The Soldier

Director: James Glickenhaus
Ken Wahl, Alberta Watson, Jeremiah Sullivan, Steve James

Ah, those French. It can sometimes be interesting and/or funny to hear them squawk and protest about various things that seem to be threatening their culture or anything else they feel is vital to mankind in general. The Frenchies that seem to do most of this kind of protesting are the Frenchies that are filmmakers. Let me give you an example. There was the time I read an interview with a famous French filmmaker - I forget which particular French filmmaker this was, but does it really matter? Anyway, during the interview, there was a discussion about the supposed decline of the quality of film around the world, and the French filmmaker had a definite idea of what point the decline of world film started. According to him, it was right at the point when James Bond films were introduced to the world public in the 1960s; the filmmaker felt these films were the germ for the modern and supposed atrocious blockbusters that almost completely fill up theaters around the world. When I read that, I wanted to shove a croissant in the guy's mouth to shut him up. Don't get me wrong - I do miss the days when theaters would show a lot more independent and foreign films of all different genres; variety is the spice of life. But to make the James Bond the main whipping boy when my own personal research has uncovered a lot of additional reasons as to why cinema is the way it is now seems grossly unfair. I strongly suspected that the French filmmaker in that interview was a humorless person who had a serious case of anhedonia, just like the majority of filmmakers from my own country (Canada). Besides, a good part of a healthy culture - if not the biggest part - is made up of popular culture.

I got off track a little, so let me get back on again with discussing the James Bond movies. As you probably know, the James Bond movies were a huge influence, particularly in the 1960s; they were kind of the superhero movies of that period, because it seemed every studio wanted to get a piece of the box office gold that was being generated. For example, at Columbia Pictures, they cranked out several Matt Helm movies starring Dean Martin. But as it turned out, most of the imitators that tried their best to really ape James Bond are forgotten about today, and also didn't make megabucks like the James Bond movies. I think it was because these imitators were too comic in nature. True, the James Bond movie had their lighter moments, but they tended to play out in a mostly straight-faced manner, even with elements like tall people with metal teeth. The spy movies inspired by James Bond since the start of that series that have tended to work critically and commercially have been ones that have been extremely straight-faced and serious. For example, there are the Harry Palmer movies starring Michael Caine, and there are the Bourne movies with Matt Damon. Yes, there are exceptions to this rule, like the Austin Powers movies, but for the most part the rule applies. I think there are several additional reasons for this. The first reason is that James Bond has become such a huge pop culture icon, that any chance to imitate him closely would be perceived as a really big rip-off even by the most forgiving of moviegoers. Related to that is one rule that often applies to businesses of any kind, including the film business: Imitations almost never do as well as the original.

There is also the reality of the film business in the present day. While people enjoy the older style of James Bond movies on television, streaming, and on video, I am not sure if people in 2024 would go see one of those older style ones in theaters. This may explain why with the introduction of Daniel Craig inThe Soldier the series, the producers decided to make new James Bond movies that were extremely serious in nature. It would also explain why the last Johnny English movie, the third in  a James Bond spoof series, was given a weak release in North America. Indeed, while I have fond memories of the old style of James Bond movies, I don't think I would see a new entry in that style in a theater. Am I now harder and cynical, or have I become weary? I dunno. All I can say is that when the spy movie The Soldier fell in my lap, I was pretty enthusiastic to watch it, since while it promised to have a lot of good action, it didn't promise any campiness or outlandish touches. The title figure - who is known only as "The Soldier" - is played by Ken Wahl (Wiseguy). Before he is introduced in the movie, a crisis has erupted in the Middle East. The cause of it comes from an American plutonium shipment that is hijacked and stolen by secret agents working for the Soviet Union. With the plutonium shipment in their hands, a bomb is quickly constructed, and is planted in a remote part of the Saudi Arabian oil fields. Once that is done, the agents send a message to the United States' President (William Prince, Fire Sale) saying that the bomb will be detonated unless Israeli forces withdraw from the West Bank of the country. Not desiring to capitulate to terrorist threats or destroy the relationship America has with Israel, the President is soon convinced to bring in The Soldier to investigate and diffuse the situation with his elite skills. And it's good that The Soldier has the skills he has, and the support of a representative of the Israeli Mossad (Alberta Watson, The Keep) because eventually he finds himself hunted not only by the KGB, but by his CIA cronies after being framed for a murder he did not commit. Not only that, the situation in the Middle East is with every minute coming closer to a breaking point.

