Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Soldier (1998)

[Reiterated from an old blog]

Soldier was written by Blade Runner co-writer David Webb Peoples and, by extension, was done so, not as a sequel per se, but as separate story set amidst the cannon of Blade Runner's future as a distant Off-world exploit. Peoples himself referred to the film as a "sidequel". Soldier is also something of an antithesis to Blade Runner, the latter of which, being a sci-fi gumshoe noir, waxes uncertainty and ambiguity on virtually every level; here, the story is about as straightforward as you can get. This is an extremely basic action film about the quest for humanity and the strong defending the weak. Think of it as a hybrid of Rambo and Shane in outer space where formula and instantly recognizable themes are equaled only by unpretentiousness. Even the opening title credit telegraphs the no-nonsense mentality of the film as a whole.
Kurt Russell is Todd (simply Todd, or Sergeant Todd), a man who is not a man, but an automated tool of the military. Chosen from birth and harshly indoctrinated to such a degree in all things war, Todd and his kind are, by all accounts, functioning sociopaths. They do not execute orders; they essentially are the execution of orders, materialized as walking GI units with zero questioning, hesitation or any hint of reasoning that does not serve their command. And they certainly do not feel. Correction: they entirely feel.
But what they feel has been conditioned to a rudimentary vector of fear and discipline. And when asked how often they feel this, the answer is simple: "Always". Todd is only human biologically, as follows the arc of his character and the heart of the story. However, the extent to which he finds a soul is careful not to break credibility by undermining his pre-programmed militaristic nature with tact-on excess saccharine. Todd never becomes a softy; he just adds enough game-changing micronized compassion to his resume as a total killing machine. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.
The first problem Todd faces in opening act is his replacement by a new breed of tubie-soldiers, genetically engineered freaks with super physical attributes and a singular emotional drive that trades in fear for pure aggression. The two different makes are pitted against one another and Todd proves the lesser, an outdated model – still too human. His broken but-not-dead form is literally discarded as trash and dumped on the surface of a vast waste disposal planet called Arcadia 234. There, he strolls into a Western motif colony of peaceful scavengers who welcome him, albeit timidly, and thus sets up the 2nd act conflict of whether or not he can live amidst a semi-normal community, or if he can even connect with other people on basic human levels. The 3rd act comes full circle as the military roundtrips Arcadia 234 as a place to test their super-soldiers against the futilely armed colonist, and where Todd must step in as a lone wolf protector. The movie is 99 minutes. It feels even shorter, and it gets the job done.
First and foremost, let’s talk about Kurt Russell. In the hands of a two-dimensional action star the role of Todd could have been an unforgettable dud. In fact, see Jean-Claude Van Damn in the similar Universal Soldier as a perfect example. But Russell is a genuine actor who shapes himself a hardened blank exterior while slowly revealing the most subtle emotional nuances through his eyes, physical responses and speech. Speaking of speaking, Russell is limited to 79 lines of dialogue throughout the entire film and only with one or two exchanges does he communicate something other than dry operational jargon. Yet even with these fragmented verbal expressions does Russell maximize a great deal of angst and confusion, particularly when explaining tersely how he ended up astray:
"I was...replaced."
"By a better soldier, sir."
Most of Russell’s performance is conveyed through two varying forms of mannerism: the classic-yet-made-extreme Cowboy gestures of affirmation and steely resolve or befuddlement bordering on desperate reluctance when in close proximity to others. Note the latter when a beautiful woman tries to embrace him with sympathy; Todd all but malfunctions like a robot presented with intimacy for the first time. Said beauty is a mother and wife villager named Sandra played by Danish actress Connie Nielsen; blonde, long legged, and stunningly gorgeous. Her character unknowingly tempts Todd with sexual desire, but the story appropriately avoids any kind of building romance (though such prospects are left open-ended). Other familiars lend apt service to the film including Sean Pertwee as Sandra’s noble husband, Michael Chiklis as the village nice guy, Gary Busey as an old dog army Captain and Jason Isaacs as the sniveling General.
British director Paul W. S. Anderson has made and surprisingly maintained a career of helming B-movie entertainment with A-list studio backing. With the exception of Event Horizon, The Three Musketeers and his most recent Pompeii, most of his films, though watchable I suppose, are not really worth mentioning here or anywhere for that matter. Anderson is a generic filmmaker whose style of directing larger action set pieces seems to adhere to whatever the reigning trend. In the case of Soldier, firefights and explosions slip into pre-Matrix slow-motion by the bulk as a means to fill a scene with only half the volume of actual staging. It's thrifty at the very least. Anderson's action sequencing is so ham-fisted and toy-like that it borders on goofy. During the film's intro, Todd and his men step through a brief montage of changing battlefields that conclude with them traversing some distant lunar landscape right out of a comic book, sporting space suites and shooting (space bullets, I guess) in all directions. I dare you two things: 1) not to laugh at such juvenile imagery; and 2) not to secretly love it with boyhood 'gee-whiz' enthusiasm.
Yes, Anderson is generic, but not incompetent. His visual storytelling, though none too original, never falters and quieter scenes between characters even achieve a certain amount of dramatic poise. When Sandra first lays eyes on a bedridden Todd, she steps into four repeating frames, left to center, beginning with a master to master-medium to medium close-up and then full close-up. The effect is notably handsome in its composition. But what really lends Soldier its visual allure is David Tattersall's cinematography and its relationship with the film's production design. A color pallet of pinkish and gold hues that blend with flesh tones and endless dusk light that filters in through stained glass gives the aforementioned scene, among others, a warm vibrancy.
Spaceship interiors, on the other hand, have the look of a live-action cartoon with high-tech blues and greens while Arcadia's vistas are uniformly bronze. Even with a 75 million dollar budget, the film's deep space visual effects are markedly soft focus and look more like illustrated covers to 1980s Trapper Keepers. I'd be lying if I said I didn’t find this charming. Ditto for Joel McNeely's blunt musical score that marches along with all the finesse of those danger themes from heyday Republic Serials.
Soldier at its absolute best -- where action, story and character harmonize -- is the climax fight between Sergeant Todd and the elite mutant model Cain 607, played by Jason Scott Lee. Fight scenes in action movies are the ultimate expression of masculine will power and assertion, cathartic for the male audience who yearn to define themselves with fists. When Cain and Todd square off in the rain, nothing need be said. They put up their dukes and the shit promptly gets real. Martial combat ensues; blood, brawl and wreckage. Stats-wise, Todd is the inferior and cannot beat Cain by strength or speed alone. How he gains the upper hand conveys clearly his veteran experience and, furthermore, his genetically unmolested human advantage to think inventively. It is his defining moment.
The final shot in the film is a frontal of Kurt Russell holding a small boy in one arm and pointing out a spaceship window to the stars. As the camera pans in the object of their gaze, a swirling galaxy appears in the reflection of the glass, thereby overlapping their faces. It's one big hammy denouement for a hammy, cheese-ball film. I enjoy it.

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