The Cold War produced a lot of great films, or at least a lot of enjoyable ones. It also produced a lot of dull dreck, though even some of that dreck was at least entertaining. In the 1950s, there were a lot of those “realistic” atomic war movies that consisted mainly of a group of people sitting around in a bar discussing matters until an atom bomb fell and blew everyone up. The more creative films let giant red ants or some such creature stand in for the commies. Some of the more outlandish entries even had secret plots by the Chinese to tunnel under the Pacific Ocean and pop out in California ready for an invasion. During the 1960s, the Cold War sci-fi film gave way to straight-up espionage thrillers that always involved the Reds trying to steal some terrible device we never should have invented in the first place. Luckily, there’s always a square-jawed G-Man on the case, ready to dish out some beat-downs and bed some Eastern Bloc babes. Things got a lot more somber in the 1970s, both in tone and color palette.
When the 1980s came, Ronald Reagan rekindled the Cold War with a fire in his eye he’d not had since the days he was gleefully ratting out his co-stars in Hollywood and accusing them of being Commies. On the one hand, his crackpot brinkmanship seemed like it just might be the end of us all. On the other hand, he did bankrupt the Soviet Union and cause its collapse, thus ending the Cold War. History is funny like that. In the midst of the rhetorical sparring between Reagan and his Russian counterparts, Cold War paranoia films enjoyed renewed popularity. This time we were often blowing up the whole world then driving around in dune buggies after the dust settled. But although post-apocalypse films were the most noticeable and flamboyant, more than a few cloak and dagger thrillers slinked onto the screen as well. Unfortunately, a lot of those were geared toward kids and always featured a plucky young protagonist furiously pedaling his BMX bike away from pursuing Russian agents. Even when I was a young tot, if I was watching an action film, I wanted blood and explosions, and if possible, ninjas and nudity. Luckily, a few films emerged that satisfied my appetite for movies far more adult than I probably should have been watching.
I remember very vividly the night I first got to watch James Glickenhaus’ The Soldier. My friend had this older brother who liked to do typical big brother stuff like hide out in the woods and howl like a werewolf (or a regular wolf, I suppose) to get us scared. It rarely worked, and it was odd that he’d go to such extreme and goofy measures to spook us since we were far more afraid of him simply delivering a good-natured pounding to us. He was the one who let us hang out and watch The Soldier one night on cable. While I remember the whole night with rather bizarre clarity, about the only thing I could remember from the movie itself was a scene where some guy sneaks into an apartment and tries to strangle some other guy with a wire. The other guy blocks it with his arm, but the wire still cuts through his sweater and causes a decent amount of blood to flow. I have no idea why that scene is the one I remember, but there ya go.
The Soldier stars Ken Wahl, fresh off his turn in 1981’s Fort Apache, The Bronx (but better known here for his role in The Taking of Beverly Hills), as the Soldier, a CIA operative who is so tip-top secret that only the director of the CIA (and maybe the President) knows he even exists. As you expect from such a movie, the Soldier is the guy you call when all other options fail, when the task at hand is impossible, so on and so forth. Maybe if they trained all of their operatives this well, we wouldn’t need those “final option” guys so much, because the first option guys could actually get the job done. Maybe if the CIA stopped relying on twelve-year-old kids on bikes to outwit Russian spies, there’d be less need for the Soldier.
When we first meet the Soldier, he’s blowing away some terrorists in super slow-motion with ultra-wet bloody squibs while Tangerine Dream drones on in the background. So far, so good. Of course, this scene has nothing at all to do with anything else in the movie. It just shows us that the Soldier is a bad-ass, and the movie has really over-juiced its squibs — something of which I always approve. The actual plot kicks in when three terrorists — yep, three — hijack a shipment of weapons-grade plutonium being shipped on the back of an open-bed truck in a container clearly identifying it as weapons-grade plutonium, and with only one car to guard it. Oh, and a southern cop somewhere else up in the hills. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve never transported weapons-grade plutonium anywhere (as far as you know). Consumer grade for the kitchen, sure, but never weapons-grade. Nor have I ever been in the military in a position to be privy to the particulars of transporting such a cargo. Still, I’m pretty sure they don’t do it in a clearly-marked open-bed truck with only two guys in an Olds to guard it. Surely they’d do something like hide it amid a convoy of Piggly Wiggly trucks full of well-trained soldiers.
And surely they wouldn’t stop for anything, even a topless woman hitchhiking or a broken down car. But the terrorists in The Soldier don’t even need a topless hitchhiker, because this truck will stop for dang near anybody. When you only have a couple slow-witted guys guarding the deadliest substance on the planet, it’s no surprise that it only takes three terrorists to steal it. When the single cop finally shows up for support, he draws his gun and does the whole, “Freeze right there, mister!” routine. Now just as I’ve never been in the military, I’ve also never been a cop, but I’m pretty sure that when you’re approaching a group of men who you know gunned down two US soldiers, blew up a car, and are currently crawling around on top of the truck you know contains plutonium, there’s no need to be diplomatic about things. Of course, I suppose I could be wrong. If anyone in the military would like to confirm that James Glickenhaus is correct, and we truck around nuclear weapons with an escort of two Plymouths (one of which disappears), then I’ll apologize, revise this review, and promptly move somewhere with a little more security.
