Soldier (1998), or Kurt Russell’s Silent Treatment

13 04 2009

Flop is such an unflattering word. Flop is what happens when you dive into a pool wrong and bust your ass, or when you’re running and your willy-nilly man-boobs pat your chest like it was going through customs (personal experience), or the sound your hand makes on your body as you search for a Cheeto you dropped on yourself (personal experience). A flop is something that one should not be proud of. Is it a financial flop to make a movie for $75 million and only receive $15 million back? Why, sure! One could almost call that a catastrophe. But should that movie considered a flop because nobody watched it? Here is where I am dubious. I think that a movie’s merits or faults need to be based around WATCHING them first. Here at Cinematronica, it has been my own personal crusade to watch movies despite my own personal prejudices or the prejudices of the world at large. Today is a film which has been labeled infamously as a flop due to its poor box-office performance, its bare-bones dialog, and Kurt Russell’s ham-handed performance. On top of that, it’s directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, which just spells DANGER. But I have come to report that Soldier is not nearly as bad as everyone says. It is not good. Not by a long shot. But it is certainly not worthy of such infamy as one of the worst movies of all time.

It stars Kurt Russell as a soldier engineered from birth to be the ultimate killing machine. He and a few other men are chosen as infants by the military and trained at the earliest possible age to fight and to kill. We are taken through a montage of one child’s training in particular, named Todd. He is the best of the best, and we watch him grow and gather more knowledge in the various future battles he takes place in until he is aged 40, where he begins to look like Kurt Russell. Todd (now Sgt. Todd) is a soldier through and through at this point, and he is the best the military could have possibly come up with, but future scientists always seem to have a way of invalidating humanity. A smarmy Commander shows off a set of new genetically-engineered soldiers that are better than regular human soldiers in every way. This makes Sgt. Todd and his compatriots obsolete, so they are stripped 0f their rank and disposed of on a remote trash-disposal planet. On the planet, will Todd find the strength in his training and his humanity to fight back against these evil genetically-engineered usurpers and stop them from using their power to do something truly abominable?

The cinematographer must have been watching too much Leni Riefenstahl, because this movie is epic with a capital E. Every single shot is full of action gravitas. Kurt Russell is shown to be more like a statue than a human being at times, and many of the shots are really reaching for some sort of far-off and vague importance. The battles especially smack of a tacked-on weight that has no value of any kind to the film. A problem is that there is not enough emotion tied to any one character that make you care one way or the other. Todd can be a sympathetic character at times, but what does his discovery of humanity mean if he has no other drive than the discovery itself? It is a ship unmoored; without an emotional anchor all the shots could be of lantern-jawed men beating each other senseless and all it would represent to the audience is an ultra-violent View-Master.

But here is where I disagree with many other reviewers. Soldier is not that bad. It is without a doubt Paul W.S. Anderson’s best film, and although that might not say much to many people, it is high praise from someone who has watched this director be rewarded for his crash-and-burn movies with huge dividends for years now. The main reason for its minor successes might not even be Anderson, however, but screenwriter David Peoples. Peoples probably had a script in mind that probably infused a lot more subtlety into the film than what actually shined through in the finished product, but there are still some deeper issues raised here that even Anderson understood. If you’re willing to probe a bit, you can find a lot of questions here about the ethical treatment of soldiers and the dispensability of our men at arms that begs for a critical eye.

This is another hilarious installment of Oh, BOY! Did They Ever Get That Wrong! Sgt. Todd is born in 1996, so by the year 2038, when he is 40, we not only have the ability to travel through space all willy-nilly, but we have our own waste-disposal PLANET! Nice. Forget recycling; we just need to find a planet to dump our stuff on (I’m looking at you, Mars…). Plus, let’s not forget lasers and genetically engineered soldiers and battles in space. I somehow cannot see that happening in the next 30 years, but I am SUCH a pessimist sometimes.

Much has been made about Kurt Russell’s lack of dialog here. I think he only says about 80 words throughout the entire film, and this fact bothered a lot of people. My question to those people is simply this: why? He is a soldier; obviously he wouldn’t be a chatterbox. This was one of the things I actually enjoyed about the movie. Are there really that many people championing Kurt Russell’s speaking voice that it needs to be featured prominently in every single one of his works? I personally had no desire to hear any extraneous lines here, and it was a bit refreshing in an action movie to have the main character just shut up and kill something instead of funneling exposition and one-liners into my brain.

So, here’s what it comes down to for me. The script was well-written (not too extraordinarily produced on screen, but cest la vie), nobody talked to much, and the direction, while sophomoric and bland, was well beyond tolerable. It’s no glowing praise, but compared to some of the things said about this film, I’m being very generous here. The bottom line; this was a marginally better film than The Transporter, but people go ga-ga all over that unimportant Suit-Fu nonsense. It doesn’t make any sense, America, and until you all explain yourselves for calling this movie a flop and The Transporter great, I am giving Soldier 4 1/2 overly-advanced futures out of 10.

Come back tomorrow, where I take a gander at I Was A Teenage Werewolf!

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