An Oral History of 'Universal Soldier'

They don’t make action movies like they used to. Case in point: It’s been 25 years since 'Universal Soldier' busted into America’s multiplexes. In this exclusive oral history, 'M&F' takes a look back at the cinematic gem.

An Oral History of 'Universal Soldier'
Digital Imaging By Eric Heintz

Soldier on!

It was the summer of 1992, and Jean-Claude Van Damme had parlayed his martial-arts brilliance and toned physique into a career as an up-and-coming movie star, and Dolph Lundgren had built off his iconic role as muscled Ivan Drago in 1985’s Rocky IV and forged a steady career of his own. They were both charismatic, fit, and trained fighters, so it only made sense to pair them together for Universal Soldier, a by-turns violent and humorous science-fiction film about re-animated Vietnam vets-turned-genetically enhanced Army killing machines that culminates in a battle between the two leads. Universal Soldier did well at the box office, but in the years since its release, it has become a cult classic, begetting a franchise that churned out multiple sequels of varying quality and has had about as many different lives as its protagonists did.

Universal Soldier was notable for many things—it was the first American movie for Roland Emmerich, who went on to helm Independence Day and eventually became one of Hollywood’s premier big-budget directors, and it firmly established both Van Damme and Lundgren as bankable action stars with understated senses of humor. It also quite literally exposed Van Damme’s body to the world, and gave us the indelible image of a villainous Lundgren wearing a necklace of ears. Here, then, on the 25th anniversary of its release, is the story of that movie and all that it spawned, as told by the people involved.

The initial screenplay for Universal Soldier was brought by independent producer Craig Baumgarten to Mario Kassar’s Carolco, which had produced several big-budget ’80s action films like Rambo, as well as 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Kassar attached Lundgren and Van Damme to the project, and he hired Andy Davis, who had directed Steven Seagal’s Above the Law and the Gene Hackman thriller The Package, to write and direct.

Dolph Lundgren (actor, Andrew Scott): When I first got the script, I remember it was called Crystal Nights.

Craig Baumgarten (producer): Andy came up with a script that was very strange. It was about the Romanian overthrow of Nicolae Ceaucescu and these Universal Soldier guys were working for the CIA. But the Jean-Claude and Dolph characters were like the 7th and 8th leads in the movie, and I’m thinking, “What young male action fan is going to want to see a movie about the overthrow of a Romanian communist dictator?” It was terrible, and it was not at all an action movie. We got in a big fight and he threatened to get me thrown off the picture. Then the next morning, Mario fired HIM.

Kassar called Baumgarten and his producing partners and told them he’d found a young German director, Roland Emmerich, who had just directed a tiny science-fiction movie, Moon 44, and had never done anything in Hollywood. His writing partner, Kassar told them, was an actor named Dean Devlin.

Baumgarten: I thought Mario was completely crazy, and then I looked at Roland’s movie and thought, “This is really good.”

Roland Emmerich (director): I was hired by Mario to do a Stallone movie. I actually wrote my own script for it with Dean Devlin and the producer of the film didn’t even want to read it. So I walked into Mario’s office and I said, “I want to get out of this film.” Then I got a call from Mario and he said, “We’re looking for a director for Universal Soldier.” I looked at the script and I didn’t like it at all.

Baumgarten: Someone had to go tell Jean-Claude and Dolph, because Andy was kind of a prestigious director, and they were these young action guys on the verge of stardom and I had to go tell them they didn’t have a prestigious director anymore. I think somebody called Dolph’s agent because he was out of the country or something, but Jean-Claude I had to go see on set. And he screamed at me for 15 minutes.

At that point, Van Damme had emerged from a career as a Belgian-born kickboxer and karate star and made some successful action movies, including Bloodsport, Kickboxer, and Double Impact. But, Emmerich admits, while he had seen Lundgren in Rocky IV, he had no idea who Van Damme was.

Emmerich: I pretty much told (Van Damme) I actually don’t have to do this movie. I WANT to do the movie. And then I said, “I think we can do certain shots with you. And you always like to do splits, but not in my movie.” And he said, “No splits.” And I said, “I cannot see this character doing splits.” And he said, “O.K.” And that was that. And then we had a really nice time.

