Universal Soldier may be the most hysterical Viet Nam war movie to hit mainstream screens yet. "Confused" doesn't begin to cover it. An angry and often overwrought critique of official war management, this is also conspicuous summertime trash entertainment, an action picture that can hardly wait to get from one flashy fireball explosion to the next. It borrows from disparate sources (from Platoon to Robocop to Coming Home to The Wizard of Oz) bravely, raucously, without a hint of grace or shame. History schmistory. This flick is some serious shit.
Featuring the massively mounted one-two punch of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren, Universal Soldier suggests--along with too many other popular films made in this country--that the United States' involvement in Viet Nam only incidentally affected Vietnamese people. (And honestly, what possible room could there be for anyone else in frames filled with those bulging pecs?) As exploitative hyperbole, this movie seems an apt follow-up to producer Mario Kassar's Rambo series: here the U.S. government continues to create and abandon its warriors in the service of a mighty national self-image.
Opening in "Vietnam, 1969," the movie works all available generic clichés, including the myopic notion that the war was about Americans killing Americans. If in many fictional representations the war has become a catch-all metaphor for U.S. political battles or pervasive anxieties over gender and race, this version of it is so extreme that it threatens to expose the self-indulgent erection of heroic machismo committed by, say, Oliver Stone or Francis Ford Coppola or even John Milius. Universal Soldier's social angst is very upfront. It literalizes the war's emotional detritus as assorted physical traumas: this is nasty, over-the-top incoherence, played for visceral audience responses (as in, Ouch! Aarrggh!).
The initial handheld camera fast-trek through dark foliage leads to a stage-set village, carefully battered by flames and rain. Van Damme, as an Army private named Luc (his incorrigible accent is later "explained" by Cajun origins), comes upon a hideous massacre enacted by a U.S. sergeant gone mondo Section 8. Scott (Lundgren) has killed all his own men and now stands delirious (with the requisite human ear necklace to signal his insanity), about to execute two terrified locals.
Luc, who is short and only wants to "go home" (a mantra he repeats like Dorothy throughout the film), tries to talk Scott down, but ends up having to gut him with a very large knife. Scott, in turn, blows Luc away with a big gun, and they fall--in slow motion and separate frames--their bodies bullet-riddled and spurting blood. Predictable as such ejaculatory excess is, this pre-credits sequence is also rather extraordinary: the stars, after all, are dead before their names come up on the screen.
It gets worse. Or better, depending on your idiot-plot parameters. The military's recovery of the corpses is anything but routine. Indeed, the film offers a new theory about reported MIAs in Viet Nam. Scavenged and literally put on ice, these soldiers are resurrected 25 years later as "Unisols": hard, programmable, and virtually unkillable motherfuckers.
The problem of blame highlighted by Buffy St. Marie's protest song (which gives the film its title) becomes monumentally vexed here. If Scott is evil incarnate and Luc is the designated hero, they are also constructed warriors who twice "give their bodies as weapons," first in Viet Nam and then in the Unisol program.
That the bodies belong to the two top-seeded Schwarzenegger wannabes, who are paid megabucks for such activity, collapses arbitrary boundaries between machines and flesh, or performative and "actual" masculinity. Willingness to perform becomes a relative value. Predictably, the chief villains are stock, acted with verve: a conscienceless Army colonel (Ed O'Ross) and institutional medico-nerds perpetrate this horror (outside of regular government auspices).
Moral One: It's always the renegades, not the System, that screw up.
While the film's ad campaign asserts that "The future has a bad attitude," in fact the rest of this movie takes place in the "present day" U.S. Southwest. Clearly, science has nothing to do with this techno-wet-dream. At one point the head doc (Jerry Orbach, of all people) offers an unpersuasive explanation that the bodies have been "hyper-accelerated" to reverse death, the subsequent problem being that the steroid-enhanced Unisols run a little hot. So, whenever they are deployed (for instance, to take out black-masked terrorists holding hostages at Hoover Dam), they must afterwards be packed in ice or else their brains overheat. (Brains?)
