Whatever role Kurt Russell plays, there is always something devil-may-care in him. He is simply one of the most charming, roguishly human actors to ever work in Hollywood, and he brings something of that to every part. Except one: the 1998 science fiction action film Soldier. The Paul W.S. Anderson film is currently the single lowest ranked film in Russell’s filmography on Rotten Tomatoes, hanging in at a very dismal 13% (just barely beating out 300 Miles to Graceland’s own very sad 14%). And while Soldier does have some (very few) redeeming elements, the blatant and complete disregard for what makes Kurt Russell a cinematic icon is truly breathtaking. When you take an actor who cannot help but exude a certain rakish sense of fun in roles as grim as a violent Old West bounty hunter and a guy gaslighting an amnesiac woman into thinking she’s his wife, and then decide he should be playing an emotionless, expressionless blank of a character, you cannot expect anything but failure.
In Soldier, Kurt Russell is introduced in the year 1996 as a crying newborn baby in a sterile medical facility full of babies just like him. Through a montage of negative exposure close-ups and odd canted angle shots (that fortunately do not persist for the entirety of the film), we see Russell’s character and his comrades being raised in a merciless military training program. In a surprisingly brutal sequence, we see young children in stylized military uniforms being forced to watch a pig be torn apart by hungry dogs, though their general lack of reaction indicates this is not the first time they have witnessed extreme violence. As the children grow, we see Russell’s character leading the pack running in desolate landscapes, with the children who fall behind being summarily executed. By the time the child has grown into adult Kurt Russell, we witness his face being tattooed with a serial number and the most fearsome name a supersoldier could have: Todd.
The fact that the remorseless killing machine played by Kurt Russell has a name like “Todd” could be a dark joke in a satire about the military-industrial complex’s relentless quest to dehumanize individuals. Soldier is not that kind of movie. Instead, it is a pretty straightforward science fiction tale in which the grown, veteran soldier played by Russell and his platoon are deemed obsolete and replaced by stronger, genetically engineered models. After losing a battle to Michael Jai White’s Caine 607 (the fact that a fellow soldier who defeats him is named “Caine” shows you the level of metaphor being utilized here), Russell is presumed dead and his body dumped on a waste disposal planet that looks something like a cheaper version of the giant garbage heap from the end of Labyrinth. It turns out that the planet is inhabited by unauthorized, peaceful settlers who take in Russell and nurse him to health.
The general idea in Soldier is that being around these peaceful settlers slowly humanizes Kurt Russell and that they also slowly see the worth in having a terrifying, nearly silent instrument of death around on a hostile planet. However, eventually, the ruthless training program commander (played by Jason Isaacs in full mustachioed villain mode) returns to the planet and decides to use the settlers as a training exercise for his new supersoldiers. Using his greater experience, knowledge of the terrain, and guerilla tactics, Russell eventually takes out the new soldiers and reunites with his old troop. At one point, Jason Isaacs pees himself in terror.
The notion of casting the enormously empathetic Kurt Russell as a blank slate who learns emotion and expression has some merit, but unfortunately, Soldier does not stick the landing. By the end of the movie, Russell has not changed his expression at any point. He briefly weeps tears after being rejected by the settlers, but his face stays stone still. He literally says only 104 words in total throughout the movie. While his character clearly ends the movie with some sense of emotional attachment to both the settlers and his troop, the movie does not allow him to actually express in any way. It is possible that Paul W.S. Anderson and writer David Webb Peoples felt they were sticking to realism by not showing some abrupt and dramatic emotional breakthrough, but again, this is a movie with a supersoldier named Todd. Realism is a lost cause.
If Soldier has a virtue, it is that 1998 Kurt Russell was a magnificent specimen of an action hero. Many of the action scenes have a visceral, surprisingly gory tone (including when Russell gouges out Michael Jai White’s eye in their first fight), and he is definitely committed to his lack of emoting. It is truly bizarre that a movie that has Paul W.S. Anderson just coming off the marvelous science fiction horror of Event Horizon and was written by David Webb Peoples (who co-wrote Blade Runner, 12 Monkeys, and Ladyhawke, and wrote the Academy Award-winning Clint Eastwood film Unforgiven) makes so many missteps. But whatever was in the water on the set of Soldier, it definitely led to Kurt Russell’s talents being wasted on his worst movie ever.