Kurt Russell; Silent but Deadly in Soldier

Kurt Russell in Soldier

This was certainly worth devoting a year and a half of my life to.

Writer: David Webb Peoples

Director: Paul W.S. Anderson

Soldier (1998) was the most expensive film ever to be released straight to video in Great Britain, but what makes this film great is national treasure Kurt Russelll. In 90-odd minutes of running time he squeaks by with a bare 104 words of dialogue. Writer David Webb Peoples (scrivener of Bladerunner [1982], no less!) owns the distinction of creating the most laconic remake of Shane (1953) ever produced, and a movie the fan boards are still arguing about.

Cue training montage! Russell plays Todd, a man trained from infancy (1996?!) to be an emotionless killing machine. He proves his mettle in a host of battles, first on Earth and then in various extra-terrestrial locations. When the next generation of genetically modified soldiers appears, he is declared obsolete and discarded on some kind of military-themed trash planet[1] inhabited only by some scruffy British settlers and Sandra (Connie Nielsen). Cue PTSD-related flashbacks! Eventually Sargent Todd is kicked out of camp for being too intense.  But when the settlers are threatened by the very same super-soldiers that replaced him, Russell picks up his guns and straight-up murders all 20 of them, including obligatory foil Cain (a pumped-up Jason Scott Lee).

Other highlights include a back-holler-Daddy quoting Gary Busey, wearing a uniform he already had in his closet at home anyway, as well the amusing backstory that Russell broke his ankle in the first week of shooting when he tripped over an ornamental cabbage(!).

Russell’s performance is the only viable part of an otherwise slapdash effort. And it better be good – out of a budget weighing in at close to $70 million, he was paid an astonishing $20 million. I’ll save you the trouble of grabbing a slide rule: that averages out to more than $190,000 per word of spoken dialogue. But the lunacy doesn’t stop there. Russell pursued a grueling training regimen for 18 months to acquire the stamina and physical profile he believed were critical for the role – an interval during which he had no other professional commitments. To put this in perspective, while Russell was at the gym, director Anderson was able to shoot an entire movie.[2]

Sargent Todd’s psychology is the film’s single relevant subject. Using only his face and body, Russell does a fine job of expressing the pure vulnerability of an individual lost outside of his intended context. The induced sociopathology of his training has left Todd functionally unable to communicate with people or reflect on himself, and his one stumbling conversation with Sandra is for all intents and purposes the only scene that might serve to justify the movie’s existence:

Sandra: You must *feel* something?
[pause]
Todd: Fear.
Sandra: Fear?
Todd: Fear and discipline.
Sandra: Now?
Todd: Always.

Especially in his interactions with Sandra’s son, the mute Nathan (Jared Thorne), we are witness to the small spectacle of a man trying to create himself with only the bluntest social tools – the first of which being the realization that being a person means making choices.

But other than the occasionally poignant efforts of Russell, the cast dissolve into the predictable outlines of stereotype: “peasants,” “soldiers,” and “officers.” Colonel Mekum (Jason Isaacs) is one-dimensionally villainous and incompetent as the officer in charge, and his soldiers are entirely fungible. Sandra does an only serviceable job of being sexy and nervous around Todd while her husband Mace (Sean Pertwee) pursues his senior thesis at the Hugh Grant School of Acting: So sorry, Old Bean, but you’re standing on my nutsack if you could just lift your foot just a bit, hate to interrupt. Director Anderson treads lightly around the obvious conundrum – what happens when you take a British communitarian matriarchy and introduce six feet of pent-up American military hard on? Every civilian male in the audience knew exactly why Sargent Todd needed to be exiled from camp, and it wasn’t “For the safety of the children.”

But what is this movie really about?  The way we first dehumanize and then conveniently discard our fighting people? That story has been told before, and without the leaden metaphor of treating soldiers as literal trash. For a movie so eponymously named, Soldier makes some  distorted claims about the experience of being a soldier. Any time a film wants to exaggerate the process of dehumanization that goes on in Basic, it falls back on tropes that date back to Nazi Germany.[3] There’s a reason the men and women in our armed forces aren’t really trained this way: it doesn’t work. An enveloping brutality doesn’t make soldiers better at their jobs, it makes them demonstrably worse. And crazy.

Sure, we need guys on the trigger. Seal Team 6 is justly famous for being very, very good at wiping the bad guys. But the important part of their training isn’t prep toward being a psychopath, it’s judgment, improvisation, and leadership. Killing people is easy – which is why we use robots to do it now. What’s hard is settling a dispute between two shopkeepers on a dusty corner in Baghdad, or to convince children not to become terrorists after you’ve ground their village into gravel. Ten years of war have taught us what it means to be the world’s policeman.

No, the real message of this movie is incorporate in all those recycled props on the set and the hermetic references to Kurt Russell’s career and the rest of Hollywood history. The predicament Russell shows us is not that of the soldier, but of the actor! Think about it: you’re Kurt Russell. You start acting when you are 12 fucking years old. You never have a childhood, only a succession of efforts to wipe the slate clean and take on somebody else’s identity. The real you is silent, put away. The officers treat you as a contemptible commodity.  The civilians – ostensibly the ones you serve – are torn between howling disdain and clutching need. The long hours, the endless campaigns, and then as soon as your looks and marketability start to go, what happens? Discarded! Replaced by a newer, better looking model!

Gary Busey Also Starred in Soldier

I am not the newer and better looking model to which they refer.

More than anything else, Soldier is a meditation on the martyrdom of our celebrities and the ways we wrong our noble veterans of the stage. When a modern actor’s lower lip begins to quiver at the sentimental plight of our fighting men, rest assured: he is talking about himself.

If the vanity of the entertainment industry is making you physically ill at this point, I’m happy to prescribe a thousand milligrams of Full Metal Jacket (1987). There’s a reason why Stanley Kubrick was Stanley Kubrick, and Paul W.S. Anderson went on to direct the Resident Evil franchise.[4] It’s far too late to watch Platoon (1986), which wouldn’t have aged well even without the agonizing violins and doughy Charlie Sheen.

But should you really want to confront these themes, the film to see is All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). Lewis Milestone shows us all the ways in which war is a thing experienced one person at a time, and a dream from which we wake fitfully and never for long.

Rental Rehab guest review by Joshua.


[1] The number of recycled sets on the trash planet is kind of alarming.  Junk from Executive Decision (1996), Blade Runner, and Event Horizon (1997) makes an appearance.  And the movie is replete with references to movies in Russell’s career, as well as sci-fi standbys such as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and Aliens (1986).

[2] Event Horizon (1997) took 10 months to film, is arguably a better movie, and was objectively much cheaper to make in spite of its heavy reliance on special effects.  The cast shares several actors, including Jason Isaacs, with Soldier, as well as mostly British production.  It also tanked at the box office.

[3] Prime offender is of course Starship Troopers (1997), but at least Paul Verhoeven has the grace to treat this subject with a decent amount of comedy.  What’s hilarious is the reflex to the 3rd Reich uniforms and regalia.

[4] (2002 et al)  Based on a succession of videogames, these movies must be some kind of state-sponsored initiative to keep Milla Jovovich employed.

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Filed under Contains Gary Busey, Future World, Guest Review: Joshua, Insulting to the Military, U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A!, Washed-up actors

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