Saturday, 6 April 2013

Soldier (1998)

A sci-fi action  movie directed by Paul W. S. Anderson may be enough to make most sane cinema fans reach for the "Off" button, but this is one of his better films, improved no end by a superb central performance from Kurt Russell. I'll be honest, I tend to enjoy Anderson's movies. Okay, the second Resident Evil movie was really painful, but the rest of the franchise has provided me with a lot of mindless fun (in fact, here is my overview of the franchise with more recent releases available in the Flickfeast sidebar). However, those movies don't matter. Anderson used to make better films. I also enjoyed Mortal Kombat, sue me. Event Horizon remains his best film, but Soldier comes close.

It's a shame that this movie was released so unceremoniously here in the UK, being judged a bit of a flop. It was, at the time, the most expensive movie to be released direct to DVD over here, with some people criticising the fact that such a large chunk of the $75M budget had gone to Russell, given a big paycheck for a role that saw him uttering barely over 100 words. It's easy to put on rose-tinted glasses nowadays and bemoan the fact that audiences neglected to help out a great film, but that would be lying. Soldier is good, almost very good, and it deserved better than the treatment it received, but it's not great.

So, what's the actual plot? Well, Kurt Russell plays Todd 3465, a super-soldier. He's one of a group of tough, obedient, young men selected and birth and brought up to know nothing but the military life. He's so tough that he accepts orders from Gary Busey without batting an eyelid. Sadly, or maybe not so sadly, that regimented life is disrupted when Jason Isaacs comes along with new and improved super-soldiers. He asks to pit one of his men against a number of Busey's men and so Jason Scott Lee fights a group of people, including Todd. The older models put up a valiant attempt, but it's no good. New blood is taking over. The soldiers are no longer needed, which leads to Todd being dumped on a planet like an old washing machine that's broken down beyond repair. Thankfully, the planet isn't as uninhabited as everyone else thinks it is, and Todd soon meets a bunch of people (including Sean Pertwee and Connie Nielsen) who try to befriend him and allow him to become part of their community. It just remains to be seen whether or not he can stop being a trained killer, but maybe that's just what the people need in case anyone else ends up on the planet.

This kind of thing has been done many times before, the old guard facing off against the new, and it's a solid premise brought to life by a solid cast. Anderson does okay in the director's seat, thankfully resisting the temptation to chop the thing up into an unwatchable mess, and he's given a decent, though sparse, script by David Webb Peoples to work from. Peoples claims that the movie is a side-quel to Blade Runner, which he also wrote, and there is fun to be had in spotting the little nods and references to many other films (though you may need to keep pausing the film to find them all).

Russell is excellent as Todd, a man almost made into a machine, but all too vulnerable. He's able to gain sympathy, despite not really being a warm and winning personality because it's completely outwith his control. He is what he is, others did it to him, and perhaps others can restore his humanity. Sean Pertwee and Connie Nielsen are fine as a pair of decent folk who try to remain optimistic, even as Todd puts other people on edge. Gary Busey is, surprisingly, one of the good guys, in a way, but Jason Isaacs really goes to town with his role, and Jason Scott Lee is certainly intimidating enough as Todd's main foe (not actually a villain, really, Isaacs remains the villain). Mark Bringelson is also good fun as someone aligning himself with either Busey or Isaacs, depending on how he sees things developing.

While it may be a bit slow for some people, especially in the middle section, this is a very enjoyable sci-fi action flick that benefits from some decent design work and action sequences that really do pack a punch. Russell and Lee really convince on the physical front, easily selling themselves as the super-soldiers that the movie needs. If you swore a long time ago that you would never watch a Paul W. S. Anderson movie, maybe just give this one a chance and see what you think. When all is said and done, you can still avoid the Resident Evil movies for the rest of your life if you want to.


Check this screencap carefully to spot a few of the many little references in the film.

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