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‘Universal Soldier’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 10, 1992

Of course "Universal Soldier" is violent, lowbrow and a threat to the republic. It has Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren in it. These guys just aren't ready for Ibsen. As for the violence, it's considerable. But railing against it is like coming down hard on patio furniture. People keep buying the stuff. And by its own deliriously rock-bottom standards, "Universal" ain't half bad.

Of course, you have to be big on bloody slaughter, kickboxing, infrared gunning and impaired acting. But "Universal" executes its subtle-free mission with surprisingly watchable efficiency. This is thanks to "Rambo"-meister Mario Kassar, who knows how to sell trash. Throw in another $50 million, put Ahr-nold in the lead, and this would have been a guaranteed, almost respectable hit.

Producer Kassar and Co. have figured out the secret to making films around lunks with thick accents. Cast them as futuristic robots. It worked for Schwarzenegger in the "Terminator" movies. It heightened Rutger Hauer's performance in "Blade Runner." Suddenly, every wooden acting gesture, every misdelivery seems inspired.

Belgian martial artist Van Damme, known for his string of kickboxing movies with slim plots and macho-eroticism, can't even smile without looking as though he's acting. Lundgren appears to be made of metallic parts anyway. As robots, they're bionic Laurence Oliviers.

One day in the Vietnam War, good guy private Van Damme (already acting out his best war grimace) comes upon the aftermath of a massacre. In the middle of the carnage is blood-soaked sergeant Lundgren, holding two innocent Vietnamese villagers at gunpoint. The soldiers blow each other away for keeps -- only to find themselves reconstituted in the future as storm-trooping RoboCops in fatigues. Under the authority of the usual nefarious government program, they're remote-controlled, mindless warriors.

Unfortunately Van Damme and Lundgren remember too much. They break away from their controllers to fight each other to the death. Meanwhile, the movie helps itself to the full range of options left them by "The Road Warrior," "Blade Runner," "The Terminator," "RoboCop" and other classic action films.

Some artistic high points: Van Damme cauterizes a bullet wound in his chest with a glowing cigarette lighter. Isolating a homing device implanted in his leg, he strips off his clothes (of course), cuts a hole in his thigh and asks companion Ally Walker to remove it. Lundgren, a laughable reprise of Brando's crazed officer in "Apocalypse Now," likes cutting the ears off his victims and draping them around his neck. And this is the tame stuff.

The action and the campiness barrel along in entertaining counterpoint. You can laugh when you're not absorbed with truck chases. Van Damme's kicking skills get good play too. There's a great knockabout scene in which the robo-naif -- rediscovering the joys of eating -- orders up a mess of short-order food without the funds for it. He makes casual mincemeat of the muscle-bound regulars who try to teach him a lesson -- while still trying to finish his meal.

In the hysterically awful finale, Van Damme returns home to his parents in Louisiana, a pair of genial oldsters lifted straight from one of those feel-good TV commercials. The bewildered parents then spend the rest of the movie watching from the barn as Van Damme and Lundgren duke out their final round. As a fellow viewer suggested, that would have been the real funny story -- life on the farm with Mom, Pop and bionic Jean-Claude.

Now there's a movie.

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