Granted, this plot is on lunatic overdrive. And granted, its clumsy turns are at least in part attributable to the fact that the central characters are, well, stiffs. Yet its cultural implications are not without interest. Consider, for instance, the film's vehement attack on amoral "science" (loosely described) and profit motives (see also, Alien's Company). Or the striking conflation of Viet Nam and Gulf War images: the Unisols wear Desert Storm fatigues in the American desert, even as they start having flashbacks to 1969 jungle scenes.
It's the "crazy vet" motif revisited with a vengeance, and more unnerving, rewritten as the next war. Memories of "Viet Nam" (that floating signifier) incite the guys to more effective aggression, and efforts to get their hands out from behind their figurative and muscular backs. In particular, Scott is sent by his commander to deal with a pesky news cameraman (weren't they somehow implicated in the U.S. defeat?). Caught too close to the operation (a mobile Unisol storage unit on 18 wheels), the reporter is executed by Scott, who has gotten to "like" what he does.
It goes on like this: the execution reminds Robo-Luc of Scott's murder of the Vietnamese locals. His military program snaps (save for his uncanny ability to kick ass with great sound effects) and his "identity" makes an appearance. He rescues the reporter's partner, a woman reporter (in a miniskirt, need I add) named Ronnie (Ally Walker).
Moral Two: A woman in danger increases moral stakes. See, for instance, the Rape of Kuwait.
Ronnie evokes, among other things, the Terminator plot, times seven. The project coordinators send their truck full of iced Unisols after the couple, which results in only one memorable moment (lifted from T2's references to Schwarzenegger's oversized unit). The naked, still somewhat robotic Luc instructs Ronnie to search him for "something hard" (a homing device): she makes appropriate faces. Other than this, though, the hetero relationship remains limp compared to the (relatively subtle) homoerotic tension/competition between the more often exposed and confrontational Big Guys.
In this pairing, Lundgren is the more compelling persona. While Scott maintains his mechanical demeanor for most of the film, he does assume a maniacal personal vendetta against Luc when his memory is also jolted back online. His "I'm a crazy vet" confessional occurs in a supermarket. Frustrated, without support or direction, he rages before a nonplused local audience, folks standing in front of the red meat case, wearing string ties and cowboy hats and rayon dresses, folks who labor and watch TV.
"Do you have any idea what it's like out there!?" Scott yells. "Bustin' heads...it's the only way to win this fuckin' war!" At this moment (conveniently) assaulted by a squad of deputies, he takes them all out with rapid single shots to their chests, Arnold-style. "See!" he screeches. "They're everywhere!"
If nothing else, Lundgren's clearly parodic performance suggests that the imaginative distance between Viet Nam and the pop cultural World remains immense, a distance perpetually reinforced by equations of overkill with patriotic duty (here the Gulf War leaps to mind). It is with such hyperbole that the film, if it has a point, voices it. The best example of such convoluted insight comes from Orbach's mastermind doctor, who says the Unisols suffer from "regressive traumatic recall," or a kind of Post-Death Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PDPTSD).
The paradox of mass media spectacles about war (even if they are, as this one is, basically anti-war) is this: if both Scott and Luc are victims of systems and ideologies, they are also both thrilling as kickboxing bonecrunchers. Like Rambo or Robocop, they exact revenge for heinous violence through enacting more heinous violence. Scott ends up wearing another ear necklace stateside, plus grenade spoons in his hair and badges taken from various cops he has to kill along the way.
Moral Three: Paying money to watch such sublime machinations is the American Way.
The last sequence of the film is its most hysterical (if such a measurement could mean anything). Ronnie and Luc arrive at his parents' Louisiana farm, still tracked by the relentless Scott. The inevitable mano-a-mano climactic battle is a profoundly perverse restaging and continuation of the War (as Americans fighting Americans) for the audience of Luc's powerless, frightened, Grant-Woodish parents. The song that blasts over the final credits leaves no question as to where the war continues: Ice T's thrash metal wake up call, "Body Count's in the House."