The early 1990s saw the action star take centre stage in Hollywood after the growing success of films like Die Hard and Lethal Weapon. However before it became fully mainstream, action was already lending heavily from comic book source material, a genre that would eventually surpass it. One obvious borrow is Universal Soldier, which draws heavily on Captain America and Terminator 2: Judgment Day for influence.
Universal Soldier is the story of war veterans Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren) who shoot each other over a hostage situation during the Vietnam war. Once killed their bodies are frozen, reprogrammed and revived in 1992 as part of the Universal Soldier (or UniSol) initiative. They are sent to the Hoover Dam to stop a terrorist threat but shards of their memories begin to return. The two men escape their base complex and go on the run before Scott’s sadistic side resurfaces causing them to repeat their showdown from 1969.
Jean-Claude Van Damme drops neatly into an imagined second tier of action heroes. He doesn’t have the raw charisma of a Schwarzenegger, the acting ability of a Willis or the martial arts skill of a Lee but there is something enjoyable about watching muddle through as best he can. In this he plays the obvious hero with little to no subtlety, not that you necessarily need it. But Lundgren psychotic, ear-shaving maniac is far more interesting and film centred around him may have given Universal Soldier the originality that it needed to work its way into the upper echelons of action film lore. Despite this however it remains Van Damme’s best work, just ahead of other classics Timecop, Hard Target and Kickboxer.
Like many action films, Universal Soldier is given an almost science fiction edge, with director Roland Emmerich mentioning, although rarely expanding on the idea of the military being desperate to create a ˜super soldier.’ Like Captain America, and the hugely successful Terminator 2: Judgment Day that was released a few years previous Universal Soldier plays on societies fears surrounding technology, a theme common in the science fiction and horror genres. The pro-religious theme of a scientist being punished for playing God may have little bearing on reality, but does have excellent dramatic power, something that director Roland Emmerich is able to draw upon.
His later career is littered with a series of shambolic, characterless event films like The Day After Tomorrow, Godzilla and 2012. But in Universal Soldier and his 1996 release Independence Day, he found his two best pieces of work.
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