Think of “Universal Soldier” (citywide) as an inflation-fighter special, an action antidote to a struggling economy. Mayhem fans who literally want to get more bang for their buck can now see two killing machines for the price of one as Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren square off in the very same motion picture, a heartening development if ever there were one.
Not wanting to waste a moment, the film (written by Richard Rothstein & Christopher Leitch and Dean Devlin) opens right in the middle of a fierce fire fight in 1969 Vietnam. Sgt. Andrew Scott (Lundgren) has gone seriously off the deep end, not only killing civilians for their ears but making bad jokes about his collection.
Luc Devereux (Van Damme), a member of the combat unit, tries to get Scott to listen to reason, so to speak, but all that does is get the sarge so mad that he and Devereux end up slaughtering each other in the pouring rain.
After this brief prologue, the time shifts to the present, the scene moving to Hoover Dam, temporarily in the possession of an unnamed band of snarling terrorists. Sent in to get it back is a top-secret bunch of combat types called the Universal Soldiers, UniSols for short. No one can handle these guys, for a very simple reason: They are cryonically preserved dead GIs who have been somehow resuscitated and turned into awesome agents of destruction.
Conveniently enough, Scott and Devereux find themselves together again in this elite unit, and though they don’t recognize one another at first, the arrival on the scene of a professionally nosy TV reporter (Ally Walker) sets off a chain of events that allows them, not surprisingly, to continue their deadly rivalry well beyond the grave.
Both Van Damme and Lundgren, martial arts stars who were probably not hired for their dramatic ability, acquit themselves as well as can be expected, saving much of their energy for the required high kicks and deadly chops that made their box-office reputations. Walker has the more thankless task of playing almost continual (albeit understandable) hysteria as these two big galoots methodically destroy everything in sight.
It is the action that is the lure here, and as put together, in his first domestic film, by German director Roland Emmerich (aided considerably by adroit stunt coordinator and second unit director Vic Armstrong, who doubled Harrison Ford in the Indiana Jones trilogy) it is very effective albeit in an old-fashioned way.
Not for “Universal Soldier” (rated R for strong graphic violence and strong language) are the kinds of pricey special effects that made “Terminator 2" so successful. Rather Emmerich and Armstrong concentrate on traditional no-nonsense forms of action, things like cars driving through plate-glass windows, trucks plummeting over canyon walls, and enormous gas explosions and fires.
Though the film’s one-on-one finale is disappointing, an attenuated duel that places too much faith in the overamplified sounds of fist against flesh, the earlier stunts, especially the Vietnam sequences and the UniSols attack on Hoover Dam, are expertly put together and visually compelling. It may be standard-issue stuff, but it looks great and it almost makes you nostalgic for the days when stuntmen reigned supreme and mayhem and computers never knew how much they had in common.
Jean-Claude Van Damme: Luc
Dolph Lundgren: Scott
Ally Walker: Veronica
Ed O’Ross: Colonel Perry
Jerry Orbach: Dr. Gregor
Mario Kassar presents an Indieprod production in association with Centropolis Film Productions, released by TriStar. Director Roland Emmerich. Producers Allen Shapiro, Craig Baumgarten, Joel B. Michaels. Executive producer Mario Kassar. Screenplay Richard Rothstein & Christopher Leitch and Dean Devlin. Cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub. Editor Michael J. Duthie. Music Christopher Franke. Art director Nelson Coates. Set decorator Alex Carle. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.
MPAA-rated R (strong graphic violence and strong language).