Universal Soldier [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - America - Lions Gate Home Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Jeremiah Chin (10th March 2009).
The Film

In two of the biggest films of his career Dolph Lundgren has acted as a poster-child for the villainous effects of steroids. Most famous, and maybe most villainous, is his role as Ivan Drago in “Rocky IV” (1985) where he acts as the evil Russian foil for Stallone’s all American Rocky. Where Drago takes the steroids and works on machines to build himself in to a Rocky-crushing machine, Rocky works in the Siberian wastelands building his body more naturally to defeat his Soviet Arch-nemesis. Yet Lundgren’s Character’s steroid use in “Universal Soldier” is far more ambivalent as his reanimated cyborg soldier body uses steroids to kill and take over the Universal Soldier squad, only to have Jean-Claude Van Damme use the same muscle enhancers to fight the villainous Sgt. Scott.

But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. The film begins with two United States soldiers near the end of the Vietnam War, taking control of a small Vietnamese town as Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) finds out that he’s finally able to ship out and go home. Unfortunately the more sadistic Sgt. Scott (Dolph Lundgren) feels the need to exterminate the town and the two end up dying in the village only to be recreated in the image of the Universal Soldier program. Flash forward to the early 1990’s where Sgt. Scott and Deveraux have had their memories erased and seem to exist only to take down terrorists and live in a huge RV filled with huge computers and freezer rooms. After a recent altercation at the Hoover Dam, Veronica Roberts (Ally Walker), a journalist, tries to track down the program and figure out who these men are, only to be captured and have her cameraman executed at the hands of Sgt. Scott. Luckily for her this awakens Deveraux’s memories of Vietnam, suddenly filling him with an urge to escape and return home, taking Roberts with him on the run from the Universal Soldier program.

Cyborgs? Soldiers? Recovering Memories? Early CG that mimicks the view of a robot by pixelating, adding robot noises and tinting the screen color? It all smells a bit familiar, drawing from the same creative universe as “Robocop” (1987) and “The Terminator” (1984), though not approaching these two in the least (and the distance between these two 1980’s classics is even more miniscule). If Robocop is a poor man’s Terminator, Universal Soldier is an incredibly broke man’s Robocop. JCVD and Lundgren play their roles well, bringing out the fighting and badass line every now and then that they are known for and mostly expected to deliver. Granted they only get in real combat at the very beginning and end of the films, but there are a few sparce fight scenes between to keep things going, although outside of the action the film’s story doesn’t take itself seriously enough in it’s own ridiculousness (if that makes any sense).

Yet Roland Emmerich’s directing and and the screenplay don’t deliver the full punch that their action necessitates; it aims for the ridiculous but falls far short. Outside of the two action superstars though, there isn’t much to the film. Ally Walker, Jerry Orbach and the rest of the supporting cast are just basically there for the sake of having more than two people in the film to push the plot forward, which is conflicting since you want to see more Van Damme and Ivan Drago, but at the same time you want at least a bit of acting so that the film doesn’t live and die by how much screen time they have.

Overall, “Universal Soldier” could have been better served as more of a hard-R style of action that could show off more of JCVD’s martial arts talents rather than just the supersoldier computer aspect of the film. Honestly the best scene in the film comes with imminent final fight between the two, and there are some funny enough lines and scenes imbetween, but it doesn’t have the shockingly bad charm of “Street Fighter” (1994) to really push it over the edge. It all comes down to how much you want to know what would happen if Ivan Drago was somewhat generically American and got in a brawl with Sgt. Guile after about an hour and 20 minutes, “Universal Soldier” is about as close as you’re going to get.

Video

The film is presented with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio in 1080p 24/fps with VC-1 encoding. For the most part the transfer does an excellent job of cleaning up the film from all the time’s I’ve seen it playing on network TV on a late Saturday or Sunday afternoon. The colors look good and all the tones seem to match as they should, though there are a couple of scenes that almost seem like they couldn’t have been restored as well as they retain some of the grain and distortion of a lower quality version.

Audio

The English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track mixed at 48kHz/16-bit, this track sounds good and moves well in the film, letting you hear all the gunfire and explosions move as they should, while keeping most of the levels intact though all of the violence and action that goes on throughout the film. However there are still some bad examples of ADR that become all the more obvious with the higher quality sound and video.
There are also optional English, English for the Hearing Impaired subtitles.

Extras

The extras of this edition mostly are repeats from the Special Edition DVD, bringing in an audio commentary track, 2 featurettes, an alternate ending along with an advanced trivia track all described below:

First is the audio commentary track featuring director Roland Emmerich, screenwriter Dean Devlin and cast members Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren. The huge names in the commentary are a bit deceiving as the only two that seem to have actually recorded commentary at the same time were Devlin and Emmerich, Van Damme and Lundgren were recorded separately from the others and only jump in with the occasional comment, which is interesting and nice to hear from, but when I see all four involved in the track I want more banter. Even with the conversations with Devlin and Emmerich there are just far to many pauses to really keep things moving though there are some good moments like when Devlin and Emmerich talk about seeing the movie after so long and say “I’m surprised how much I like it.”

Next is the “Out of the Blu” advanced trivia track on the film which just pops up with random amounts of trivia ranging from the film’s budget to some of the on-set reaction tidbits of information about the actors. The most frustrating thing about the track though is that it automatically switches over to it’s own audio track that throws in cheesy sound effects every time a new tidbit pops up, but at the same time lowers the quality of the sound of the film itself.

“Guns, Genes and Fighting Machines” runs for 18 minutes and 54 seconds. This featurette speaks with the major players of the film as well as going behind-the-scenes of the original filming. It’s great to see and hear from Lundgren and JCVD in a more recent interview and this featurette presents most of the analysis and stories I expected to hear out of the commentary. However combined with clips of the film and the on set footage and the images of the actors years later makes it worth it.

“Tale of Two Titans” runs for 14 minutes and 13 seconds. This second and final featurette looks at the lives of the two action superstars in the film, discussing their lives growing up and their passion for the movies. JCVD is incredibly animated and likable, as is Lundgren though Van Damme seems to be the bigger feature. They talk about their growth into martial arts, Van Damme discusses his adventures into ballet and weight training as well as Karate, while Lundgren discusses his Chemical Engineering experience and competitive fighting experience. A great look at the two action stars from their own mouths rather than just seeing a Wikipedia page.

Finally is the alternate ending, which runs for 13 minutes and 8 seconds, diverging from the actual ending of the film by trimming down the final fight between JCVD and Lundgren, making Deveraux’s parents become imposters and betray him, as well as a voice over. It’s a little frustrating to see that the alternate ending is just presented in a letterboxed full screen rather than anamorphic wide, making it appear about a third the size of the actual film.

Overall

The Film: C- Video: A- Audio: B+ Extras: C+ Overall: C+

 


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