Skip to main content

But one soldier, against seventeen. What are you going to do?

Soldier
(1998)

(SPOILERS) Now that a bona fide Blade Runner sequel has arrived, we can stop clutching at straws of movies that may/not be set in the same universe. Ridley Scott, growing more senile with each passing minute, considers Alien to exist in the same continuity, but David Webb Peoples got there first with “sidequel” Soldier, enthusiastically partnered by Paul WS Anderson. Unfortunately, no one benefits from the association, as Soldier is a downright terrible movie.


I have a bit of a blind spot for Peoples, on the basis that Unforgiven is a masterpiece of a screenplay, Twelve Monkeys is perfectly formed and his contribution to Blade Runner helped engineer an all-time-classic. I assume everything he touches ought to be exemplary, but I struggle to see how Soldier, even without having been force-fed through a PWSA meat grinder, could have been one to treasure. Shane reconfigured on a backwater trash heap planet, complete with mute child, palpitating-with-desire mother and blithely unaware father? It sounds like a recipe for disaster. But then, Logan remixed the Shane formula recently to at least partial success, so maybe it is all down to PWSA (and perhaps Tony Gilroy’s uncredited rewrite).


But anyone can have an off day, and Soldier might be that. There are certainly too few produced Peoples’ projects in the world. Given how long it takes to get some of his screenplays on screen (this, Unforgiven), maybe his Sergeant Rock will become a movie one day; Tarantino feted it as of such quality that, if he were to direct someone else’s work, it would be the one he’d choose (Joel Silver, attached to Rock as producer, levels the charge that the director lifted the premise for Inglorious Basterds).


The Soldier screenplay sat on a shelf for fifteen years before PWSA became flavour of the month (for reasons that remain elusive) and decided he wanted some of that, and Stallone and Keanu – curiously, Todd’s “I’m going to kill them all, sir” is paraphrased by Keanu in John Wick Chapter 2 – were mooted before Russell took the gig. Kurt was paid a ludicrous $20m (although he did get into uber-shape at a not exactly spring chicken age of 48, and PWSA delayed shooting for him to get so pumped, making the almost-as-botched Event Horizon in the meantime). That amounted to a third of the overall budget, and he certainly wasn’t being paid for loquacity; notably, Russell’s dialogue was of minimalist Mad Max 2 proportions, amounting to 104 words.


The movie proceeded to flop hard, grossing a mere $14m in the US. Russell disappeared from the screens for three years and didn’t take another action role, while it took PWSA four years to get his next of the ground. It proved his greatest success story; the Resident Evil franchise would endure for 15 years (to date), with the director helming four (and writing all) of them.


The Blade Runner link can be found tangibly with the appearance of one of that movie’s spinners, but there are also references to taciturn protagonist Todd 3465’s military career; he fought in the Battle of Tannhauser Gate and did a stint on the Shoulder of Orion (other escapades include the Len Deighton-sounding Moscow Incident, the War of the Six Cities and the Battle of the Argentine Moons, as well as references to other Russell movies, Star Trek II and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).


Kurt and his co-supermen in Soldier aren’t replicants, however; they’re genetically engineered and brainwashed humans, products of the Adam Project, indoctrinated from an early age into becoming emotionless – fear aside – obedient tools of the military. The introductory montage follows Todd from year zero in 1996 up to his 40s (as a youngster he’s played by Russell’s son Wyatt), at which point, following an altercation with new model Jason Scott Lee – who, one might infer, is a replicant, although the word is never used – he’s unceremoniously labelled obsolete and dumped on the planet where the lion’s share of the Shane-esque action will occur.


Todd curtly gets to know the settlers, keeping mostly mum but sharing meaningful looks with mum, and then nearly kills Michael Chilkis, is banished, invited back… and just in time! Those dastardly replacements have arrived, and evil Jason Isaacs (will you just look at his evil moustache) is intent on using the unofficial inhabitants as cannon fodder in a training exercise of his own devising.


This is so bare bones and linear an idea that the results are entirely what one makes of them, and PWSA makes an indigestible stodge rather than a flavoursome pudding. He commented, “What I’d originally planned would have been much better, ultimately, than what we put on screen”, but his career, whatever else one can say of it (and fair’s fair, he does call shots on clear, coherent action) isn’t bursting with depth, resonance, subtlety or atmosphere.


PWSA indirectly blamed Kurt’s desire to remain clean in getting ripped (i.e. he didn’t want to take steroids, so it took a while, by which time Soldier had become a studio-based rather than location shoot). Certainly, the studio work is pretty awful, so the movie could only have been improved by getting outside, but you can get an indoors shoot to look great (Legend, for example). It doesn’t have to look like the sets are sets; David Tatterstall’s lensing is resolutely lifeless (he went onto the Star Wars prequel trilogy, having worked with Lucas on Young Indiana Jones) and inert (it’s a problem you can also see in Die Another Day).


Sandra: Sergeant Todd, what’s it like? What’s it like being a soldier? What do you think about? You must think about something. What about feelings, then? You must feel something.
Todd: Fear.
Sandra: Fear?
Todd: Fear and discipline.
Sandra: Now?
Todd: Always.


So there’s that. The bigger problem is that he doesn’t know his actors. Sure, he knows actors (Sean Pertwee and Isaacs come from his previous Shopping and Event Horizon) but they’re inhabiting what are at best caricatures, assembling a bunch of clichés that tend to the ridiculous or embarrassing. He has no idea how to make the attraction between Sandra (Connie Nielsen) and Todd work, so we’re dealt a series of clumsy, laughable close-ups of Sandra glowing in response to his manliness while Todd stares transfixed at her nipples.


