Do you remember "Shane," the old Alan Ladd Western where a retired gunslinger saves a peace-loving family of homesteaders from evil cattle barons out to steal their land? Transplant that scenario to outer space and you have 1998's sci-fi action thriller "Soldier."
"Shane. Shane, come back."
How do we know this is a sci-fi action thriller before it even starts? Because the director is Paul Anderson (a.k.a. Paul W.S. Anderson to differentiate him from Paul Thomas Anderson and any other Paul Andersons out there), a guy who specializes in sci-fi and fantasy action like "Mortal Kombat," "Event Horizon," "Resident Evil," "AVP: Alien vs. Predator," and "Death Race." He doesn't do it as well as many critics would like, but it does do it loud.
Another way we know this is an action picture is its star: Kurt Russell. After an early stint with Disney films, Russell moved into the action genre with "Escape from New York," "The Thing," "Big Trouble in Little China," "Tango and Cash," "Escape from L.A.," "Poseidon," etc. He's a very physical actor who looks good with his shirt off and his fists flying.
However, maybe the most surprising thing about this low-grade action thriller is that a high-grade screenwriter, David Webb Peoples ("Blade Runner," "Lady Hawke," "Leviathan," "Unforgiven," "Twelve Monkeys") wrote it. I guess everybody has an off day.
The premise of this one is pretty simple: In 1996, "the year zero," the U.S. Government instituted the Adam Project, an instruction and training program for a select group of young men to become ultimate warriors, perfect soldiers. The project taught highly qualified students to be fearless, cunning, resourceful, merciless, and, above all, loyal without question. After the indoctrination and schooling, the men become more like machines than humans. Sgt. Todd 3465 (Russell) is at the head of the class.
From the outset, the movie plays like a shoot-em-up video game, with a little back story on the elite fighting corps showing them in action against various enemies on Earth and beyond. Then, almost forty years later, something funny happens. Not funny ha-ha, but funny odd and funny wrong. The Army decides their old elite fighting men are obsolete. You see, they chose each of them--a bad idea. They now figure choosing left too much room for doubt. They reckon, instead, to breed soldiers, genetically building them to be even more-perfect fighting machines than the earlier group of which Sgt. Todd is a member. In fact, the newer soldiers are so good, they easily defeat the older ones in every way, including Todd's defeat in hand-to-hand combat with a new unit named Caine 607 (Jason Scott Lee). Think of Caine as Jack Palance's old character, Jack Wilson, the ruthless gunman in "Shane."
The commander of the outmoded group of soldiers is Capt. Church (Gary Busey), an old-line army man himself, gruff, a rigid leader of men. The commander of the new breed of soldiers is Col. Mekum (Jason Isaacs, prepping for his Lucius Malfoy role), an arrogant, sniveling officer who thinks his new troops can conquer anybody or anything in sight.
So what happens to the superseded corps? The army gives them the old heave-ho. Because they figure Todd for dead, they send him out into space and dump his body on an interplanetary garbage heap, a "waste-disposal planet" called Arcadia. But, of course, Todd's not dead. How could he be? He may not be quite human anymore, having had all the humanity knocked out of him in training, but he's still the movie's hero. He's Kurt Russell.
Well, that's the premise of the story. Now, here's where the actual plot kicks in: Todd awakens, recovers, and finds he's not alone on the dump site (the whole planet is a dump site). A group of colonists crash-landed there a few years earlier and, unable to find rescue or communicate with any other worlds, set up a small community. Todd finds them and lives among them for a while; uncomfortably, to be sure, because all he knows how to do is fight, and they have no use for a fighting man with no conscience or regret. Until....
Wait for it: Col. Mekum and his men show up on a routine security sweep of the garbage planet, not knowing anyone is living on it. Mekum orders his men on patrol to shoot and kill anyone they find there, assuming anyone there would have to be a trespasser, you understand. And all the better to further the plot through any means possible, no matter how absurd.
So you can guess what happens next: The colonists must depend on Shane, er, Todd to defend them against Mekum and his mindless human automatons hell-bent on killing them all. Sure, there's a beautiful young woman involved (Connie Nielsen), married to a stalwart chap (Sean Pertwee), with an inevitable young son (twins Taylor and Jared Thorne, with Brandon De Wilde having passed away).
The script would have us believe that Todd learns compassion and love and other human feelings from the situation, and there are, indeed, several scenes like a Christmas party and a closing gathering that are fairly touching. Mostly, though, poignancy doesn't interfere with director Anderson's primary objective, which is to show people shooting each other and blowing stuff up.
Oh, and did I mention the special bomb that can destroy an entire planet and makes the Death Star look like a child's toy? The action is predictable. The special effects are humdrum. The clamor is extreme. Everything is noisy except Kurt Russell, who doesn't speak a word until about thirty minutes in, and even then it's mostly a grunt. Thereafter, he says maybe two more words. He's the best part of the show.
Warner engineers use a single-layer BD25 and an MPEG-4/AVC codec to reproduce the film in its native aspect ratio, 2.40:1. Like many of WB's transfers, this one is competent but not exactly top-of-the-line. Colors are good, probably duplicating what the original print looked like, meaning dark and dusky much of the time. Definition and detailing are ordinary, a little soft and vague. Although nothing really pops off the screen at you, at least that screen is reasonably clean, free of most dirt and age.
Lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 does what it can with the big, loud soundtrack. What it mostly has to do is replicate the film's nerve-shattering explosions, gunshots, and musical crescendos. Yet, for all the noise the movie makes, it provides very little surround sound: a bit of wind, some ambient musical bloom, an occasional ricochet. We do find a strong bass involved, though, solid impact, and wide dynamics, so maybe that's enough to satisfy action fans.
The principal bonus item is an audio commentary with director Paul Anderson, co-producer Jeremy Bolt, and, eventually, co-star Jason Isaacs, who comes in late. Largely, it's Paul Anderson who does the talking, but if you like this kind of thing, it's a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes.
Beyond that, we get a robust thirty chapter selections; a standard-definition theatrical trailer cropped to 1.78:1; English and Portuguese spoken languages; French, Spanish, Portuguese, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. The disc comes housed in a flimsy Eco-case.
Although there is potential in this plot about a brainwashed soldier regaining his humanity, director Paul Anderson doesn't seem as interested in that angle as he does in blowing things up. Kurt Russell's dialogue in the film probably adds up to a quarter of a page, so it couldn't have been much of a chore for him to memorize his lines, and he does look good as always as the hero. Die-hard action fans will get their money's worth from "Soldier"; the rest of us might want to look elsewhere.
"Todd 3465. Todd 3465, come back."