James Glickenhaus is a lesser known but intriguing figure in 1980’s cult film history. Starting with his famous grindhouse action epic The Exterminator, he made a string of brutal, visually slick action films that took him into the 1990’s. He was never acclaimed by critics but he went out his business with an icy, obsessive sense of style that can be downright hypnotic.
The Soldier represents his style at its most compulsively minimalist. The basic gist of the plot is this – KGB agents steal plutonium in the U.S., create a homemade nuke and plant it in an oil field in Saudi Arabia. If the world doesn’t bow to their demands, they will contaminate half the world’s oil supply by detonating the bomb. The only person who can keep the world from a commie-dominated future is the Soldier (Ken Wahl), a super-secret agent. The Soldier assembles a team, gets help from a foxy Israeli Mossad agent (Alberta Watson) and races the clock to pull off a mission that will bring the KGB rogues to their knees.
However, The Soldier doesn’t fuss over its premise much. The film devotes about five minutes of its running time to the plot. The running time is mostly spent on chases, shootouts, explosions and elaborate Mission: Impossible-styled setpieces depicting the grunt work of espionage. Like The Exterminator, much time is spent detailing the creation or use guerilla-style weaponry in fetishistic detail. The film is constantly trotting the globe – NYC, Berlin, Austria, etc. – but the real drive of the film comes from anticipating what the next stunt or bit of mayhem will be.
The focus on action and spy-work mechanics is so intense that it uses an impressive cast like flesh-and-blood action figures: Wahl was a hot property at the time, Klaus Kinski pops up as a Russian spy and William Prince (the actor who plays The President) was a notable character actor. The background cast is also studded with familiar faces like Steve James, Joaquim de Almeida and Jeffrey Jones. It’s worth noting that Kinski might pick up the most quickly-earned paycheck of his career here: he appears for maybe 2 minutes of screen time and says no more than four lines before being disappearing from the story altogether!
If you can tap into The Soldier on its own minimalist level, it can be a lot of fun. The stunts are pretty impressive: there’s the fiery destruction of a military-escorted truck by bazooka, an exciting ski chase that includes shootouts with automatic weapons, several car chases and a fairly taut finale where the Soldier’s team infiltrates and overtakes a nuclear facility while he engages in a car chase with the Berlin police force. There’s even a bar fight in a honky tonk, complete with George Strait singing on the bandstand as James beats up a bar of racist rednecks (this came out the same year as 48 Hrs, which had a similar, more famous scene with Eddie Murphy).
Glickenhaus gives the mayhem a glossy look, limits the running time to a tight 80 minutes and sets it to a hypnotic synth score by Tangerine Dream (fans will note that they hastily rewrite “Beach Theme” from Thief for the finale). The end result is mainly for action fans and exploitation junkies need apply but if you fit either group, you’ll get your money’s worth in sleek carnage. To paraphrase SCTV‘s Farm Film Report: The Soldier blows up real good.
Blu-Ray Notes: The Soldier never made it to DVD in the U.S. but that injustice has been rectified by a nice looking new blu-ray edition from Kino Lorber Studio Classics. Extras consist of an action-packed trailer and two commentary tracks, one of them by Glickenhaus himself.