Action Heroes – Van Damme: Universal Soldier

To be clear from the outset, this is the first Jean-Claude Van Damme (JCVD) movie I’ve ever seen.  I’m a girl who likes action movies to be sure, but I’ve never understood the appeal of martial arts films. All that eastern philosophy bobbins with a lot of roundhouse kicks…snore…I don’t even really like the Karate Kid.

This is why when I switched on the DVD and the legend “A Roland Emmerich Film” came up my reaction was “huh?” Roland Emmerich, synonymous with blockbuster end-times movies, stuff hitting the camera and blowing up famous landmarks, is my kind of low-brow. I was momentarily flummoxed.  Could it be that all these years I had been writing off JCVD movies as not my cup of tea, when they could have sat alongside ID4 as one of my secret favourite guilty pleasures?

The Emmerich-style explosions started straight away as we open in your typical mid-jungle Vietnam War setting. People are getting blown up left right and centre, JCVD is a decent hardworking soldier (natch) on his final tour of duty before shipping stateside.  “Oooh,” I thought to myself, “this isn’t what I expected, JCVD hasn’t dropped kicked anyone yet.” After the explosions there is a little gore courtesy of Swedish behemoth Dolph Lundgren, who – in a nod to the disgraced real-life Tiger Force unit – seems to have a bit of a thing for necklaces made from human ears.

JCVD’s working stiff doesn’t truck with torturing the locals, so he tries to stop Lundgren’s Sergeant from adding a couple more ears to the chain. Things quickly deteriorate into a fight to the death, and again, imagine my shock when instead of a volley of drop kicks; it’s a blinking slow-mo gun fight! Then the next thing I know it’s 23 years later and JCVD and Lundgren’s bodies have been taken by the Government to create super soldiers. But surely this is sci-fi territory?! And with that my opinion of what constitutes a JCVD movie was well and truly shot to shit and it was only 15 minutes into the film.

So basically JCVD and Lundgren’s dead bodies are taken to be part of the Universal Soldier programme, which turns dead marines into Robocop-alike super-soldiers. They have their personalities and memories wiped and are shipped into situations considered too dangerous for actual living soldiers. In one of the most ridiculous pieces of pseudo-science I’ve ever heard (and as a sci-fi fan, that’s saying something), it seems that the Government tech guys worked out that “by hyper-accelerating the bodies we could turn dead flesh into living tissue.” Seriously, what the fuck does that even mean?  Well I’ll tell you, it’s basically Dollhouse, but the dolls are dead and their bodies are reanimated with a special serum which makes them big and muscular and gives them superpowers. I’ll leave you to draw your own parallels with steroid use.

The problem is that the serum isn’t working and our two boys are starting to regain their memories and identities. In the case of our hero, this is fine; he was a nice boy who just wanted to go home. However, Lundgren has that ear fetish and a bit of a complex about the people he considers to be “traitors”…can you see where this is going?

What is interesting about the serum making them bigger and stronger is that to demonstrate this JCVD and Lundgren walk around without clothes on a lot of the time. This gave me pause for thought as I started to compare their physiques with those of the action stars of today. Think about Jason Statham, probably the best example of a modern hardman. He’s ripped to be sure, but his overall build is slender and athletic. The impression is that his body would be achievable if you ate nothing but chicken and broccoli and spent every waking moment doing press-ups. Even Wolverine, for all his muscle mass, actually has a very streamlined build. Whereas, the guys here are massively built; it’s completely unachievable without taking steroids (or getting implants) and it’s not just upper bodies either. There are a couple of scenes where JCVD strips naked and the size of his legs is shocking. They are like the trunks of two mighty oaks. I mean, Jesus, it’s actually a little scary. Sorry if it sounds like I’ve been perving at these guys, I just thought it was interesting that so often there is a preoccupation with the change in fashionable female body-shapes and little or no attention paid to these changes in men’s shapes.

Another thing that gave me pause as I watched was that the audience is supposed to buy that two heavily accented Europeans are elite American combat soldiers. While I appreciate that it’s entirely possible for someone to migrate to other country and then join the armed forces of said country, the way JCVD and Lundgren are portrayed as born and raised Yankees jars slightly against their accents. You’ve got to give props to the writers though, they had clearly anticipated this thought and pre-empted it with a meta “what accent?” joke when the gutsy blonde female reporter questioned JCVD’s heritage. Geez, they really did think of everything.

What I will say is that there was actually quite a lot of comedy in the film, mainly ear-related puns (“I’m all ears,” says Lundgren, as he puts on his necklace of ears). And my personal favourite moment came when the JCVD stripped naked (dear God, the thighs!) in an attempt to find the subcutaneous locator beacon that was allowing the army to track him. The shot cuts him off at the hip bone as he encourages the female reporter standing behind him to run her hands over his body and “Look for something unusual – something hard”. Seriously, I was sniggering like a cast member of The Inbetweeners.

Back to the plot, as I said, the serum doesn’t work so our boys revert to their usual personas.  Lundgren goes on a killing (and ear slicing) spree in a supermarket while on the hunt for JCVD and the reporter (does she even have a name?) who is helping him to get home. I must say that Lundgren does really well in this role; for once being dead behind the eyes actually enhances the character rather than taking away from it. JCVD plays a simple guy confused by the fate that’s befallen him quite well, although when he is eventually reunited with his family at their farmhouse (he’s been gone 23 years, hasn’t aged a day and Ma and Pa don’t really seem to question it) he is incapable of displaying any emotion whatsoever. But then I don’t suppose he got the job because of his ability to emote.

The final fight between our hero and villain takes place, predictably for a Roland Emmerich movie, in the driving rain. It’s here that I was finally given some of what I had expected from a JVCD film. There are jumping roundhouses and slow-mo kicks and it’s all shot quite beautifully as Lundgren believably gains the upper hand. I must say that both men are very good stage fighters as they really do sell the bumps well. You can understand when you watch them fight why they became such beloved action stars.  They are both terribly wooden actors, but let them loose in hand-to-hand (or foot-to-head) combat and they excel.

What lets this fight scene, and the movie as a whole, down is the score. It’s dreadful. It’s almost as if the director took music that had been intended for a different part of the film and stuck it over the climactic battle because he ran out of money to finish the score. If the purpose of having music in a fight scene is to capitalise on the beats of the action and infuse the scene with tension and drama, then I can say that the score here failed in every possible way. By the time JCVD had regained the upper hand and slow-mo kicked his adversary into the spikes of a wood chipper I had put the TV on mute. Fortunately I put it back on in time for the kiss-off line just as Lundgren is fed through a wood chipper – “You’re discharged, Sarge!”

Suzanne King

Share this!