The Soldier was a production by James Glickenhaus (The Exterminator), with him not only being the director, but took on the roles of writer and producer. So you may understand why the blame for its failure lies almost completely on his shoulders. I'll start with taking a look at its very sorry screenplay. For starters, there are some really unbelievable turns in the plot. We're supposed to believe, among other things, that an attempt at terrorism by three people on the streets in the middle of Philadelphia would not be seen by any passerbys, and that a military transport of plutonium would be on the flat unprotected trailer of a truck with "NUCLEAR" written in big letters on the container... and only two unarmored cars would escort it. But such stupidity is minor compared to other flaws in the screenplay. There are, for instance, a lot of things that are not properly explained. Who exactly killed the CIA director, and how did the killer get into the building? What exactly is the relationship The Soldier has had in the past with the Mossad? Why does one of The Soldier's men attack and bloody him up before revealing himself? However, the biggest problem with The Soldier's story is how incredibly padded out it is. Certainly, some of it is due to the screenplay, such as illustrating how The Soldier's men are one by one gathered up for their new assignment. We had seen them in the opening sequence, so showcasing this regathering was not necessary. But padding also comes with the fact that Glickenhaus wants to often show every step characters make in order to do something. For example, towards the end of the movie, The Solder's men land at an airport, disembark, go inside, rent a car, and drive out to their destination. This could have been cut down to a few seconds instead of going on and on. Earlier in the movie, a booby trap involving a doctored light bulb has its construction shown step by painful step. Again, most of this was simply not necessary to be shown.

The screenplay also shows its flaws when it comes to the characters, so the actors are left to their own devices to try and save things. Of all the actors in the movie, the legendary and totally awesome Steve James (Riverbend) comes off best. Though he basically has a minor supporting role that doesn't reveal anything about his character, he shows spunk, charisma, and even some of his martial arts skills. Alberta Watson, playing the Mossad agent aiding The Soldier, gets so little to do that she isn't able to show how or why she's attracted to The Soldier, even though there is some dialogue that suggests they have known each other for a long time. Klaus Kinski (Crawlspace) has a cameo as a backstabbing espionage contact, but it's so small that he quickly disappears and is never referred to again, stopping any impact his appearance could have. As for Ken Wahl as the title figure, in most of his screen time he appears to be either bored or bemused. It's no wonder, because one reason being that he has less screen time than you might think. After appearing in the opening, it takes him over twenty minutes to reappear. He doesn't say that much - I'm sure he doesn't speak over one hundred words in the entirety of the movie. And in none of his dialogue does he show any indication of what he is feeling or thinking. This character is incredibly boring. We never get to learn his real name, how he got involved in the CIA, or anything else enlightening. As it turns out, all the other characters in The Soldier show no dimension. The American President character (who also is never named) is given no time to show how the supposed magnitude of the situation is affecting him and ultimately pushes him to make his ultimate decision.

As it turns out, The Soldier as a whole fails to generate enough tension or excitement. Director Glickenhaus doesn't seem to have the ability to give the feeling that time is running out, and millions of people are in danger from the threat. Even in the climax, there is a strong matter-of-fact feeling from the characters and the situation that holds back any possible spark. It's not just the "action" in this sequence that fails to generate interest, but all the other action sequences in the movie. One reason why is that Glickenhaus seems to be trying to ape Sam Peckinpah at times with the use of slow motion. But while Peckinpah used it conservatively yet effectively in his movies, Glickenhaus beats it to death so that it soon becomes boring, and it adds to that aforementioned feeling of padding. When the action does pick up its pace, there are a few brief cool flashes of life, but it still doesn't overall work, one reason being that the score by Tangerine Dream playing in the background is more casual and softer than full of speed and excitement. Another reason is that the editing of the action sequences is sporadic, which might be good for a Hong Kong kung fu movie, but deadly for a movie that is attempting to ape the slam-bang feelings of James Bond movies. As I mentioned a little earlier, not everything about the action is bad - there is also some effective blood splatter, and there are a few good stunts (including several people aflame). And Glickenhaus did frequently take the time to set everything up in front of the camera in a way that often results in some striking visuals. But I think The Soldier would have been a lot better if he had used some of that time to instead pump up the pacing, characters, and story. This is one movie that illustrates why near or complete creative control on a movie is quite often a bad thing.

(Posted May 23, 2024)

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See also: Code Name: Wild Geese, Stoner, Top Secret