the assault at the Hoover Dam and the bus chase in the Grand Canyon.
However, it does appear that the transfer has been heavily scrubbed and DNR’d to remove all of the imperfections as I detected no noise or blemishes, and the picture is completely devoid of grain. This might cause some annoyance to certain videophiles, but for me ‘Universal Soldier’ is still one of the best looking catalog titles I’ve come across on Blu-ray.
As a side note, the U.S. version of the “Universal Soldier” Blu-ray apparently isn’t region-locked so it should play in all PlayStation 3 and standalone Blu-ray players.
I was also quite impressed with the lossless English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. Surrounds are very active with a barrage of bullets, helicopter strikes, and a couple of rainstorm bookends being particularly appealing. Dialogue felt a hair distant at times, and the .LFE channel probably could have been a bit heavier, although I didn’t really experience the lack of oomph some viewers have reported in regards to the bass.
Also included are English SDH, English, and Spanish subtitles.
Pretty well all of the bonus features on the ‘Universal Soldier’ Blu-ray have been ported over from the Special Edition DVD. It’s worth noting that they’re presented here in standard-definition.
On paper, ’Universal Soldier’ is just another run-of-the-mill sci-fi action flick with B-list action stars, yet somehow, it all melds together to hit more positives than negatives and simply entertains, catapulting it into cult and guilty pleasure territory. The Blu-ray boasts spectacular video, decent audio, as well as a nice arrangement of supplements, and with the price dropping significantly since its release (now sitting around the $12-15 range), I can think of plenty worse titles to add to a collection.