UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: Next Generation Warfare Hits Next Generation Home Video

The beginning of a highly fruitful franchise

Perhaps even more than many films of its ilk and era, Universal Soldier (1992) is a specific product of its time. An A-list film in wide release from the same studio, Carolco, that brought us Terminator 2 and the Rambo films, that’s very R-rated, walks an action/horror/comedy genre tightrope, and headlines two actors, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren, who are considered legends in this household but who only headlined wide release studio blockbusters like this for a specific period of time. 1992 was a time when these guys were up and coming action icons whose casting as rivals who will fight to the death in a relatively big-budgeted Hollywood film was a bankable box office proposition.

Universal Soldier also came at a very distinct point in the career of director Roland Emmerich and co-writer Dean Devlin. Upstarts with very little name recognition, these two would go on from Universal Soldier to co-create Stargate (also for Carolco) and then Independence Day, one of the biggest event films of its generation. As a young teen at the time of this ascension, I was very excited about Emmerich/Devlin and Universal Soldier was the beginning of all of that.

Looking back with 2019’s perspective (and after some 5 sequels depending on who’s counting) it is clear that there was fertile ground to explore with the Universal Soldier premise. Equal parts Terminator and Robocop rip off with a hint of zombie lore in the mix, the government is reanimating soldiers killed in action and making them into mindless, superpowered killing machines in the near future. Van Damme plays Luc Deveraux and Lundgren plays Andrew Scott. In Vietnam we’re introduced to these two as Deveraux encounters his commanding officer having completely flipped his lid and massacring Vietnamese villagers. They kill one another and cleverly have their faces being zipped into body bags as their opening credit cards hit the screen. Our heroes and stars are dead before the movie has even begun!

Smartly entirely unexplained, we then leap 25 years into the future to see the UniSol program perfectly execute the resolution of a hostage situation at the Hoover Dam. It’s a visually stunning action set piece that remains iconic in the minds of fans of the film even today. As all of these “playing God” situations always play out in movies, soon Deveraux and Scott begin having memories and essentially awakening from their scientifically induced zombie-like state. The script uses some mumbo jumbo about a fixation upon one’s final memories, and soon Scott is killing “traitors” left and right and making necklaces out of their ears while Deveraux rescues a reporter and hits the road because all he wants to do is “go home”.

The bulk of Universal Soldier is a cat and mouse road movie with Scott taking command of the mobile base the UniSol program is housed in and chasing down Deveraux and his reporter friend Veronica (Ally Walker). It’s here where the film feels most like Terminator where the first act felt distinctly Robocop. It’s also here where the technology starts to go haywire, our UniSols need to be iced down and juiced up with drugs, and where Van Damme is contractually obliged to show off his spectacular glutes.

Universal Soldier’s script, from Devlin, Richard Rothstein, and Christopher Leitch, is undoubtedly the weakest link of the movie. It’s clear that the entire premise is rooted in homage to movie monsters that had come before. But that’s not the rough part, as the UniSol clearly carved out enough of a fertile ground for some of direct-to-video’s very greatest achievements in sequels Universal Soldier: Regeneration, and Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning. The script falls victim to this early 90s requirement of adding a comedy sidekick, who is unfortunately Ally Walker’s Veronica. Walker acquits herself well and seems very talented, but the entire character is frustratingly written to inject one-liners and to be an audience cypher into the world of the UniSols and in the process of humanizing Deveraux. In between each watch I forget this character is even in the movie, and it’s because she’s quite thanklessly written. Then there’s the repetition. The script is designed intentionally to be elliptical, with moments in the opening sequence flashing as character memories onto the screen throughout. And then all the same moments have to be replicated in the (suitably epic) final fight on Deveraux’s family ranch. Some viewers might experience it as a tight script, but it feels repetitive in my estimation.

As is often the case, the home video supplemental materials here tell quite a bit of the Universal Soldier story in a way a theatrical view couldn’t have. An alternate ending is available which shows a drastically different finale and ending. The theatrical ending, in this case, is vastly superior to what seems to have been originally intended. But it also explains some elements of the film that feel off, such as a doctor character who shows up in minimal scenes theatrically but is played by known character actor Jerry Orbach. The original/alternate ending also pays off the Veronica character and gives her more of a purpose, but it’s unfortunately just really silly and cheesy so even though her character is undercut in the theatrical version, it still made for a better, if perhaps more muddled, movie.

Van Damme and Lundgren are simply in top form here. Lundgren probably contains more natural acting talent and brings a truly impressive performance to the screen as the deranged Andrew Scott. His “ear necklaces” were legendary as I was growing up, but his performance is incredibly charismatic and threatening. Van Damme has always had charisma and has very steadily worked to become a very fine actor. Here he gets lots of the best comedy elements, and is given plenty of opportunity to display his trademark spin kicks and butt cheeks. Their pairing here as adversaries is the stuff of action movie heaven and has continued to play out in interesting ways in the aforementioned fantastic direct-to-video sequels.

There’s enough ingredients in Universal Soldier to make it lovable and recommendable, but plenty of flaws enough to understand why someone might not consider it a particularly great film. An important stopping point in the careers of lots of the major talent in front of and behind the camera, Universal Soldier remains an entertaining time capsule in action cinema history.

The Package

Lionsgate and Studio Canal are cranking out classic action films on 4K Ultra HD discs. I just reviewed their Red Heat release last week and while I sadly was too busy to cover the Rambo series’ Ultra HD release, those are available now too. This action cinema fan and home video devotee couldn’t be more pleased to see this play out. It helps that both Red Heat and Universal Soldier look pretty damn fantastic in the format. Red Heat was perhaps the more mind blowing transfer, but these chiseled heroes look absolutely stunning here in Universal Soldier as well.

This disc is also packed with bonus features and even 2 commentary tracks. None appear to be new for this release, but with a fantastic transfer, tons of features, and even a Blu-ray and Digital copy, Universal Soldier on 4K UHD is an easy recommend for fans without necessarily being an essential upgrade if someone already owns a Blu-ray.

And I’m Out.

Universal Soldier is now available on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, and Digital HD from Lionsgate.

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