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)

Death Race (2008)

someone about to die in Death Race

Shortly into the film, one will notice that Death Race oddly looks like a laundry list of its actors most popular roles. Jason Statham plays The Transporter, Joan Allen plays Pamela Landy and Tyrese Gibson reprises his role from The Fast and the Furious. Thankfully, Ian McShane gives the viewer a character to look forward to, with his gravelly voice and authoritative aura. But everyone else plays some sort of caricaturish cardboard cut-out role whose only purpose is to increase the body count throughout the film. The only thing that could have made the typecasting more ridiculous is if Robin Shou had pulled out some kung-fu moves while he was at it.

The film stars Statham as Jensen Ames, a man framed for the murder of his wife, subsequently incarcerated and eventually forced into being a driver for the top form of entertainment in the film’s dystopian world: The Death Race. The mastermind of the race and top beneficiary of its profits is Hennessey (Allen), the warden of the prison. And in a twist telegraphed long before it’s actually revealed, we learn that Hennessey is actually the brains behind Jensen being framed. The purpose being so that she could use him to assume the role of recently-deceased Frankenstein – the most popular racer in the game.

It isn’t difficult to surmise that Death Race is a film created by a director with no ounce of subtlety or nuance in his body, which is perfect because this is a film perfectly suited for the video game generation. The race itself looks exactly like a video game with its combination of cars, guns, competition and various gameplay mechanics. There is even a montage where the different drivers are introduced and it plays out similar to a racing game selection screen. There are copious amounts of blood, gore, crass humour and bad punch lines masquerading as badass punch lines. And to top it all off, the film also has the depth of character and plot development that one would find in most popular modern shooting games… which is not much.

Yet, for all of Death Race‘s shortcomings, Paul W.S. Anderson is not at all a bad director. Unlike Michael Bay, who always has everything turned up to 11, Anderson still has a setting that goes down a few notches. The pacing in this film is not perfect, but it’s not a mind-numbing attack on all the senses either. The best thing about it is that even though Anderson is a terrible writer who never goes beyond an elementary treatment of his screenplay, he knows how to put together a visually cohesive film.

Everything about the look of Death Race – from the sets to the props and the costumes – all serve to enhance the film’s dark, cold, steely and worn-out industrial aesthetic. Even the muted colour tones (contrast this to the vibrant palette in his 2011 film Three Musketeers) also conform to the film’s overall atmosphere. He knows how to work the camera and there are a lot of visually engaging shots that play with light and shadow and silhouettes. Anderson also shows the capability to come up with interesting camera angles and well-framed images; but most intriguingly, his fast-paced editing, quick cuts and shaky camera work play out like a poor man’s Paul Greengrass. It’s a more indulgent technique that results in a superficial grittiness compared to the raw and visceral work of Greengrass, but nonetheless works excellently for Anderson’s style.

Death Race is not nearly as bad as the reputation of its director suggests. In fact, I enjoyed it, was entertained and am now looking for a potential marathon topic where I could squeeze in the original it was based on. The film is cheesy, campy and comes from the same school of filmmaking as Michael Bay, but unlike Bay, Anderson shows skill and restraint. This film is still best experienced if you leave your brain at the door, but if for some reason you want to bring it in, rest assured the experience will not leave you feeling like your brain was mashed and eviscerated once you step out.

Rating: C+ (average)