Universal Soldier 25th Anniversary: Franchise Origins

25 years ago, Carolco tried to give Jean-Claude Van Damme his own Terminator franchise. It actually became lucrative decades later, but Universal Soldier was only a break even hit in 1992. Looking at my ticket stub, even I waited a whole week to see it. I saw Cool World first (25th anniversary retrospective coming soon!)

Luc Deveraux (Van Damme) and Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren) are U.S. Soldiers in the Vietnam War. Deveraux tries to stop Scott from murdering innocent villagers, but they kill each other in the process.

I love this prologue. Maybe it’s insensitive to the real soldiers who perished in Vietnam, let alone in friendly fire incidents, but it could be good that Universal Soldier tried to layer in a theme of PTSD in their mainstream action movie. I mean, it’s a scene out of Platoon, albeit far more salacious.Universal Soldier

In present day 1992, the military sends a squad to rescue hostages on a dam, and who’s in the squad but Deveraux and Scott? The rest of their squad seems to be of the same ilk as they get shot and sit right back up again. You can see where this would be convenient for the military to have soldiers who can return from the dead. The problem is Deveraux and Scott start remembering their old beef. Well, the problem is really Scott remembers, so it’s a good thing we have Deveraux to remember to stop him from killing more civilians now that he has super powers.

The theme of remembering themselves has shades of Robocop. It’s not as deep as Alex Murphy remembering his humanity, but it does suggest that certain heroic or villainous traits can’t be deprogrammed out of us. It speaks to why I love the prologue so much, because there’s not much time in a summer movie to establish a personal rivalry to justify the spectacle of their battle. The horrors of war and combat shock are about as drastic as you could convey in as short a time.

It’s interesting Unisols, as the government calls them, are essentially zombies rather than robots. So they don’t have mechanical powers but their wounds heal fast (I mean if they can cure death, gunshots ain’t nothing). They do have enhanced strength. Deveraux can push a car 30 mph and bust through motel walls (although so could Arnold in Commando). He has a self surgery scene removing a tracker, like The Terminator removing his eye.

It makes Scott a formidable opponent for Deveraux. We’d already seen Van Damme defeat the toughest fighters in Bloodsport and Kickboxer. Scott is literally stronger than Deveraux because he’s overdosing on the Unisol chemicals. Their climactic battle involves Deveraux reaching for a syring to even the fight, so by the time they become equals, it’s very satisfying to see Van Damme kick Lundgren in the face.

The idea that the unisols had to be kept cold was a clever disadvantage to give them. Once on the run, Deveraux had to keep finding ways to cool off, and of course show off Van Damme’s great butt. The butt shot was Van Damme’s “I’ll be back.” It’s a shame the cooling fell by the wayside in later sequels. The biggest question about Deveraux’s future at the end of this movie is how is he going to stay cool for the rest of his life?

The action was explosive and full of real driving and stunts. They were going up against Lethal Weapon 3 and Batman Returns that summer so dropping busses off the Grand Canyon and blowing up gas stations was how you did that in the ’90s. The ‘90s spoiled us with Speed, True Lies, The Rock, Face/Off, Independence Day and more but remember it’s not easy to pull off these practical stunts. These days they wouldn’t even try. They’d just fake it with CGI.

Universal Soldier has a sense of humor too. Deveraux’s re-acclimation to society is like a child discovering things for the first time. He discovers his appetite and it’s endearing even when he fights off diner customers who are in the right to ask him to pay for his meal. It’s the right amount of wink to have for a premise as inherently ridiculous as this, at least until a later sequel took it utterly seriously and got to the existential heart of it.

The end title song “Body Count’s in the House” did not become a Top 40 hit. I do remember Dennis Miller making fun of Universal Soldier frequently during his short-lived network talk show. That was the summer he was on the air.

So there were two made for cable sequels with Gary Busey and Burt Reynolds in roles. They were so cheap they didn’t go anywhere. Despite the celebrity presence, there’s nothing to recommend about them. They’re lethargic with the bare minimum of gunplay to sell the title Universal Soldier.

Van Damme returned for the theatrical Universal Soldier: The Return in 1999. It was also cheap compared to the Carolco original (by 1999 they’d gone bankrupt after Cutthroat Island) but at least The Return was a real movie. The bummer was that Luc was human again. He said the scientist reversed the process of being a Universal Soldier. Considering the process begins with being dead, I think a scientist who could reverse that process could get a lot more famous outside the Unisol program.

Aside from that, Universal Soldier: The Return had some fun fights. For Van Damme versus super soldiers, it did the job. There must not be a good print of The Return in existence anymore because even the Blu-ray looks like crap. Good thing I saw it on opening night.

Then something miraculous happened. They made a straight to video Universal Soldier sequel with Van Damme and a cameo from Lundgren in 2009, and it was great. On a budget and in Eastern European factories, Universal Soldier: Regeneration had incredible action and sincere character drama. Ignoring The Return, Luc Deveraux had been a Unisol for 20 years and that weighs on a person.

So we got another one, from the same director, John Hyams. Van Damme stepped back into a supporting role in Day of Reckoning but Lundgren had a bigger role. The great Scott Adkins was the new Unisol in a bold change of tonal direction, with great Adkins fight scenes. Theoretically it’s a series you could plug new characters into constantly. They just need to have a traumatic past and existential crisis about discovering their new status. Regeneration and Day of Reckoning are so good it doesn’t matter that they’ve perfected the Unisol cooling technology between movies.

But none of that was on the horizon in 1992. That summer, Universal Soldier was just Van Damme doing an Arnold movie basically. Arnold was off that year, to return in 1993’s Last Action Hero, and Stallone was in a comedy phase until 1993’s Cliffhanger. Van Damme didn’t quite take over the big summer tentpole genre but it’s one of my favorite Van Damme movies, and now it’s his best franchise.

It gets complicated deciding whether Universal Soldier: The Return is Universal Soldier 2 or Universal Soldier 4, or if Day of Reckoning is Universal Soldier 4 or 6Franchise Fred approves either numbering, but one thing is for sure. This was Universal Soldier 1.

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