Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren flex muscles in “Universal Soldier,” and Kim Basinger is just drawn that way in Ralph Bakshi’s animated nervous breakdown, “Cool World.”
Nutshell: After killing each other in Vietnam in 1969, army men Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren) have been reanimated in 1992, put to work as Universal Soldiers, a covert military program out to manufacture the perfect emotionless warrior. Flashing back to his Vietnam disturbances, Luc is snapped out of his medical trance, escaping the UniSol hive with help from curious news reporter Veronica (Ally Walker). Also reacquiring consciousness, Andrew returns to the depths of his war zone madness, traversing the American southwest to kill Luc once again.
1992: “Universal Soldier” represented a blossoming level of fame for Jean-Claude Van Damme. 1991’s “Double Impact” proved to skeptical studios that the Muscles from Brussels was able to attract an audience all on his own, creating a minor but noteworthy box office stir with his personal brand of martial art action, gradually replacing technique with frontal force meant to compete with the Schwarzeneggers of the day. “Universal Soldier” returned Van Damme to top-billed status, only this time the smirking bruiser would receive a prime summer release date and a foil in the form of Dolph Lundgren, a striking screen figure who could add a little Nordic spectacle to the production.
The director was Roland Emmerich, back when the name Roland Emmerich meant nothing to anyone outside of bottom-shelf adventurers who picked up the filmmaker’s sci-fi mishmash from 1990, “Moon 44.” “Universal Soldier” was Emmerich’s big shot, handed a Carolco Pictures gamble to shape, marking his first collaboration with actor-turned-screenwriter Dean Devlin. The pair went on to hit glorious genre home runs with “Stargate” and “Independence Day,” and then struck out with “Godzilla” and “The Patriot.” They haven’t teamed-up since. Last time I checked, few tears have been shed over the loss of this partnership.
Amazingly, I wasn’t as entranced with “Universal Soldier” as I was with “Double Impact.” I found it “dumb and violent,” which is a strange reaction to come from a 16-year-old boy who lived for such entertainment. For some reason, the onslaught of explosions and killing was a little too excessive for this wuss, leaving me with a mixed reaction to the film. I enjoyed Van Damme and Lundgren and their numerous slapfights, but little else about Emmerich’s angry picture. Such high, upstanding expectations for a noisy, ugly actioner? What the heck was wrong with me?
“Universal Soldier” did open at my five-plex, enjoying steady but unremarkable business for a few weeks. I do recall it was an awesome film to clean up after, since the end credits cranked up a single by Body Count, Ice-T’s impulsive attempt at fronting his own hardcore band. Raging guitars and angry vocals always made the vile process of garbage removal all the more amusing, with brooms and scoops turning into impromptu musical instruments when nobody was looking. I loved working that theater.
2012: “Universal Soldier” offers a concept with great potential, watered down by Emmerich and his blunt action instincts. It’s a flimsy genre presentation that aches to be something more, with semi-futuristic touches that come off flat and action beats that are ridiculous at times. There’s a decent bit of escapism in here somewhere, but Emmerich doesn’t possess the finesse to make the material rampage as it should. Watching “Universal Soldier” is like waiting impatiently for Christmas morning, only to receive socks and pajamas as presents.
Caught somewhere between a road picture and a wrestling match, “Universal Soldier” has its entertaining moments. Enjoying a larger budget to expand his thespian horizons, Van Damme is agreeably goofy as Luc, a haunted grunt fighting his reprogramming while making his way back to visit his parents. I wouldn’t call it acting, but what the star does here is certainly a pass at robotic awareness, enjoying some comedic touches as the rogue UniSol gobbles down plate after plate of diner food, or asking Veronica to search his naked body for “something hard,” hunting for an implanted tracking device.
Actually, he’s pretty cheeky throughout the movie.
Van Damme is relaxed here, relishing the ride, also enjoying winning fisticuffs chemistry with Lundgren, who’s more imposing than evil, cursed with a squeaky, nasally voice that undermines Andrew’s reign of terror. However, the addition of a human ear necklace for the psychotic UniSol is an enjoyably macabre touch, providing some needed ick in a polished, programmed feature.
While the picture demolishes diners, motels, and farms, there’s never a sense of exhilaration to “Universal Soldier” that snaps it to full attention. It’s not exactly schlock and it’s too tame to be classified as an extravaganza, caught somewhere in the middle, waiting patiently for a cue to go hog wild that never arrives. The tech credits are solid and the locations, including an opening UniSol assault at Hoover Dam, are pleasingly sun-blasted. I just wish the movie were more fun. With these beefy leads and a premise of indestructible, undead soldiers, there’s no reason for the effort to limp along, waiting for the next opportunity to blow something up or wreck a perfectly good truck. Emmerich doesn’t pump up the energy, leaving “Universal Soldier” in a frustrating holding pattern.
While the film slumps to a close, the Body Count end credit blast remains supa-sweet.
Of course, there were sequels. Oddly, the producers elected to continue the UniSol adventure in two DTV follow-ups unrelated to the Luc Deveraux saga. Van Damme returned to the role in 1999’s “official” sequel, “Universal Soldier: The Return,” which was a complete disaster. Interestingly, 2009’s “Universal Soldier: Regeneration” brought both Van Damme and Lundgren back to the franchise, finding an ideal tone of spare violence to match the dour premise, rising above DTV junk to achieve a satisfying mood for the aging series. It’s strange to still be encountering “Universal Soldier” product 20 years later, clearly signifying how potent the brand name remains. Or maybe fans are just waiting for the return of the ear necklace, dutifully snatching up tickets and DVDs with hopes to spy Andrew Scott’s finest hour of jewelry design once again.
