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'Solo': Van Peebles' Inaction Hero

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 23, 1996

The best line in "Solo," the new Mario Van Peebles-as-cyborg-soldier film, comes when the polymer-and-chips mold is asked to choose its own human features. Conveniently, a nearby television is showing Michael Jordan's "If I wasn't your hero" commercial. Solo turns to his designer (Adrien Brody) and says . . . "like Mike!"

Voila, the bald, muscled look.

Thank goodness it wasn't a Dennis Rodman commercial.

As for "Solo," it's not unlike its cyborg-production-line predecessors, though it's good to see the role of the $2 billion super-soldier (originally envisioned for Sylvester Stallone) go to an African American actor, particularly since there's nothing race-defined in David Corley's script (based on the Robert Mason novel "Weapon"). This is a straightforward action film, not an affirmative-action one.

Solo's problem is that he seems to have been funded not by the Pentagon (its philosophy: If Solo dies, there will be "no guilt, no worries, no medical benefits. . . . We'll simply build another one") but by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Yes, he's been programmed to learn. After Solo refuses direct orders and aborts a midnight raid on Latin American guerrillas because noncombatant peasants are imperiled, his builder tries to explain to the brass that "killing innocent people makes him feel bad." The military, led by the duplicitous Gen. Haynes ("Northern Exposure's" Barry Corbin) is unmoved and interprets Solo's act not as a moral choice but as a software defect (though usually when cyborgs have such problems, they turn bad, not good).

After escaping a clumsy effort to "terminate a malfunctioning unit," Solo seeks spiritual renewal in the jungle, where he's befriended by meek but curious villagers, notably the adoring young Miguel (Abraham Verduzco) and his older sister Agela (Seidy Lopez). As Solo shuts down to recharge his "power management chip," Agela shyly comes on to him with a plate of . . . we don't actually see, but it's probably batteries and oil.

As for the villagers, they're simply pawns in a game between dastardly guerrillas and dastardly mercenaries sent to aid the particularly dastardly Col. Madden (played with cheap surliness by an overexposed William Sadler). After Solo teaches the villagers how to defend themselves, the guerrillas and mercenaries team up to take out Solo, which leads to many encounters among ancient Maya and Aztec ruins, which are further ruined by assorted stupid weapons tricks. Since filmgoers are told early on that there is only one other super-cyborg prototype in the world, well, guess what the big climax is?

Directed by Norberto Barba (who did a far more stylish job on the Yakuza-themed Showtime movie "Blue Tiger"), "Solo" suffers from a clear budget deficiency and Van Peebles' anemic performance. Granted, he's a cyborg, not a Cyrano, but his wooden delivery underwhelms his physical presence.

Although meant to look like Michael Jordan, Van Peebles also ends up recalling Woody Strode, the pioneering African American action hero whom Hollywood usually relegated to sidekick status. Van Peebles and Strode worked together on the former's film "Posse," and Strode's struggles and successes would likely make for a far more interesting film than "Solo."

Solo is rated PG-13 and contains scenes of violence.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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