Baumgarten: I met with Roland and Dean and they said, “Give us 48 hours and we’ll redo the entire script.” I think they gave us a 27-page treatment for the movie we wound up making.

Emmerich: We wrote a (full) script in three weeks. We kept only the title and the concept of genetically enhanced soldiers. And we decided that Jean-Claude Van Damme should be the good guy and Dolph Lundgren the bad guy. So we had to convince Dolph to do that.

Lundgren: Maybe I was reluctant, but I remember I enjoyed the role a lot. I thought the script was written in a way that my character was almost a scene-stealer. He had all the funny lines.

Emmerich: I said to him, “Look, it sure is hard sometimes to do films as the bad guy.” And he thought about it and then signed on. We wrote the script to serve their strengths. We realized immediately Jean-Claude had a definite talent for humor scenes.

Lundgren: I had all these crazy ideas for the character to have some kind of American Indian connection. I wanted to wear a feather in my hair and give a war cry. I came in to Emmerich’s office with one of those loud war whoops. YEEEAAAHHH!

Ed O’Ross (actor, Colonel Perry): It was a very interesting mix of people. Very eclectic, in a lot of ways.

Emmerich, working with a relatively small $20 million budget, had a brainstorm for one of the early scenes, in which the main characters, Van Damme’s Luc Devereaux and Lundgren’s Andrew Scott, are introduced as modern-day cyborgs after dying in Vietnam and being cryogenically frozen.

Emmerich: I said to the production manager, “What about the Hoover Dam?” He said, “Nobody has ever shot there. Impossible.” I said, “Just ask them.” And then I moved the scene in the script to the Hoover Dam and took a public tour

Baumgarten: Today you’d just go to a green-screen stage somewhere and CGI the whole thing. But we actually went to the dam.

Emmerich: I told our stunt coordinator, “I need two guys roping down the face of the Hoover Dam, because that’s the coolest shot.” We caused, I don’t know, 20 miles of traffic jams. Some tourists came by and realized this was for a film and yelled at us in every language, including German.

Baumgarten: They swore they’d never let a movie company shoot at the Hoover Dam again. We ruined it.

Lundgren: We were in Vegas for a bit after we were at the dam. Vegas back then was high-rollers and gamblers and strippers. No families on vacations. Jean-Claude and I went to see Siegfried & Roy, and afterward we went backstage and they were very interested in us. They wanted to talk to us for a long time.

The bulk of the film was shot in the Arizona desert, including the opening scene, which was shot in a ditch on a golf course that was supposed to represent the jungles of Vietnam—in it, Lundgren first dons the necklace made of ears that he wears for much of the film.

O’Ross: I think we went to a place called Oatman. There were a lot of wild burros that the gold miners had left behind years ago. So you had, like, herds of donkeys running around. And it was so hot.

Emmerich: I went into the diner at the hotel and said, “Can I have a cappucino?” And the waitress said, “Cuppa who?” And I knew I had arrived. I’m in America now.

Lundgren: It was the first time I shared equal billing with somebody. But there was a competition in the beginning. Who was going to be the most ripped? And he was a fighter and I was a fighter, and on that first scene in Vietnam, I have some hostages and I shoot somebody. I think (Van Damme) kicked my hand a little hard for the rehearsal and my karate sensei was there, and he said, “Dolph’s going to knock him out if he does that again.” But by the end of the picture, we were friends. And now our daughters are friends.

O’Ross: A lot of times Roland would just let the camera run after the scene was over so he could pick up some added stuff afterward.

Baumgarten: Roland chain-smoked more cigarettes than any human being I’d ever seen in my whole life. One day on set we clocked him, and he smoked like six packs in one day.

Van Damme had several iconic scenes, including one where he stripped naked in a motel parking lot in order to cool his robotic circuits.

Van Damme (1992 interview with Arsenio Hall): It’s time for the guys to show their body too, no? When I’ll be like 55, 60 years old, I can tell my grandson, “Look at your grandpa. Looks good, no?”