The turning point of the settlors realising Todd’s a good guy comes when wee imp Nathan kills a vicious viper with a shoe, an act of violence Todd taught him (the reactionary undercurrent being that you need a guy around who can encourage mass slaughter, as you’ll only bleed out after getting your leg blown off if you settle for knitwearing Sean Pertwee). It’s as hackneyed as its sounds. And, confined to his studio set, it feels as if Todd exiled himself – wearing what looks like a Doctor Who scarf – just over the next pile of debris rather than any great distance away (he also cries at his loss of company, the poor hulking lug). It’s a fairly cosy, homely looking bit of pipe, mind.


Anderson’s action is also rather clunky, evidently coming from the James Cameron school of slo-mo is good but without his master’s accompanying adeptness at pacing and escalation (editor Martin Hunter also worked with PWSA on Event Horizon, which is a complete mess). He’s evidently encouraged Joel McNeely to ape James Horner on the soundtrack, as there’s a demonstrative horn section, but they fail to imbue any urgency or rhythm. And you can see the director borrowing, borrowing, borrowing, rather than establishing his own distinctive style. From Cameron, obviously. From Lucas (the trash compartment on the ship from which Russell is expended). From Coppola (Todd in combat mode descending into water as he takes out Caine 607’s men). From Verhoeven (Todd’s flashbacks are very Robocop).


Gary Busey shows up as Todd’s commander Church, and he has a modicum of impact (Isaacs never gets beyond ham villainy, and having him piss pineapple juice is as puerile as you’d expect from the director). Church’s line “Well, maybe you should have made them smart instead of fast” is one of the few of note. Jason Scott Lee glowers implacably as Caine 607, but is otherwise a non-event. Michael Chiklis is in cuddly sidekick mode, post-Seinfeld, pre-Shield.


The ineffectiveness of the cast might not matter so much if Anderson had visualised an immersive world, but he has only derivative imagery to call on, applied to a hokey and inert journey to self-awareness (Todd hugs the kid at the end). We don’t even get the consolation of Shane/Max/Todd striding off nobly and heroically into the sunset; he’s been integrated rather unconvincingly (with his old comrades to boot) into the colonists’ group, and will no doubt make a curious, latently violent, staunchly disciplinarian husband and surrogate father.


We can only be grateful there was never a Soldier sequel (and one had been mooted, prior to opening weekend). None of Kurt’s sci-fi jaunts in the ‘90s were great, but they’re on a sliding scale of averageness to awfulness (Stargate, followed by Escape from L.A., followed by this). This one isn’t on him any more than L.A. is, though. Soldier’s as memorable as its title, but less streamlined. Even at under 100 minutes it plods drearily and wearily. It’s just a plain bad film.




Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Everyone wants a happy ending and everyone wants closure but that's not the way life works out.

It Chapter Two (2019)
(SPOILERS) An exercise in stultifying repetitiveness, It Chapter Two does its very best to undo all the goodwill engendered by the previous instalment. It may simply be that adopting a linear approach to the novel’s interweaving timelines has scuppered the sequel’s chances of doing anything the first film hasn’t. Oh, except getting rid of Pennywise for good, which you’d be hard-pressed to discern as substantially different to the CGI-infused confrontation in the first part, Native American ritual aside.

Check it out. I wonder if BJ brought the Bear with him.

Death Proof (2007)
(SPOILERS) In a way, I’m slightly surprised Tarantino didn’t take the opportunity to disown Death Proof, to claim that, as part of Grindhouse, it was no more one of his ten-official-films-and-out than his Four Rooms segment. But that would be to spurn the exploitation genre affectation that has informed everything he’s put his name to since Kill Bill, to a greater or less extent, and also require him to admit that he was wrong, and you won’t find him doing that for anything bar My Best Friend’s Birthday.

That woman, deserves her revenge and… we deserve to die. But then again, so does she.

Kill Bill: Vol. 2  (2004)
(SPOILERS) I’m not sure I can really conclude whether one Kill Bill is better than the other, since I’m essentially with Quentin in his assertion that they’re one film, just cut into two for the purposes of a selling point. I do think Kill Bill: Vol. 2 has the movie’s one actually interesting character, though, and I’m not talking David Carradine’s title role.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

When you grow up, if you still feel raw about it, I’ll be waiting.

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)
(SPOILERS) It sometimes seems as if Quentin Tarantino – in terms of his actual movies, rather than nearly getting Uma killed in an auto stunt – is the last bastion of can-do-no-wrong on the Internet. Or at very least has the preponderance of its vocal weight behind him. Back when his first two movies proper were coming out, so before online was really a thing, I’d likely have agreed, but by about the time the Kill Bills arrived, I’d have admitted I was having serious pause about him being all he was cracked up to be. Because the Kill Bills aren’t very good, and they’ve rather characterised his hermetically sealed wallowing in obscure media trash and genre cul-de-sacs approach to his art ever since. Sometimes to entertaining effect, sometimes less so, but always ever more entrenching his furrow; as Neil Norman note in his Evening Standard review, “Tarantino has attempted (and largely succeeded) in making a movie whose only reality is that of celluloid”. Extend t…

Just because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character.

Pulp Fiction (1994)
(SPOILERS) From a UK perspective, Pulp Fiction’s success seemed like a fait accompli; Reservoir Dogs had gone beyond the mere cult item it was Stateside and impacted mainstream culture itself (hard to believe now that it was once banned on home video); it was a case of Tarantino filling a gap in the market no one knew was there until he drew attention to it (and which quickly became over-saturated with pale imitators subsequently). Where his debut was a grower, Pulp Fiction hit the ground running, an instant critical and commercial success (it won the Palme d’Or four months before its release), only made cooler by being robbed of the Best Picture Oscar by Forrest Gump. And unlike some famously-cited should-have-beens, Tarantino’s masterpiece really did deserve it.