Soldier (1998) – Movie Review

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This movie has a lot of problems, and they all stem from the same source: it’s kind of dumb. But! It wasn’t really meant to be, and there are places where the strength of the concept carries through. (That would work for a TLDR, I guess.)

The screenplay is by David Webb Peoples, who wrote/is credited for working on Blade Runner and Unforgiven; but it’s also directed by Paul Anderson, whose filmography seems to be mindless action movies. The original script (or at the one available online) had quite a lot of additional scenes that were flat-out cut from the finished movie, scenes which would have added character, subtlety, and interest.

All in all, most of its issues boil down to two central issues: 1) this was an attempt to write military scifi without realizing that most mil-sf is based not on other fiction but on distorted historical events, and 2), it’s dumb.

Here’s why: the director was incapable of coming up with a clever plot or of finding and stealing some interesting historical event, suitably tweaked for the constraints of budget and theme; incapable of envisioning clever action scenes and/or presenting his vision clearly; and most of the meat of the script’s final act was removed from the final film. If you surgically remove all characterization from your screenplay and personality from your side characters, people won’t care what happens to them. If you don’t bother to think through and set up your plotlines, show the audience your locations, and clearly outline your conflicts, then your story won’t have any grounding and the audience will have that much harder a time following it. And if you haven’t got the brains to come up with clever action concepts, then your action scenes will fall flat.

Question: How do you make a first-act knife fight exciting? (Pick one only)

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Guess which one they went with? No, go on, guess.

a) Choreograph it well and film it from tense, exciting angles;
b) Overlay it with a pounding, exciting score
c) Have known characters fighting for known stakes
d) Make them fight while hanging on to chains thirty feet off the ground.

The battle I read had a lot going on. There were several groups in peril, named characters fighting, and there was even space for bits of humor. (Colonist runs to fetch two fire axes. Enemy soldier looms up out of nowhere, glowers, snatches one axe, and walks back into the smoke. Colonist gulps and continues on his way. Other colonist asks why didn’t he bring two axes? “A soldier took it! You wanna go get it, get it yourself!”) The final cut has none of these touches. Instead of having people fighting for their lives with intelligence and determination, drama is provided by the old standby: place children in peril. In fact, that’s the only source of drama throughout the entire fight. I’m not even exaggerating. Soldiers round a corner? Kids. Soldiers in the open? Kids. Soldiers kick in a door? Kids. It’s lazy and insulting and it’s not even very well filmed.

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And the worldbuilding isn’t great. There are some hints that this takes place in the Blade Runner world, but hints only they remain, and we are left with some pretty large questions, like: what sort of oversight does this military have that the-basically-murders of three of them in “training accidents” just gets ignored? What government does this military work for? Why are they doing fake field exercises on random planets and how come they have license to attack whatever random civilians they find on those planets? These are indeed questions, but! They are questions that the author needs to have clearly understood in order to casually condense it for the audience. A few lines of background chatter, a scene in front of a government memorial building (is the architecture Brutalist? Neoclassical? Baroque? Is there a giant monument to soldiers, or to civilians?), a reville with a flag prominently displayed…that’s all you need to give the audience enough context to work out their own understanding of the situation. And yes, that’s hours of hard work (thinking is hard when you’re Hollywood) for the writer, but it’s also a better product.

Or even better yet? Find some weird little situation that happened somewhere in Burma in the 1800s, ctrl-F “British” with “Federation” and “Lee-Enfield*” with “blaster” and you’re golden. You can even skip most of the hard thinking and it’ll still have a great result. *(Or, uh, whatever they¬†did use in Burma in the 1800s).

Anyhow, so, is this movie worth watching? Well…kinda, and the reason it is is Kurt Russell.mv5bmty4ntqymtu1ml5bml5banbnxkftztywotu2nza3._v1_ The man goes all out for this movie, and with only about a hundred lines, he gives the part his wordlessly emotive best effort. The man wanted that paycheck and damnned if he doesn’t go for it. And there are some other familiar faces in here too–Gary Busey giving what’s actually a fairly toned-down and quiet performance as the captain who is slightly more decent than the lieutenant and way more decent than the colonel; Jason Isaacs as the incompetently arrogant colonel who gets a very satisfying comeuppance after he comes face to face with a real Soldier; and Sean Pertwee as “the other guy inconveniently married to the female lead and even more inconveniently a decent guy” is, well, a decent, understandable guy. Connie Nielson, as the female lead, is underwhelming, possibly because the script gives her very little to do except feed straight lines to Kurt Russell. (“What are you going to do?” “I’m going to kill them all, sir.”)

The other reason is the sets. This movie was made in the great old days of the 90s, when if you wanted something to look military you made it blocky and painted it green, and if you wanted to have a giant crawling vehicle wrecking stuff you went out and bolted stuff to a bulldozer and then filmed it wrecking stuff. Nothing’s sleek, everything’s beaten-up and slightly scuffed–including the actors–and nothing is CGI. Basically, the sets are kind of awesome in the way you don’t see these days. Me likey.

And there are some very good individual scenes, especially when Kurt Russell is emoting at things and/or blowing them up.

And….that’s about it.

Rated: Your reviewers are obsolete.