I’ve got spies. They’re coming to get you.
From Berlin to Rome, Bangkok, Germany. – Spies, Roni Griffith
It takes a lot less to end the world. – The Soldier
If ever there was a downright halcyon time for the action film genre, it was the 1980s. The decade was positively brimming with ultra-violence and ultra-conservatism, because, hey, one extreme will beget another every time. In that age of jocular men, bulging muscles, Hank Williams Jr-patriotism-rot, and enough body counts to give any future serial killer the groinal feels, there is one entry that managed to bridge the octane, pseudo-militaristic-politics, and gunpowder that one expects along with some key unique twists to the sub-genre. Dim the lights and get ready, ladies, gents, and other kindly souls, for James Glickenhaus’ 1982 film, The Soldier.
The Soldier, both written and directed by Glickenhaus, who had a hit previously with 1980’s The Exterminator (whose striking poster art was designed by Stephen Sayadian), is a film with a singular title but a focus on many parts, cross-sections and characters. Ken Wahl (who was so good on the late 1980s television show, Wiseguy) plays the titular Soldier, who is part of a small and elite CIA group that is known to act independently of the government. Their skills and brass-testicular-fortitude soon comes in handy when a group of KGB agents manage to steal Plutonium from the United States and smuggle it to a prominent oil field in Saudi Arabia, all in the name of holding the US and the world at large hostage. If the plutonium is detonated, then at least half of the world’s oil supply will be gone, and the fields contaminated for at least three hundred years.
You know what this calls for…this calls for THE SOLDIER…and his force…and some politicians and a fairly inefficient US President (a huge stretch of the imagination, I know). The yin to our heroic yang are the KGB terrorists headed by Ivan (the late Jeremiah Sullivan) whose physical presence and gait is eerily reminiscent of a mal-intented Taylor Negron. In short? Perfection.
Glickenhaus’ approach with this film is fascinating, especially when compared to the film’s more uber-jockstrap brethren. In lieu of the film being fully anchored to our title character, we’re given the plot, characters, and situations as one tense and paranoiac pastiche. The Tangerine Dream soundtrack pins this tone with quicksilver precision, incorporating electronics that are tense and evocatively militaristic. There’s a spy in every corner and a split-second manner of death primed to hit in ways that are as bloody as they are efficient.
The cast, all players in this world-continually-primed-for-self-destruction, are a true and firmly colorful lot. There’s Ken Wahl as our titular hero, whose striking good looks and quiet calm brings a sense of believability to a man whose mind is as sharp and ready as his physical agility. Wahl’s understatedness is actually a breath of fresh air, since a bigger, more “…ahh…fuck yes…I’m a maaahhhnnnn…” type of performance would be wickedly out of place in the The Soldier’s universe. The aforementioned Sullivan is equally a more toned-down main villain, with him replacing scenery gobbling with subtle menace, giving us an intelligently conniving character. (Plus, again, he looks like a sleazy Taylor Negron! It’s amazing.)
The rest of the cast is peppered with a medley of standout character actors, including the luminous Alberta Watson, who was in the television version of La Femme Nikita (1997-2001) and Hedwig & the Angry Inch (2001), the way underrated and sadly late Steve James, a very young Jeffrey Jones, Joaquim de Almeida, Peter Hooten, and William Prince as the lame but ultimately powerful American President. And then there’s one of the granddaddies of character actors. A man whose mere glance and barely three-minute-long screen time will still be one of the things you will not forget anytime soon. I’m talking about the man, Klaus Kinski. Kinski was an actor whose resume was/is as wild and rich as his talent, temper, passion, and madness. If any actor was the living human embodiment of “sturm und drang,” it was Kinski. Kinski literally is in The Soldier for a wee handful of minutes, which made me a little sad, but you do get to see him be menacing in all white ski gear, which is like a little ribbon-wrapped box right there.
The main attraction, aside for us character actor diehards, is the action itself and The Soldier most definitely delivers. The opening scene alone includes a woman pushing a baby carriage getting hit and run by a big black car, multiple people getting violently gunned down, and the Soldier himself washing the blood off of the streets with a fire extinguisher. In other words, this is a film that has no qualms or fears for getting its knuckles gnawed up and bloody.
Naturally, The Soldier is a product of the Cold War that was endured during the 1980s. (Isn’t it nice that countries like the United States and the former Soviet Union are past things like fear, paranoia, and fascism? And if you believe that, then I have a bootleg beta tape of Red Dawn to sell you down by the river, along with some Toby Keith cassettes and Hank Jr. rebel flags.) With that, there are details that make people from all sides seem shifty and not always pure shades of white or black, which is honestly nice and a little more true to life.
The cinematography, courtesy of Robert M. Baldwin, who also lensed the incredible Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) and the lovably bonkers Frankenhooker (1990), is striking, making great use of the multiple locations used all throughout. The filming locations range from New York to Austria to Israel and Germany, giving this epic, authentically international flair to the proceedings. Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release, which is absolutely glorious, does thorough justice to Baldwin’s quality work. (This sweet edition also features some informative commentaries courtesy of Glickenhaus and separately, film historian Jim Hemphill.) On a total side note, look for an early appearance from country music superstar, George Strait, which might be the only time in history that Tangerine Dream have been utilized right next to Strait.
In an age of bloated, almost three-hour long Hollywood CGI snoozy-action blockbusters, seeing something as precise and taut as The Soldier is a breath of fresh air…well fresh air peppered with powder burns and yelling, which is honestly even better! Hell, even in the eighties, which was equally bloated in its own ways, The Soldier is a clean and solid film. Couple that with a sterling soundtrack, luminous cinematography, and a firm and never-boring cast and you have one underrated action film of one of the most prismatic but also terrible decades in modern history. After all, the Cold War has never truly thawed and with that, good cinema is always and continually needed.