Nutshell: Fresh out of prison, cartoonist Jack Deebs (Gabriel Byrne) finds himself randomly pulled into Cool World, a boisterous land of animated characters (aka “Doodles”), where Holli Would (Kim Basinger) awaits, hoping to have sex with the “Noid” and join the land of the living. Also patrolling the Cool World scene is Frank Harris (Brad Pitt), a cop sucked into this ink and paint landscape in the 1940s after suffering a traumatic loss, unwilling to return to human life. Knowing the evil Holli is capable of, Franks warns Jack of her intentions. Nevertheless, Jack can’t say no to a Doodle of this caliber, soon unleashing Holli’s wrath on Las Vegas, where control of a magical Time Spike is all that stands between the humans and a destructive Doodle revolution.
1992: “Cool World” was my introduction to the universe of Ralph Bakshi, a director who specialized in provocative animated pictures such as “Fritz the Cat” and “Coonskin,” soon moving over to fantasy fare like “Wizards” and “The Lord of the Rings.” Of course, I had no idea who the man was when I bought a ticket to see “Cool World” on an innocent Saturday afternoon in July of 1992. I was there strictly to ogle an animated Kim Basinger, who, as Holli Would, was the focal point of the movie’s marketing blitz, promising a naughty ride to filmgoers interested in something a little different from the traditional animated routine.
Of course, “Cool World” was PG-13 (boooo!), leaving true perversion out of the question, but I had my hopes up. What the picture turned out to be was something far more bizarre and erratic, filling the screen with a tuneless tune that merged live-action with Bakshi-branded animation, straining to be a tawdry slapstick comedy that eventually failed to achieve every single one of its goals. It was colorful and, at times, charmingly anarchic, but “Cool World” was an absolute jumble. The Brichives label it “confusing,” also remarking, “Intentions are good, but the delivery is awful.”
While “Cool World” didn’t pan out as a force of titillation or moviemaking competence, it did trigger a curiosity about Bakshi that continues to haunt me to this day. A maverick director who loves to share his opinion, Bakshi is something a cartoon character himself, creating wildly uneven, yet boldly cinematic pictures, most carrying an equal weight of brilliance and tackiness. He’s a polarizing figure with film fans, but a creative type I’m endlessly fascinated with. I have to thank “Cool World” for bringing me to Bakshi’s doorstep, where I went on to discover amazing sights and sounds, along with a few things I’m still trying to unsee to this day.
2012: I wouldn’t defend “Cool World” in a court of cinematic law, but I must admit that it’s one of the most interesting conceptual wipe-outs I’ve screened in my lifetime. The internet tells me that Bakshi’s original vision for the effort was pulled apart by producers suddenly coming to the realization that the film they were about to pour money into had zero commercial value. Invest in this filmmaker’s vision, and that result is bound to happen. Major rewrites and a little star hustle from Basinger contorted whatever “Cool World” was supposed to be, and the movie has a distinctively unsupervised look, with two disparate tones (sexual and slapstick) competing for screentime, trying to keep in tune like a one-man-band wobbling on a single roller skate.
Although it’s roughly animated, “Cool World” has an appealing Bakshi look about it, displaying a hyper world of cartoon behavior and hallucinatory imagery, where flashes of animation appear onscreen for no real reason (it’s Cool World, baby, your guess is as good as mine), while manic Tex Avery-style violence (and Disney Animation tributes) zoom around the backgrounds, adding to the surreal atmosphere of the feature. It’s a colorful, unpredictable movie, which is a good thing, since the story is basically held together by spit and prayers, trying to make sense out of this purging of Bakshi’s psychological wonderland. It’s a saucy picture when dealing with Holli’s lustful urgings with Jack, but also strangely sentimental, tackling Frank’s chaste relationship with a Doodle, a lustful drawing unwilling to endure her sexual frustration in the name of love.
“Cool World” is a mess, a fact that’s written across the face of every live-action actor in this picture. Byrne never seems to fully understand what he’s supposed to be doing here, playing bewilderment with a realism that essentially authenticates the alleged backstage strife. Pitt, all kitten purr and Superman hair, appears more comfortable with his ‘toon interactions, playing up the ‘40’s detective routine with some degree of ease. Basinger has the outward hubba-hubba appeal for Holli, but she’s never been an agreeable comedienne. It’s actually quite refreshing to see Basinger play up the sex bomb’s evil nature, but the laughs never come. It’s a physical performance from an actress used to mastering close-ups and cleavage. Basinger’s Holli is suitably tempting but lacks an otherworldly screen presence, basically here to coo and kill, not generate a vibrant villainess in a feature that could use some genuine focus.
“Cool World” isn’t difficult to watch (there’s too much insanity floating around to be bored), it’s just impossible to digest, absent any grounded activities that could elevate the viewing experience past weirdo cartoon diarrhea. Even when he can’t control a film, Bakshi still remains an intriguing filmmaker, able to burp up enough oddity to hold out hope that structure and sense is about to kick in at any moment. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Bakshi product if it were entirely approachable. He’s a nut, but a fascinating one.
Coming next week…
Rick Moranis can’t catch a break.
And Melanie Griffith puts the S-E-X in Shiksa.