After cruising along for several years on his unique charisma and limber limbs, it was time for Van Damme to prove himself worthy of something more than just street-level action flicks that let him kick random thugs in the face.
Enter the master of disaster himself, director Roland Emmerich and Universal Soldier.
With Universal Soldier, we watch as Van Damme’s career starts moving into full-blown blockbuster territory. These bigger films aren’t masterpieces by any stretch of the imagination, but they don’t completely live or die resting on Van Damme’s shoulders. Make no mistake, he absolutely enhances these movies in his own special way, but it’s not like, say, Kickboxer, where an otherwise generic movie is made watchable thanks to his presence. This is especially true with Universal Soldier because, for once, it’s not just Van Damme at the center of things. In fact, it’s his co-star, Dolph Lundgren, who ends up stealing the show more often than not.
Lundgren shares a similar origin story as The Muscles from Brussels, as he too was a martial arts expert who traveled from his homeland overseas in search of silver screen success in Hollywood. He too possesses a unique charisma and presence, but despite a starring turn as the iconic Ivan Drago in Rocky IV early in his career, he’s never really had the sort of longevity or popularity that Stallone or Schwarzenegger or even Van Damme (briefly) have enjoyed.
It’s a fact that surely baffles all who watch Universal Soldier because while Lundgren shows the same level of intensity as those guys, he also possesses an ear for dark comedy that Stallone and Schwarzenegger never had. His smug, knowing delivery of “I’m all ears …” while dangling a necklace of freshly harvested human earns a laugh every time and his rant in the supermarket is worthy of someone who deserves a much more illustrious career.
Which makes it all the more a shame that Van Damme wasn’t given similarly colorful material to play with. He simply isn’t given much to do here, save for act tired and confused and occasionally stumble into an action scene here and there. Van Damme lives and dies in his roles by the way the script allows him to invest himself into the character and the situations, and the Universal Soldier script basically dictates he be an emotionless automaton for the vast majority of the movie. This works in his favor on a couple of occasions, like when he very matter-of-factly states “I just want to eat” before high-kicking some thugs in a diner. But, for the most part, the whole affair feels like it’s wasted as it never makes use of his particular charm. He doesn’t even get to do a single split or split kick. Like Double Impact before it, there’s a much bigger emphasis on guns and explosions than before, a trend that thankfully never becomes dominant.
That’s not to say it’s a bad movie. It’s not. The action scenes are solid and done entirely with practical effects, which is weird in itself once you realize this is a movie directed by Roland Emmerich, one of the preeminent abusers of CGI. If all you know of Emmerich’s work is stuff like that one movie where Jake Gyllenhaal (literally) outruns cold weather or that time John Cusack became a limo stunt driver while the world blew up around him, then you’d be excused from knowing that he, at one point, liked to go the practical route. This was his first foray into blockbuster filmmaking, so things are considerably more low-key than, say, Independence Day or his later works.
In addition to not making decent use of Van Damme, it also fails from a story perspective, largely due to the fact that the script just can’t seem to choose whose story it’s telling. Is it Luc Deveraux’s (Van Damme) journey to uncovering who he used to be? Or is it reporter Veronica Roberts’ (Ally Walker) as she tries to regain her cred in trying to blow open the doors of the Universal Soldier program? The result is a film that ultimately fails both characters in that Luc’s story gets pushed to the background and Veronica’s mostly feels like window dressing.
Interestingly, Luc Deveraux is one of the only characters Van Damme has ever returned to, but that’s a story for a future Report.
Van Dammage Report statistics for Universal Soldier:
Number of splits: 0
Number of split kicks: 0
Reason for being European: Creole parents living in South Louisiana.
Best line: Lundgren’s delivery of “I’m all ears …”
Next up: Nowhere to Run, one of the more lesser known films from this part of Van Damme’s career. Trivia: One of the credited writers is Richard Marquand, better known as the director of Return of the Jedi.
Previously on the Van Dammage Report:
Double Impact, Death Warrant, Lionheart, Kickboxer, Cyborg, Bloodsport.