AGAINST THE GRAIN: Soldier (1998)

Kurt Russell is on a mission to kill ‘em all, sir, in this underrated sci-fi actioner. 

1998’s Soldier is a science fiction action film written by David Webb Peoples. For those unaware, Peoples co-wrote Blade Runner and Twelve Monkeys, and scripted Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, among several other credits. The writer actually considers Soldier to be a spiritual cousin to Blade Runner, and a “side-quel” since it takes place in the same filmic universe. However, Soldier is also directed by Paul W.S. Anderson (not to be confused with Paul Thomas Anderson), a director who likes to make trashy action flicks and who gets a lot of flack for his efforts. Hence, while Peoples’ script might have been more substantive at some stage, the end result is merely an entertaining action film with a few nice ideas, and it works in that sense. It’s a shallow macho guy film, a blood-and-bullet fest beset with R-rated content destined to appeal to its target market.

Sergeant Todd (Kurt Russell) is a hardened soldier trained from birth, indoctrinated to be a killing machine who carries out orders without a second thought. Every emotion has been leeched out of him after decades of fighting in various wars and campaigns. However, the ambitious Colonel Mekum (Jason Isaacs) introduces a new breed of genetically engineered soldiers that are younger, faster, stronger and better than their predecessors, rendering Todd and his comrades obsolete. Discarded after being bested by Mekum’s finest soldier, Todd is dumped on a planet inhabited by a small band of stranded colonists. Although Todd is accepted into their community, trouble looms when Mekum arrives on the planet to put his new soldiers through a training exercise. He deems the colonists’ presence as unlawful and orders their termination, but Todd is unwilling to let that happen.

To the credit of Peoples and Anderson, Soldier takes its time to build the characters and observe Todd as he struggles to ingratiate himself into a more peaceful culture. Peoples’ script has a number of things on its mind, exploring if it’s possible for a lifelong killing machine to assimilate themselves back into society. It doesn’t exactly explore the concept with any real depth, but it gives what’s essentially a dumb action film some thematic relevance. However, the narrative here plays out like any generic “new guy moves into town and saves the townspeople” flick (Shane, anyone?), and it doesn’t contain many original elements. As a matter of fact, it borrows from any number of films, including Aliens and Rambo. Also problematic: Mekum’s motivation for heading to the planet to decimate the populace is completely flimsy, leaving us to just shrug and accept the contrived behaviour.

Anderson gets a lot of hate for his movies, but he knows how to construct fluid and exciting action scenes. The fight choreography here is solid, and the gun battles are badass. When Todd cuts loose and sets out to eliminate his opponents, Soldier is insanely entertaining, guaranteed to leave you with a big dumb grin on your face. It’s the type of red-blooded American action film we saw so often back in the 80s when the “one man army” genre was so prominent (Rambo 2Commando). The production values here impress as well, as to be expected from a well-budgeted $60 million film. Although a few special effect shots look dated (especially an explosion at the end), this only amplifies the fun factor. If you come to Soldier seeking an evening of pure popcorn entertainment, then rest assured that it delivers in a big way. It’s definitely cheesy, but that’s all part of the picture’s charm. They don’t make enjoyably goofy flicks like this any more.

Russell was handed a tough task in portraying Todd. Although the star is on-screen practically all the time, he only says about 100 words throughout the entire movie. Instead of using words to convey his character’s feelings, Russell had to do all the heavy lifting with facial expressions and body language. And he pulls it off beautifully. It’s a terrifically nuanced performance, showing that Russell is a better actor than he gets credit for. Also in the cast is Isaacs, who essentially plays a cartoonish, moustache-twirling villain. It’s a cheesy role, but Isaacs seems to be in on the spirit. Gary Busey is here as well, showing us why every movie can benefit from a touch of his madness.

With a few rewrites, Soldier could’ve been a thoughtful sci-fi action masterpiece. As it stands, this is just a ridiculously entertaining blockbuster overseen by a veteran purveyor of filmic junk food. Unfortunately, the film was a box office disaster, grossing less than $15 million at the domestic box office and predominantly going straight-to-video in the rest of the world. The critics used it as a punching bag, as well. But it matters not. As long as you can accept the movie for what it is, it’s a blast.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Kurt Russell sustained a broken ankle during the first week of filming, and got a week off. When he came back, all of the scenes where he was laying down were filmed. They followed that with the sitting-down scenes, then the standing-still scenes. Finally, the action scenes were shot. The last scene filmed was the “running” scene between Todd and Caine 607 near the beginning of the movie.
  • Among the garbage on the planet is the USS Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the F-117X Remora from Executive Decision, a spinner from Blade Runner, and a piece of the Lewis & Clark from Event Horizon.
  • The trailer featured a spectacular space battle involving 20-30 ships around a planet. The film contained no such scene, nor could it plausibly have done so except perhaps as a flashback. It was probably a marketing ploy.
  • Todd’s service record, displayed on a computer screen, includes the following: – The battles of Tannhauser Gate and Shoulder of Orion (references to Blade Runner) – Receipt of the “Plissken Patch” (reference to Escape from New York and its sequel Escape from L.A.). Receipt of the “O’Neil Ring Award” (reference to Stargate) – Receipt of the “Cash Medal of Honor” (reference to Tango & Cash) Receipt of the “Maccready Cross” (reference to The Thing) – Receipt of the “Capt Ron Trophy” (reference to Captain Ron) – Receipt of the “McCaffrey Fire Award” (reference to Backdraft) – Receipt of the “Dexter Riley Award” (reference to The Strongest Man in the WorldNow You See Him, Now You Don’tThe Computer Wore Tennis Shoes) – Citations for the Nibian Moons Campaign, the Antares Maelstrom War and the War Of Perdition’s Flames, locations referred to in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

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