It’s a bit out of the scope of a movie recommendation column to litigate the Vietnam War, but suffice it to say it went bad. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC lists the names of 58,318 American soldiers lost in the conflict, a number that is much higher when we consider the Vietnamese casualties. And after stories of American atrocities emerged, historian James Wright believed that Americans viewed the returning soldiers as “wizards of a brutal war.”
It’s a serious topic usually reserved for serious movies. Oliver Stone’s Born on July 4th and Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods watch the war through the passage of time, as idealistic young soldiers realize its horrors. It’s an effective tactic, to be sure. But what if the soldiers never get older? What if they remained frozen in time, with the immediacy of the conflict haunting them for decades?
That’s Roland Emmerich’s bold premise universal soldier, a 1992 action film starring Jean-Claude Van Damne and Dolph Lungren that is unfairly lumped together with the plethora of action films of the era. It was dismissed as a Terminator 2 knock-off, and there are definitely some similar elements.
But it’s also as close as Emmerich, who in four years would be pushed into stardom with independence Day, would ever be criticized by the US military. It’s from Emmerich Full metal jacket.
The film begins at the height of the Vietnam War in 1969, with American soldiers, including Luc Deveraux (Van Damme), assigned to secure a North Vietnamese village. The soldiers find villagers mutilated and missing their ears. They soon find the culprit: their sergeant, Andrew Scott (Lungren), has gone mad and created a gruesome necklace.
In 2003, the Toledo Blade published a report showing that elite American soldiers had done just that. Rion Causey, who fought in the war, told the New York Times that these mutilations were “open and public conduct”. Lots of guys in the 101st cut ears. It was a unique period.”
Scott is about to kill two more civilians when Deaveraux intervenes. Unable to save the civilians, he angrily stabs Scott. Scott shoots him, and the two drop dead. But when the medics pick up the bodies, they’re told to ignore those two and pack them in ice instead.
Back to modern times where the two have been repurposed as Universal Soldiers, semi-robotic robots meant to carry out dangerous rescue missions. They move with superhuman speed and strength. The program is well known, but the identity of the UniSols, as they are known, is secret.
Here’s where the T2 Comparisons come in: Studios cover up the bad acting of their handsome fighting boys by making them robots. As Janet Maslin said in her negative New York Times review, “Mr. Van Damme’s job here is to feign whiteness and speak monotonously (not exactly a stretch).”
Which one, sure. If you go to a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie expecting Al Pacino, you will be disappointed. But it is important to remember that in T2, Schwarzenegger’s robot was out to destroy humanity on behalf of the fascist robots of the future. In universal soldierThe force pulling the strings is the US government. In an action movie, it matters as much as any monologue who gets kicked and who gets kicked.
When a reporter Veronica Roberts (Ally Walker) is fired after reporting a UniSol rescue at the Hoover Dam, she tries to investigate but is quickly caught by Deveraux and Scott, whose names have been changed to GR44 and GR13. GR13 is quick to kill a cameraman, but GR44 is suddenly returned to the North Vietnamese village, where he tried to save a civilian woman, but failed. He and Roberts work against his programming and are soon on the run.
From there it’s a road trip movie, with GR44 and Roberts staying at a motel, finding privacy at a gas station, and eating at a restaurant. These locations give GR44 several opportunities to undress, and his ass is shown more often than any modern superhero. When he’s naked and asks Roberts to search his body on a GPS tracker – “Look for something hard” – the winking and flirting seems new from a 2021 perspective. And the two make the jokes, which always helps.
GR13 is after them, taking cruel control of the UniSol program and its infernal mobile lab that lights up red when the doors open. There is a lot of shooting, a lot of kicking and a lot of hitting. But Emmerich never lets the viewer forget why all this is happening.
Is universal soldier the best movie about vietnam? New. But for a supposedly dumb action movie, it raises fascinating questions about what happens when a war never ends, and what happens when it comes home.