Here at “The Erratic Narrative” we’re embarking on a new (and, as always, erratic and a little sweary) series of posts, entitled ‘(Not Quite) Masterpiece Theatre’, where we will examine a variety of perhaps forgotten, but certainly underappreciated (or just flat out hated) “almost, but not quite” pieces of cinema across the genres. These are movies that, at the time (and possibly still), were treated poorly by critics and audiences alike, but over the years, like a great (or at least drinkable) wine, have stuck like mold to the edge of our tasting glass.
First up, an absolute beauty! I vividly remember watching the VHS tape and thinking: “This one’s a keeper!”. The very definition of a (not quite) masterpiece: Soldier.
Way back in 1998, fresh on the heels of his breakthrough indie hit, Boogie Nights, master filmmaker, Paul Anderson made the much underappreciated dystopian sci-fi action thriller, Soldier, starring Kurt Russell, from a script…aah…by David Webb Peoples of…errr…what?! What is it?!…What did you say?…wait a second – are you sure?…Um…okay…
So, what I was saying, about Paul Anderson? Yeah, well, turns out it was the other Paul Anderson. ‘W.S.’, not ‘Thomas’. You know, the guy who directed Mortal Kombat, and Event Horizon, and those endless series of Resident Evil movies. Wow! That explains so much now. Like, why Solider is fairly shit compared to say, Magnolia or There Will Be Blood.
Still, while Soldier mightn’t compare to those actual masterpieces, it does have two most important qualities that elevate it into the annals of (Not Quite) Masterpiece Theatre: 1) Kurt Russell – the ex-Disney action-adventure-comedy-thriller movie star equivalent of Daniel Day Lewis – whose performance keeps this movie on track, and; 2) the real star of the movie, the screenplay by David Webb Peoples. There is also something to be said for the design and direction, as well. More on all three later, but first a quick, relatively spoiler free synopsis.
Soldier tells the story of Todd 3465, the titular soldier of the movie, who was raised since infancy by a fascistic military apparatus to be the perfect solider: unthinking, obedient, efficient, aggressive, emotionless. Over the decades he performs above and beyond, gunning down whomever stands in the way of the mission: women, children, pets. However, he’s also a human man. Yes, a highly disciplined, extremely well trained man, but, nonetheless, just a man – and he ages.
Enter Caine 607 (played with relish by Jason Scott Lee, from the criminally underrated “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story” – maybe another contender for this series), part of a new cadre of genetically engineered ‘super soldiers’, designed to be superior to their standard counterparts. Caine and Todd (along with two of his comrades) are pitted against one another, and, of course, Caine comes out victorious (though loses an eye in the process – much to the chagrin of his commander, played by the always impeccably evil, Jason Isaacs). The defeated Todd and his two dead buddies are then unceremoniously dumped on Arcadia 234 (this movie’s obsession with giving everything a numeral suffix!), a waste disposal planet.
But – shock – Todd is not dead! He struggles across the harsh wilderness and eventually stumbles onto a community of ‘simple, peace-and-democracy loving folk’, who have made their ‘utopia’ on this trash pile of a world. Naturally, Todd, with his uncompromising, militaristic outlook, finds adaptation to his new situation extremely difficult – as do the understanding, but concerned citizens – regardless of the nurturing attention of the glamorous but caring (of course!) Scandinavian star, Connie Nielsen. Can they ever find a common ground? Or do Todd’s special training and skills, now seemingly redundant, make him a threat to the community?
If that makes Soldier come across a little ‘human drama’, well, that’s because the ‘human drama’ of the screenplay is the beating heart of the film. It’s what lifts Soldier up from the typical ’90’s sci-fi dross that it resembles at times. Of course, this is a Paul W.S. Anderson film, so there’s plenty of ’90’s action film schlock: the slow motion walk toward camera, enormous machine-gun in hand; the stylised lighting; the eroticisation of guns and violence…and putting on camouflage face paint, apparently. Nonetheless, Peoples’ well-crafted and, at times, sensitive screenplay, and Russell’s committed performance, make Soldier a timeless, if flawed gem.
Here is the US trailer – don’t recall it ever showing here – which does a surprisingly good job of making Soldier look a little more accomplished than the final result:
David Webb Peoples might just be the most underrated screenwriter in modern, Hollywood history. Read these credits: Ladyhawke; Salute of the Jugger (also known as The Blood of Heroes – and another that will probably feature in this series at some point); 12 Monkeys; Blade Runner; and Unforgiven. That is one shit-hot CV! Peoples (who often writes with others, including his wife, Janet) is both a master of genre tropes, and a master of peeling away the layers to reveal the truth behind the genre. For he is, if nothing else, a thoroughly committed truth teller. Bullshit rarely, if ever, sneaks into any of his screenplays. They are unsentimental, but often moving. They feature familiar figures of the genre, however they’re rich and layered and cannot always be slotted into simple categories. This is certainly true of almost everyone in Soldier (okay, so maybe not Isaacs’ character, but who cares – that moustache!), from the minor members of the community, all the way to Russell’s Todd.
Like Peoples, Russell is a deeply, deeply underrated actor. One look at his filmography reveals not only that he is am immense workhorse (from 1980 until 1998 he appeared in an average of 1.4 films a year – and these are 97% leading roles – a statistic which picked up again from 2001 until today, though the roles are now rarely main parts), but that he is an actor of immense, if unequaled range. Big call? Think about it: Stargate; The Thing; Executive Decision; Breakdown; Overboard – who, other than maybe Meryl Streep (maybe), comes close? Not Daniel Day-Lewis. Not Cate Blanchett. And it’s Russell’s committed performance as Todd 3465, realising the potential on Peoples’ pages, that makes Soldier soar.
By 1998, Russell career as a ‘leading man’ had somewhat stalled after a solid 6-7 years, and Soldier was it’s sputtering zenith. Still, Russell’s performance is arguably the finest of that period, both in its commitment and its skill. Todd 3465 is not a simple, stone-faced killer, and Russell doesn’t portray him as such. Through Russell’s subtle performance we witness Todd’s emotional deconstruction and re-humanisation. You can easily imagine a Stallone (well, he could probably bring it, but he might struggle with the steeliness required) or a Schwarzenegger or a Snipes phoning in token emotions. Not Russell. He’s there, because he’s actually a fine actor. He lifts Todd off the page and makes him real. And true to Peoples’ uncompromising writing, Russell delivers an uncompromising performance. No easy answers in Russell’s Todd – reminiscent of Peoples’ William Munny in the Unforgiven screenplay.
Politically, Soldier is somewhat typical of its day: yeah, democracy and peace is nice and all, but sometimes you just need a big, ripped dude with lots of guns to go in and sort stuff out. This is the genre part of the story, and it’s deeply unoriginal and by-the-numbers. But, frankly, who cares – it’s Todd’s journey that fascinates, and that’s down to the solid writing and acting. Fortunately, for the most part, director Anderson stays out of the way and lets them do their thing.
That’s Soldier in somewhat more than a nutshell. And if this doesn’t convince you to give Soldier a red hot go, then watch this minute long clip from Act 3 of the movie and see the whole thing distilled into 5 simple lines of dialogue from Kurt Russell (In fact, Russell actually only speaks 104 words of dialogue the entire film – most of them here, I suspect):
Ooh yeah! At that point I was pretty sure I wished Kurt Russell had kidnapped me as an infant and taken me out to his shack to raise me in the wilderness and surviving by fighting wolves with only my bare hands.
“…I’m going to kill them all, sir” *shivers*