All of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s films thus far have been smaller affairs, little soirees that often would live or die based entirely on his ability to wrest some charisma and good fight scenes out of what were often very bad scripts and even more basic scenarios.
Universal Soldier, however, shifted that paradigm. For a while, at least.
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 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’s baffled me every time I 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 ears gets me giggling no matter how many times I see it, and I always lament his lack of a bigger career every time I watch his supermarket rant here.
Which, it pains me to say, leaves Van Damme out in the cold more often than not, a fact that would likely remain true even with a less charismatic co-star in place of Lundgren. Van Damme 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 charisma or talents. 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.
Again, it’s not a bad movie. I quite enjoyed revisiting this one. But it mostly ends up as a lesser work in the filmography of both Emmerich and Van Damme when it comes to their blockbuster material.
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.