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

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.

Moonraker (1979)
Depending upon your disposition, and quite possibly age, Moonraker is either the Bond film that finally jumped the shark or the one that is most gloriously redolent of Roger Moore’s knowing take on the character. Many Bond aficionados will no doubt utter its name with thinly disguised contempt, just as they will extol with gravity how Timothy Dalton represented a masterful return to the core values of the series. If you regard For Your Eyes Only as a refreshing return to basics after the excesses of the previous two entries, and particularly the space opera grandstanding of this one, it’s probably fair to say you don’t much like Roger Moore’s take on Bond.

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.

My dear, sweet brother Numsie!

The Golden Child (1986)
Post-Beverly Hills Cop, Eddie Murphy could have filmed himself washing the dishes and it would have been a huge hit. Which might not have been a bad idea, since he chose to make this misconceived stinker.

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…

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991)
(SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008)
(SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanleywas well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley, our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“too syrupy”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog. 

Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has cause to be, as does any re…