27 March 2011

Soldier (1998)

Soldier a Nice Little SF Movie
By Kristin Battestella

It took fore-ev-er for the 1998 film Soldier to arrive from Netflix, and I confess I held onto it a little bit longer than I should have just to make someone else have the ‘very long wait’.  For such a relatively dismissed and unloved sf action yarn, somebody is obviously still watching!

Bred from birth to be a soldier, Sergeant Todd (Kurt Russell) is replaced after forty years of deadly service by the new, elite model Caine 607 (Jason Scott Lee).  Thought dead, Todd is dumped on the waste planet Arcadia 234.  He survives the brutal conditions there and is rescued by Mace (Sean Pertwee) and his wife Sandra (Connie Neilson) – members of a community of crashed space travelers building a meager life out of the junk dumped on the planet.  Colonel Mekum (Jason Isaacs) wants to test Caine and his new soldiers and chooses Arcadia 234 as the site of his training exercises.  Despite initial resentment from the community, Todd helps defend his newfound society now that they have been deemed hostile by his replacements.

Perhaps because it was supposed to be a big budget action fest, we expect something more from Soldier and director Paul W. S. Anderson (Resident Evil, Alien vs. Predator) and writer David Peoples (Blade Runner, Ladyhawke, Twelve Monkeys). Though I don’t know why- thus far I’ve actually liked everything I’ve seen Anderson involved with; and the source screenplay and story are originally from sf literary master Harlan Ellison- and Harlan Ellison is, well, Harlan Ellison. When looking at the film with an intelligentsia perspective, it’s actually quite an intriguing little science fiction dilemma.  Yes, some of Soldier plays small like its Ellison predecessor- an original Outer Limits episode. This is probably why the action and design style look kind of hokey and not up to cinematic par.  But what’s wrong with having a science fiction action film that provides as much- if not more- food for thought over run and gun fighting eye candy? Are genetically engineered soldiers better than those trained to kill at birth?  Do those out-dated not deserve the right to defend their existence?  Can such extreme conditioning be overcome with something so seemingly useless as compassion? If compassion can defeat all ills, then why not let it?  It’s perfectly acceptable for a society to cut out its ills if it must- yet the crash survivors’ initial reaction is to help a man in need.  Which is right? Why does either have to be wrong? I just love sociological science fiction allegory!

SoldierWell, if it really came down to Kurt Russell (Escape from New York, Overboard, Stargate) and Jason Scott Lee (Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, The Jungle Book, Rapa Nui) in a fight, it would certainly be very easy to put your money on the younger and pumped Lee.  This is the exact dilemma that Soldier presents.  Russell, however, makes it very easy to feel for his character, and Lee likewise enjoys the villainy. Can one change once he is deemed obsolete? Are you truly superior if you lose all essence of the human condition? Russell conveys Todd’s badass and his somber in cool moves and little dialogue. Sure, his clipped delivery is a little stilted and often hokey, but Todd is not meant to handle conversation. And when was the last time we had the lead in a big flick speak so clunky and so little- Conan the Barbarian? Maybe someone else could have done a better job, but Russell does all right. His awkwardness at kindness, children, even hugging wonderfully says more- and the way his soldier style benefits his new community is also delightful.  See the bigger picture, people! Can a man have both affection and strength and not be weak or out of date? Lee’s ruthless steamrolling mentality is a wonderful contrast as well.  Where Todd seems almost a broken, traumatized case, Caine is styled as an unyielding sociopath- and that is supposed to be the efficient next step. Where one can be fixed, or at least accepted, the other cannot.

Naturally, a woman goes a long way in creating house and home, doesn’t she? Connie Neilson (Gladiator, The Devil’s Advocate) is lovely and warm and you have to wonder on the latent kinky possibilities between Sandra and Todd.  Sean Pertwee (Dog Soldiers, Camelot) and Michael Chiklis (The Commish, The Shield) are also great at being middle of the road guys who accept and befriend Todd, extreme conditioning and all. As much as we have teased Gary Busey (The Buddy Holly Story, Under Siege) in recent years or love to see him play the crazy jerk, his aptly named Captain Church is actually a wonderfully harsh good guy.  Of course, oft baddie Jason Isaacs (The Patriot, Harry Potter) is typecast as a villain, yes, but he’s just so dang good at it!  

Loud bangs and booms, naturally, are super loud against the soft dialogue- but there are enough chunks of both action montages early and quiet conversations in between to relax on the volume control.  Fortunately, there are subtitles on the DVD to fix all that, too.  The outer space shots and distant, supposedly otherworldly panoramas, however, look kind of crappy.  Yes, they live on a bleak and trash heap ridden dusty planet, but ergo Soldier also looks like a load of junk.  If you were flicking through the channels and came across the supposedly big and dusty action finale here, you’d probably snark and pass on by- especially in comparison to our much beloved CGI. Thankfully, the effects aren’t meant to be the essence of the picture here, coughavatarcough, and the drama of a well told concept wins.  Though there’s good old R violence and some innuendo, tweens and anyone who can appreciate substance with their sci-fi can enjoy Soldier. Though elusive, the DVD is well worth the wait- er hunt.

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