I suspect many who know of Dolph Lundgren remember him as the rock-faced titan Soviet boxer who beat Rocky to near submission in Rocky IV. Not me. When I hear Dolph’s name, a short clip comes to mind of a delusional, re-animated soldier with an ear necklace barking orders to small-town grocery shoppers as if they are fighting the Vietnam War.
Conversely, Dolph Lundgren is my first memory when Universal Soldier airs on TV or, by some random anomaly, comes up in conversation. The man widely known for putting on a clinic on how not to show emotion in Rocky IV is cast to play the role of an emotionless brainwashed soldier yet somehow outperforms everyone else in Universal Soldier, Jean-Claude Van Damme included.
Without Dolph’s presence, Universal Soldier would equate to a universal disaster. The concept of re-animating soldiers who died 30 years earlier as supersoldiers is made-for-TV schlock no matter which way you spin it. A Meg Ryan look-a-like love interest for Van Damme and Roland Emmerich behind the camera check off any remaining campy film requirements.
Even in the face of laughably fake action sequences, plot black holes and dialogue that somehow missed an editor’s desk, Dolph keeps his eyes on the prize and strikes a perfect note somewhere between appeasing the film’s campy roots and actually acting. His performance is a stretch for just another one of Rocky’s victims that culminates in possibly the best illogical yet entertaining scene shot in a grocery store ever put on film.
Lionsgate presents Universal Solider on Blu-ray in a widescreen 1080 p VC-1 encoded transfer that hands down surpasses the previous DVD releases. Two sequences that best illustrate the benefit of 1080p are the opening Vietnam confrontation and a hostage rescue at Hoover Dam.
The Vietnam sequence is shot in the jungle at night with rain pouring down. I half-expected black levels to be muddy given the film’s age and relatively low budget yet they remain sharp with crisp details throughout. The sequence closes with a slow-motion attack that emphasizes the sharp contrast between the characters in the foreground and the black of night all around them which beads of rain are clearly recognizable sitting on any surface.
The Hoover Dam sequence is literally night and day from the darkness of Vietnam. The sky is blue, the sun is shining strong and close-in photography used in the jungle is replaced with a number of extreme pulled-back shots. There are several frames where the Universal Soldiers rappel down the dam running forward with the camera capturing the action from hundreds of feet away to show the sheer size of the structure versus the insignificant soldiers. The colors, detail and sharpness do not falter in what turns into a beautifully filmed and transfer set piece.
Lionsgate continues to offer lossless 5.1 DTS-HD (or 7.1, depending on the film) Master Audio which Universal Soldier benefits from despite showing its age. Surround use is surprisingly active with bullets whizzing around all sides of the soundstage. Bass teeters towards the boomy side, lacking the depth and presence of today’s recording technology. The biggest detriment to the mix is treble which is mixed bright and flat. Oftentimes the high-end effects interfere with dialogue, especially when characters converse at normal levels or whispering. The center channel could have used a boost to counter this.
One Blu-ray exclusive extra feature has been tacked on with the previous DVD edition’s extras, all of which are presented in standard definition.
Out of the Blu Trivia Track — This feature is only available from the main menu and cannot be accessed during the film. The facts are relatively sparse, about one a minute on average, but still fun to read and worth exploring.
Guns, Genes and Fighting Machines (18:54) — A making-of featurette that traces the film’s roots back to when it was scripted under a different name and before Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin came onboard. It took this re-write for Dolph to sign on. Funnily enough Roland had never heard of Jean-Claude Van Damme when the young actor was recommended for a lead role.
Tale of 2 Titans (14:13) — Interview snippets with Jean Claude and Dolph taken from the same session as snippets in the previous featurette. They discuss the pair’s upbringing and how they got into film. In short, this is a mini-biopic for each actor.
Alternate Ending (13:08) — The “Robocop” ending changes the entire film, especially the finale. Roland and his crew were wise to cut it.
Universal Soldier falls into that unnamed genre of film you can’t resist watching, no matter how good or bad, when it comes on. Whether I’ll go out of my way again to watch Universal Soldier is debatable. What is not open for debate is Lionsgate’s Blu-ray 1080p video treatment is far and away the best this film has ever looked, and likely ever will.
- Score: 7.6