Now that they have the plutonium, the terrorists whip up an atom bomb and plant it somewhere in Saudi Arabia, demanding that Israel withdraw from the West Bank. If Israel refuses, the terrorists will set off the bomb, thus contaminating over 50% of the world’s oil supply and thrusting civilization into a state of anarchy. Israel refuses. Not wanting to see the world torn asunder, nor wanting to see the US go to war with Israel, the CIA sends…the Soldier! Of course, if he gets caught, the US government will deny his existence, et cetera. You’d think after about the nine hundredth time someone heard that speech, they could just skip it. This isn’t his first mission. He knows the “deny any knowledge of you and your actions” spiel. If they just gave it to them the day they graduated from “super duper spy training” school and added, “And this applies to everything you do from here on out, starting . . .now!” they’d save everyone a lot of time.
Meanwhile, over in Israel, Mossad agent Susan Goodman (Alberta Watson) is torturing what looks to be a caveman. Sure, it’s just a ruse to get someone else to talk, but doesn’t anyone notice that the guy pretending to get tortured has simian-like features and a forehead that slopes like a Neanderthal in order to hide the blood packets the Mossad installed in it to make his interrogation and execution seem realistic? Palestinians may not be up on all the latest techniques from Stan Winston, but I think even the untrained eye can spot a guy with three inches of latex protruding from his forehead and making him look like one a Star Trek: The Next Generation alien. About the only reason this sequence even exists is to introduce Susan, and the only reason she exists is so she can eventually sleep with…the Soldier!
While the Soldier prepares for his mission by playing Konami light gun games, the terrorists pass the day eavesdropping on the CIA. After building a bomb out of a light bulb, the terrorists infiltrates CIA headquarters and plants the dastardly device in the office of the head of the CIA. Let me do this one more time: I’ve never been a member of the CIA, but I remember their offices having security. You know, being the CIA and all. Yet this guy gets past all their security simply by throwing on a granny dress and a gray wig and pretending to be the cleaning woman. Wouldn’t security recognize the fact that she has man scruff and a wig that isn’t on properly? And wouldn’t they know who was and was not supposed to be cleaning the director’s office? Surely even the CIA wouldn’t fall for the old “the regular cleaning lady is sick, so I’m taking her place” bit.
The Soldier eventually goes to meet up with Klaus Kinski at some ski resort for no real reason other than, if you can get the services of Klaus Kinski for an hour, why not? If the Soldier had watched any movies before taking this assignment, he’d know that you can never trust Klaus Kinski. He’ll always betray you or crawl through the duct work to watch you undress. The Soldier and Klaus meet at a ski resort because it’s a convenient place to have the ski chase and shoot-out that’s become required for all spy films since James Bond first popularized them. Seriously, how many spy films have ski chases and shoot-outs? Bond seems to have had one in almost every movie since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Heck, even next generation spy movies like XXX knew enough to have a ski chase. But at least they make some perfunctory attempt to justify it in the story. Here, they just go to the ski resort for no reason. And then Klaus Kinski immediately betrays…the Soldier!
So they have a big ski chase, which is admittedly pretty good. The Soldier even does a 720 while firing an Uzi. Unlike the real world, where this would be an incredibly idiotic thing to do that would result in you hitting no one while everyone was free to take potshots at you, in the world of poorly-conceived Cold War action films, you can do the stunt in slow motion, allowing you to nail half a dozen fast-moving gunmen on skis while at the same time being able to dodge their attempts to shoot you. Eventually, the Soldier is able to punch one of the gunmen, which causes him to confess the entire plot to the Soldier, revealing that it’s not terrorists at all who are behind the atom bomb threat. It’s…the Russians!
Now wait just a minute here.
The Russians? Okay, I know it’s the Cold War, and the Russians are responsible for everything bad that happens, but the Russians need oil, too. I know they have a lot of their own, but surely even Russia can’t benefit from casting the bulk of the world into a state of anarchy. I mean, it’s going to affect them as well, like having unruly Eurotrash neighbors who smoke hash and blast dull trance albums all night. This is silly even for Cold War Russians. And why are they putting on this whole stupid show with making Israel vacate the West Bank? Why do they give a rat’s ass? If Israel had agreed to pull out of the West Bank, would the Russians just go, “Well, we didn’t expect that. Guess we better go turn off that bomb like we promised.” What’s with the dog and pony show? Why don’t they just set the bomb off and be done with things? I’ve seen better plans hatched by the kids who were trying to take over the Little Rascals fort, and all those plans involved dressing up like pirates and flinging Limburger cheese at each other.
