Andrew Davis, director of The Fugitive most notably, was the original choice to helm Universal Soldier but was replaced by Roland Emmerich, in his first Hollywood picture alongside co-writer Dean Devlin, and you sense had Davis helmed what stands as a textbook example of the high concept 90’s action thriller, it might have ended up a very different film.
Emmerich, who has made some terrific pieces of popcorn entertainment over the years—among his best arguably Independence Day and Stargate—is not exactly the most subtle of auteurs and that is evidenced as early as Universal Soldier, after he and Devlin originally were slated by super-producer Mario Kassar to make a science-fiction film called Isobar (eventually shelved). Universal Soldier isn’t the most exuberant film Emmerich has made to date but it could well be the silliest, the most empty-headed, and is without doubt the most homoerotic, and given Emmerich is known as a modern day Irwin Allen making crowd-pleasing, world landmark trashing, CGI-fuelled epics, that is quite the statement. It was always going to be this way when you throw in, as your leads, the double sucker punch of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren.
Truthfully, Universal Soldier is not a film that is ageing particularly well but with a beer in one hand and a pizza in the other, you would be hard pressed not to find some enjoyment in the hammy theatrics and ridiculous action set-pieces.
You know how ludicrous Universal Soldier will be the moment we begin in Vietnam 1969 and are supposed to buy Van Damme’s Luc Devereaux and Lundgren’s Andrew Scott (who I’m pretty sure the hot priest in Fleabag wasn’t named after) as US military squaddies, despite their thick Euro-centric accents and gym enhanced physiques.
Emmerich’s film does at least play on the simplicity of the leading men involved, which is discussed on certain of the BluRay extras for this StudioCanal re-release. Universal Soldier does know, to an extent, how daft the whole thing is. Take the sequence in which Luc just wants to eat a sandwich in a redneck dive bar and has to beat up all the locals when he can’t pay – Dean Devlin talks about how they would strip back Van Damme’s lines as much as possible so his Belgian accent wouldn’t mangle them, eventually getting them to the hilarious “I just want to eat”. These guys make Arnold Schwarzenegger’s acting prowess look like Sir John Gielgud. Not that it matters, given you’re there for two action stars turned into US military cyborgs as part of an evil, secret government science project, and Emmerich provides plenty of smackdowns and chases to tickle the fancy. If you enjoy lingering shots of Van Damme’s oiled up butt, this is also the film for you.
StudioCanal do have a few enjoyable extras to throw into the pot here in this restored 4k release, which include:
- Audio Commentary featuring Roland Emmerich, Jean-Claude van Damme, Dolph Lundgren and Dean Devlin
- Making of: “A Tale of Two Titans”
- Making of: “Guns, Genes and Fighting Machines”
- Alternate Ending
- Behind The Scenes
- Original Trailer
Ultimately, you maybe had to be there for Universal Soldier, which was critically panned but did enough business to garner a cult following amongst 90’s action junkies, and spawn a franchise of still being made sequels. Is it up there with the greats of 90’s sci-fi or action though? Not really. It’s no Demolition Man, let’s put it that way.
Universal Soldier is available now on 4k & BluRay from StudioCanal.