In perhaps his most memorable scene, Van Damme goes into a diner with a television journalist (played by Ally Walker) who’s accompanying him. When Walker’s character goes outside, a ravenous Van Damme orders several plates of food, then gets into a fight with the locals and wrecks the place once they realize he doesn’t have any money to pay.

Baumgarten: That’s my favorite scene in the whole movie. Jean-Claude saying, “I just want to eat.”

Emmerich: His character is pretty much a guy who doesn’t know who he is, so he has something childish about him. That kind of fits Van Damme very well. He is himself a big child. Jean-Claude had a definite talent for humor scenes. A lot of that scene was scripted, but maybe half of it he improvised on the spot.

Lundgren: Jean-Claude wanted to have fun with his guy, and I wanted to do the same. I hadn’t done that before in my movies. And Roland was very easygoing. His movies are light, you know? But I remember trying to keep my sense of humor while shooting the final fight scene in the rain (with Van Damme). We had rain towers, and it rained for two weeks, and after eight-hour days, you start losing it. I had a friend of mine positioned behind camera, and I said if I get serious, take your pants off. So he started unbuckling his belt at one point. I managed to have fun after that.

Among Lundgren’s notable scenes: A violent rampage in a grocery store that ends in a rant about the Vietnam War, and one where he goes renegade by shooting O’Ross’s shocked Colonel Perry in the face.

O’Ross: I was really worried that they had to see my eye was open when he shoots me. I was concerned about the glass blowing into my eye. And if you look at the movie closely, you’ll see the glass doesn’t break. I don’t know if you should put that in there, though. (Laughing.) Still, I’ve had some death scenes in my career. That one’s up there with falling out a window into the Chicago River in Red Heat. I never get the girl and I always end up dead.

Scott Adkins (actor, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning): Dolph really takes that part and runs with it. He rips into that role.

Baumgarten: I manage Dolph now, and we did a public screening of it and a Q&A a few years ago, and we hadn’t seen the movie in 15 or 20 years, and we were both laughing because we forgot how funny it was.

The critics largely panned the film as derivative of Terminator and other action movies, but thanks in part to Van Damme’s shirtless appearance on the Arsenio Hall Show and a publicity stunt at the Cannes Film Festival, Universal Soldier grossed $36 million domestically and was a huge hit overseas.

Van Damme (to Arsenio Hall): The movie was complete, but not cut yet. I was in Cannes with Dolph, I call his room, I say, “Dolph, we have a problem.” We’re here, we have no movie to show, so let’s do something special….What about you and I having friction on the steps of the red carpet? So we said, “Yeah, that’s a good idea.” We made all the news in Cannes.

Baumgarten: The movie was a hit. It was great for Jean-Claude and Dolph and Roland and everybody.

Adkins: I remember vividly going to the cinema in England to watch the original Universal Soldier. I think it had an (18-and-over) certificate and I wasn’t 18, so I had to sneak in to watch. Van Damme was just taking the world by storm. He was the biggest. It had that Terminator vibe mixed with Rambo.

Just as its main characters kept coming alive, so did the franchise. In 1999, in the wake of a pair of low-budget Universal Soldier TV movies featuring Gary Busey and Burt Reynolds, Van Damme—struggling with a drug habit, psychological issues, and multiple failed marriages amid the slow unraveling of his A-list status--produced and starred in Universal Soldier: The Return, but it was both a critical and box-office bomb.

Emmerich: I stayed away from all the sequels. Don’t hold it against me.

Baumgarten: Jean-Claude’s personal issues really started after the first Universal Soldier. But I love the guy. He did his job. He was always a pro with me.

Lundgren: I wasn’t in the second one because that was a Jean-Claude thing.

Baumgarten: I never like to say bad things about my own work, or the people that I work with, but I was disappointed with what we did in that one. It had been too many years. Too much had happened.

Still, Universal Soldier wasn’t dead yet. Baumgarten, whose company owns the rights to the Universal Soldier franchise, agreed to reboot it in 2009 with the direct-to-video film Universal Soldier: Regeneration, which brought Van Damme and Lundgren back into the mix. The producers brought in ambitious, if inexperienced, director John Hyams, the son of legendary director Peter Hyams, who had worked with Van Damme in 1994’s Timecop.