In order to alert the CIA to the fact that it’s those dirty, no-good Commies behind the plot, the Soldier must break into a military base to use the phone. Why? Who knows? You’d think after all this time, he’d have a better way to contact the one guy who knows who he is. For some reason, the head of the CIA is sitting in the dark in his office, and only turns on the lamp with the exploding bulb when it’s convenient to the plot. Now the Soldier is on his own, with no allies save for the crack team he assembles to help him pull off a scheme even stupider than the one dreamed up by the Russians. The first guy he recruits is Steve James, best-known for carrying Michael Dudikoff through some American Ninja films. James was almost always relegated to playing sidekick to some lead-footed white hero, which was ironic since James was a better fighter and actor than pretty much everyone to whom he was forced to play second fiddle.
James (Steve) worked with James (Glickenhaus) in 1980 on the “‘Nam vet gets revenge” flick The Exterminator. In The Soldier, he’s the guy who sneaks in and does that attempted wire assassination I mentioned at the beginning of this article. Of course, after some fighting, they just laugh and embrace, glossing over the fact that had the Soldier not reacted in time he would have been decapitated. And even though he did react in time, he still has an inch-deep gash in his forearm. Do people, even highly trained people, really do this “trying to kill my buddy as a good joke” thing? Rough housing is fine and all, but most people draw the line at attempted murder, even if it’s all in good fun. Most people would just sneak up and give their buddy a wet willie.
The Soldier assembles the exact same crack team that is assembled for every movie of this nature. There’s Steve James, the drunk, the woman, and the guy who doesn’t want to be there. Together, they hatch a scheme in which the rest of the team will commandeer a nuclear missile silo while the Soldier drives around Berlin in a Porsche. The job of the guys in the silo is to threaten to nuke Moscow unless they drop this whole scheme with irradiating the Saudi oil fields. To show they mean business, the Soldier will drive fast and jump a sports car over the Berlin Wall. Score one for capitalism, baby!
Taking over the silo is ridiculously easy. It must have been on the same base that shipped nuclear materials in open-bed trucks with no armed escort. Or it’s the same base that can be infiltrated by a precocious bike-riding pre-teen who made his own clearance cards. Seriously, even though it’s adults doing the espionagin’, their plans are even more ridiculous than what any spy-thwarting youngster would have devised. I mean, we don’t want to lose the oil, so instead we’ll start World War III? At least the Russian plan could have resulted in Russia itself surviving and being a society where everyone wears burlap sacks and hoes the fields all day. The Soldier’s plan makes even the oil field scheme seem like a good idea. Why did he have to have his guys break in and take over the missile silo? All he does is meet up with the Russians in East Berlin and say, “We’re going to blow up Moscow if you blow up the oil,” and they take him at his word. They are terrified by the revelation that the Soldier now has a missile pointing at Moscow. Was it somehow a shock to the Soviets that we had missiles pointing at them? Who did they think we were pointing them at?
Or, I don’t know…it’s a thoughtful comment on the absurdity of brinkmanship?
The film isn’t helped by the Tangerine Dream score, which seems totally out of place in an action film. Moody synthesized new age music hardly communicates a sense of urgency, so even at the points where the film is well-paced and action-packed, it seems slow-moving. Sometimes a score that seems contradictory to the onscreen action can end up working quite well. This is not one of those times. And speaking of dull, it seems like Steve James is the only one doing any work. The concept of having more than one facial expression or tone of voice seems lost on Wahl, who glides through his performance as the Soldier with somnambulistic dreariness. Klaus Kinski is fine, as he always is, but he’s only in the movie for a tiny bit, long enough to justify listing him on the movie poster to snare any of the types of people who might be snared by Klaus Kinski’s name on a marquee.
With so many things going against this film, it’s no surprise that I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a failure as an espionage thriller, but as a shoddy action film it succeeds marvelously. There’s a lot of shooting, and when people get shot the blood really gushes. Ken Wahl (or his stunt double) gets to have a ski hill shoot out and jump an expensive sports car over the Berlin Wall, though you’ll be left wondering what sort of lame Porsche is unable to outrun an Army jeep. A lot of things blow up, and there’s one of those scenes where a fight breaks out in a cowboy bar and the band just keeps on playing as if it’s nothing out of the ordinary. So at least there’s a lot of action, and some of it is even exciting.
Despite making a number of action films, Glickenhaus never got the hang of it. For his next movie, 1985’s The Protector, even Jackie Chan couldn’t help Glickenhaus figure out how to stage a compelling action set piece. That The Soldier has any action at all worth watching is a bit of a miracle, but it’s a welcome surprise. Better spy films have come and gone, but The Soldier has enough gratuitous violence and bad writing to keep it on the list of fond memories. If you want your thrills delivered with brains and wit, you’d best look elsewhere. If you want them delivered with bloody squibs and asinine writing, then the film for the job just might be…The Soldier!