Sometimes you want chateaubriand, sometimes you want a Big Mac. Soldier definitely falls into the junk-food category. There is something perversely amusing about the utter shamelessness of this sci-fi action-adventure, which borrows freely from dozens of other comic-book-style movies, and even culls a few cliches from classic Westerns of yesteryear. Try to imagine Shane in outer space, or a slightly more domesticated Terminator, and you will have a good idea of what to expect here. Gourmet Cinema, it ain't.
In the not-so-distant future, according to the screenplay by David Webb Peoples (Unfor-given, 12 Monkeys), the military has stopped looking for a few good men. Instead, recruiters snatch babies to raise as ferociously efficient fighting machines who always follow orders and never take prisoners. The movie begins with a training sequence that looks like the indoctrination of Hitler Youth - or, worse, an outtake from Starship Troopers - then flashes ahead to introduce Todd (Kurt Russell) as a battle-scarred veteran of various intergalactic conflicts. When it comes to searching and destroying without regard for innocent bystanders, Todd is the best of the best. But then someone comes up with something better.
Colonel Mekum (Jason Isaacs), an arrogant officer in charge of research and development, breaks the bad news: Todd and his fellow fighting machines have been rendered obsolete by a new breed of warrior represented by the DNA-enhanced Caine 607 (Jason Scott Lee). Captain Church (Gary Busey), Todd's commander, defends the older models as more experienced and efficient. But the colonel brushes aside this argument, even after Todd and two other veterans do some serious damage to Caine 607 during a small-scale war game. The veterans are dropped onto a distant planet that serves as a massive garbage dump. Only Todd survives the forced retirement.
As he wanders away from the surrealistic landscape of discarded spaceships and aircraft carriers, Todd discovers he isn't alone. Just a few miles away from the dumping ground, he finds a colony of space pioneers who crash-landed on the planet many years earlier. The peaceful settlers are understandably nervous about inviting the charisma-challenged Todd into their community. But a kindly family accepts him as a live-in guest while he recovers from his injuries.
While slowly regaining his strength, Todd gets his first exposure to such unfamiliar phenomena as trust, friendship and empathy. Just as important, he begins to feel something like tenderness for Sandra (Connie Nielsen), the pioneer woman who nurses him back to health.
Just when it looks like Todd might develop a kinder and gentler nature, however, Colonel Mekum once again makes a nuisance of himself. Leading a group of his new and improved warriors, he lands on the garbage-dump planet for a training mission. Not surprisingly, Caine 607 is along for the ride. Even less surprisingly, the invaders are eager to use anyone they encounter - yes, even the settlers - for target practice. So Todd has to pick up his guns and defend his new friends because, well, a soldier's got to do what a soldier's got to do.
Soldier is the handiwork of Paul Anderson, the same filmmaker who transported Mortal Kombat from the video arcade to the big screen. His new movie often plays like a feature-length advertisement for an upcoming Nintendo 64 release, as anonymous enemies are blasted into oblivion and massive explosions increase the body count. The screenplay is so thin, the characters are revealed entirely by the actors who play them. If Captain Church comes across as a tiny bit more complex than anyone else on screen, that's only because Gary Busey speaks in an affably folksy manner to indicate he's really a nice guy who's just following orders. This may not be great acting, but the effort is welcome.
Kurt Russell has more than enough presence and physicality to dominate Solider, even though he speaks fewer than two dozen lines throughout the entire movie. He also generates a modest amount of sympathy for his character, enabling the audience to have someone to cheer for when the shooting starts. That's as much as you can reasonably demand in this sort of lavishly-produced trifle.