John Hyams (director): I didn’t really have clear memories of the original when they asked me to get involved. It was kind of a movie of its time. It was the era of the action star, or maybe the tail end of it, and I think Emmerich’s original film was an intentionally satirical take. And my goal was to take it in a completely different direction, to take a B-movie concept and present it as if we were taking it totally seriously. Taking the campiness out of it.

Lundgren: I liked John a lot. He was very talented, and made it fun. He did a totally new take on the whole thing. You have to look at it again and see what can be done. Make it modern, you know?

Baumgarten: John said, “If I’m going to do another Universal Soldier, I want to reinvent the idea of it all.”

Hyams: My dad was my director of photography, and there’s a scene at the end where Van Damme goes through a building and takes out all these rebels, and my dad says, “Shit, why don’t we do this in one take?” We had two tries, and if we didn’t get it, we had to take the scene out. And we got it on the second one.

Adkins: There was talk of me doing Regeneration, but it didn’t work out. And I was blown away by it. He stripped it of all the clichés and nonsense, and it was almost like watching the Black Hawk Down version of Universal Soldier.

Regeneration did well enough that Hyams was given creative license to write and direct another sequel, 2012’s Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, a dark, often horrific, and surprisingly smart film with a twist ending. That film starred Adkins, with both Van Damme and Lundgren playing villains.

Hyams: The freedom was coming up with the concept from the get-go.

Adkins: To actually go up against Van Damme in the end of that movie and kill him felt like a passing of the torch. Not many people have killed Van Damme on screen.

Baumgarten: It’s a really cool movie, like this violent indie art-house action thriller. It’s kind of not Universal Soldier. I almost wish we’d called it something else.

Adkins: Subvert the expectations of the audience, twist it on them. That’s what good filmmaking is. There was some negative response from audience members who didn’t really get it, who wanted it all spelled out for them. But I think it’s a really good film, one of my best.

There are no current plans for any more Universal Soldier sequels, but everyone involved admits it is a concept that is always ripe for yet another reboot.

Lundgren: It would be interesting to play a small role, maybe. I’ve been reborn and killed and reborn how many times now? I’ve lost count. That’s the beauty of the franchise, you know—you die, and it doesn’t mean anything.

Baumgarten: We don’t want to do it small anymore. At some point, there’ll be an interest in rebooting the franchise with a much bigger kind of event movie. I’m sure, given the world of Hollywood, there’ll be another Universal Soldier.

The Universal Soldier franchise: A viewer’s guide

Universal Soldier (1992):

Campy, over-the-top, and utterly enjoyable original, directed by future master of the disaster pic Roland Emmerich. Worth it for the diner scene alone.

Are JCVD and Dolph involved? Yes. [4 out of 5 stars]

Universal Soldier II: Brothers in Arms (1998):

A direct-to-video sequel starring former NFL linebacker Matt Battaglia, with supporting roles from both Gary Busey and Burt Reynolds. So bad it’s not even good.

Are JCVD and Dolph involved? No. [1 star out of 5]

Universal Soldier III: Unfinished Business (1999):

Yet another direct-to-video sequel starring Battaglia and a very sad Burt Reynolds. Both of these were reportedly a failed attempt to package UniSol as a television show.

Are JCVD and Dolph involved? No. [0 stars out of 5]

Universal Soldier: The Return (1999):

Aggressively dumb sequel starring and produced by Van Damme. Ignored the previous two sequels, and would soon itself be ignored.

Are JCVD and Dolph involved? JCVD only. [1 star out of 5]

Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009):

Reboot directed by John Hyams that incorporates only the loose outlines of the original, and also stars UFC fighter Andrei “The Pit Bull” Arlovski. Intelligent action film.

Are JCVD and Dolph involved? Yes. [3 stars out of 5]

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012):

Hyams’ second film, the most highbrow of the UniSol entries, a legitimately excellent low-budget thriller starring Scott Adkins that diverges completely from the original.

Are JCVD and Dolph involved? Yes. [5 stars out of 5]