Soldier (1998)

Kurt Russell in Soldier

In most strategic video games, a player usually chooses beforehand whether to play against a human or an AI (artificial intelligence). When playing an AI, there’s also the matter of how difficult the AI should be. At its highest difficulty, an AI is designed to be faster, stronger and more efficient than any human. In Soldier, infants are selected at birth and trained to be war machines that are similarly faster, stronger and more efficient than any standard military recruit. They’re not robots, but they might as well be. They are brainwashed – or programmed, if you will – to become the most efficient killers possible. Todd (Kurt Russell) is one of these soldiers and the best in his squad. However, when a younger and better breed of super-soldiers is introduced, Todd’s squad is rendered obsolete. After being beat by one of the young blood, Todd finds himself thrown out to a remote waste disposal planet called Arcadia.

On Arcadia, Todd discovers a small and peaceful human society. Through them, he starts to feel emotions and reconnect with his humanity. When the squad of super-soldiers land on Arcadia and attack the colony, it’s Todd who defends them – not only defeating the younger soldier who beat him earlier, but also its entire squad, including their commander. So how is it that Todd gets manhandled earlier in the film and then is able to wipeout the entire opposing squad later on? The answer lies in the video game analogy I cited earlier. 

Even though an AI is superior on paper than any human, a lot of high level gamers will still be able to beat an AI easily at its highest difficulty. In most cases, they can even beat several at the same time. This is because AI’s don’t have the capacity for genuine human thinking, and that makes all the difference. AI’s are caught up in a web of routines and pre-defined conditions. While the speed of their processing power makes them more efficient than a human, it also makes them more predictable, and this predictability can be exploited. Humans on the other hand have the ability to adapt and feel, which makes their actions infinitely more varied and unpredictable, and this is what enables Todd – having gotten in touch, even partly, with his humanity – to save the Arcadian colony from being destroyed.

The surprising thing about Soldier is that it’s a film that has a lot to say. It wrestles with the question of what it means to be human and what the price of progress and perfection can be, which is incredibly relevant in today’s increasingly chaotic and fast-paced world. The unfortunate thing about it though is while David Peoples (writer of Blade Runner, Unforgiven & Twelve Monkeys) tries to convey a noble message through his story, the director is not one well-equipped to treat the material justly. When one sees close-ups of a woman’s nipples poking through her garments, an unbearably cheesy song backing an even cheesier amateurish montage, a rubber snake bought from a toy store meant to be a menacing threat, and a colonel urinating out of his trousers in terror – then you know that Paul W.S. Anderson has more juvenile and superficial goals in mind. There is also the forgivable issue of a $60-million sci-fi picture looking like it had a $6-million budget, but when an actor meant to be stone-faced and deliver a mere 104 words throughout the whole film turns in a better acting performance than half of the cast, then there’s just no saving that.

In the hands of a more competent filmmaker, Soldier could have been good. With a better cast, it could have been great. But as it is, the crudeness of the film robs the material of its power while the tacky and campy direction drowns out the message and prevents it from coming through loud and clear.

Rating: C (poor)

Manhunter (1986)

William Petersen and Dennis Farina in the opening shot of Manhunter

Manhunter is proof that Michael Mann is brilliant in every element that lends to creating a sense of style on the screen. He’s great at visually arresting an audience and effortlessly creates a distinct atmosphere for his films. Take the first shot after the opening credits. Not even the first scene, but just that first shot. FBI profiler Will Graham (William Petersen) & his superior Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) sit on a log on the beach. The calm waters, clear blue sky and horizon serve as their backdrop. Graham looks to the left – facing the viewer – as he holds a drink. He’s clad in a plain shirt and shorts with his bare feet in the sand. Crawford on the other hand is in full office attire, with his suit draped on the log. He has his back towards us as he looks down at the ground. It’s an intriguing image and lingers a few seconds for the audience to take it in. It’s meticulously composed and very typical of the skill that Michael Mann has in creating a lasting image.

The problem, however, lies in his writing. Mann has a tendency to be heavy-handed, and every example of his poor writing tendencies are on display in this film. He’s the classic example of someone who you’d want to yell at and say, “Show, don’t tell!” The worst offenders of this are the scenes where Graham mutters to himself as he tries to get inside the killer’s head. Mann’s script makes him say out loud every detail, thought and move of the killer as if a play-by-play announcer at a basketball game. The end result is that almost every scene in Manhunter ends up being an exercise of style over substance.

Even then, there are actors in the film talented enough to rise above the material. Joan Allen in one of her first film roles works wonders with her naturally soft easiness to balance out the film’s grotesque look and chilling atmosphere. The highlight though is clearly Brian Cox in the role of Hannibal Lecter. The performance is magnetic in the handful of scenes that he’s in. He brings confidence, charisma and a chilling sense of danger to the role. There’s always the impression that much more is running in his brilliant mind than what’s said and shown on-screen. And a feeling that he knows more about everyone else such that one would wish that the film was about him more than anyone else.

I think I need to rewatch Collateral after I’m done with this Michael Mann marathon. As the only film directed by Mann that he didn’t write, it interests me to revisit what he’s done with another person’s screenplay. I’d imagine that if Michael Mann directed a piece similar to Malick’s The Tree of Life or Caruth’s Upstream Color based off another writer’s work it would be an interesting experience. It would be the perfect vehicle for his unbridled style combined with another writer’s substance.

Rating: C (poor)