Director: Norberto Barba
Writer: David L. Corley, Robert Mason
Cast: Mario Van Peebles, William Sadler, Adrien Brody, Barry Corbin, Demian Bichir, Jaime Gomez, Seidy Lopez, Abraham Verduzco, Joaquín Garrido, William Wallace
Running Time: 94 min.
By Kyle Warner
Browsing for the new movie to watch in your free time used to be different. I mean, obviously. We’re swamped with choices now, with thousands available to stream at the touch of a button. And it’s awesome, it really is. But I must admit I miss the days of aimlessly browsing the aisles of Blockbuster (RIP), picking up the box of a movie I’ve never heard of before, and making decisions based entirely on cast listings, cool art, and blurbs alone. Our decision to watch/not watch a movie today is often an informed decision based on the streaming website’s average rating for a title, websites dedicated to film reviews, and social media word of mouth. As such, I think we have fewer ‘happy accidents’ when we pick an unknown movie and have it become a new favorite. I bring this up, because I can still remember films that I made mental notes of wanting to see one day based on Blockbuster browsing, but upon remembering those films in the internet age I realize that I might’ve dodged a bullet by picking a different movie on that particular Blockbuster visit. 1996’s Solo is one such movie, a sci-fi action flick starring Mario Van Peebles as a cyborg soldier being hunted in the jungle.
The art is simple but effective; tough guy holding a pistol just so with foliage over one half his face and techno chip art over the other. The tagline: “Part Man, Part Machine, Total Weapon.” Dude. That’s like, purpose-made for a young American male. Of course, being older now, I’m pickier about what qualifies as entertainment, so the numerous negative Solo reviews have put it on the backburner for a while. However, I was reminded of it again with the upcoming (unrelated!) Star Wars film Solo coming soon to theatres, so I decided to bite the bullet and hit play (I watched it via on-demand streaming, of all things. It all comes circling back around).
Solo, the character at the center of the film, is combination of man and machine. Solo the movie is also a combination of sorts. There is a lot of Terminator and Predator in this movie. (Solo also resembles Universal Soldier. However, Solo is based on a 1989 novel titled Weapon, which came out before Universal Soldier hit theatres in 92, so comparing it to the JCVD/Lundgren film may be unfair.) This is one incredibly unoriginal film. Thing is, a copycat can still be entertaining. And Solo starts off decent enough.
Mario Van Peebles (New Jack City) plays Solo as a detached, logic driven ultimate soldier. He is presented to US military leaders as the perfect weapon and a disposable killing machine. Solo is sent on mission to topple a warlord (Demian Bichir, Machete Kills) who threatens a South American government friendly to the US. Solo is prepping bombs around the warlord’s camp, marking enemy soldiers with advanced tech that reminds us both of Predator and of videogames of today. It’s when he begins mark civilians that Solo has a crisis of conscience and pulls the plug on the operation, believing it goes against his mission protocol. William Sadler (Die Hard 2) — playing one of the cheesiest military villains of all time — orders the bombs to explode anyway, despite the risk to civilians and Solo. With the mission a wash, Solo is recalled and his creator (Adrien Brody, Dragon Blade) is commanded to explain why the cyborg didn’t follow orders. What Solo saw as a contradiction of mission protocol the military sees as proof that the machine is developing a conscience. He is to be wiped and reprogrammed. When Solo catches wind of this, he sees it as a threat, and steals a helicopter to escape from his military masters.
That’s a strong start. It’s nothing especially new, but the action and the implications of where it could go next are promising enough. From there, however, things start to bog down. Solo crashes his helicopter in the jungle, where he is recovered by the very civilians he failed his mission to save. Solo, close to the end of his battery life, becomes a hero for the oppressed people as the warlord threatens their village once again. Meanwhile, William Sadler’s crazy colonel is still hunting Solo, and is willing to disobey orders to bring the machine in alive. That sounds like an entertaining set up for a movie. At the very least, you wouldn’t expect it to be boring. And yet, Solo finds a way. At the half-way point, the movie becomes a complete bore. He helps the underdogs fight back against warlords in a battle reminiscent of the Ewoks attacking the Empire, complete with logs on ropes. It should not be boring. But it is.
Imagine Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Data in his own action movie and then take away all the heart, humor, and deep questions and you have a pretty good idea of what kind of movie Solo is. It repeats all the ‘what is laughter?’ ‘why do humans lie?’ ‘why would you put yourself in harm’s way for another person?’ horseshit that we’ve seen done better a hundred times before in other sci-fi. Solo seems like a story made for asking the question about a disposable fighting force but it never goes there. There would seem to be some interest in talking about how American conflicts impact Native peoples in underdeveloped regions, but that’s probably just me looking for purpose. Truth is, I don’t think Solo has anything going on in that artificial brain. It’s a cheesy action movie made with borrowed parts and is probably best enjoyed drunk and with friends willing to laugh at all the bad dialogue.
The movie makes some attempts to humanize Solo by making him interested in spiders and insects. He admires their design. He hangs out with tarantulas and puts drawings of bugs all over his room. But this interest must’ve been a passing phase because it goes away around the second act. It’s just another example of how undercooked the movie is.
However, the insect stuff does at least give us one weird line of dialogue as William Sadler remarks, “’Welcome to the jungle,’ said the spider to the fly.” I laughed. Actually, there’s a lot of unintentionally funny dialogue (“Droids don’t bluff!” shouted with complete seriousness is another winner) but I was too bored to get much joy out of it. One peculiar line has the cyborg creator played by Adrien Brody complaining, “I should’ve stayed in college,” which only begs the question, how or why is a billion-dollar Pentagon science experiment being operated by a college dropout? (In all fairness, there is one line which I did like. Solo is explaining that his brain resides in his chest. He is asked, “What about your heart?” He says he doesn’t have one. Only living things have a heart. To which the other person points out that he is a living thing. And Solo simply remarks, “No. I exist.” I mean, it’s not like, whoa. But it’s not bad.)
I wish I could say something good about the action sequences, but it would go against my programming. Though Mario Van Peebles makes for a capable hero lead, the action editing is scattershot. Solo drops upside down from a tree branch to crack a guy’s neck, then we cut and he’s throwing a tree, and then cut to bullets flying his way as he runs. One amazing moment has the dude doing some Olympic gymnastics to avoid getting hit by explosive rounds.
Only Mario Van Peebles and Adrien Brody get away from the movie not embarrassing themselves (I felt bad for Sadler). Mario Van Peebles shows that maybe he should’ve been given more opportunities as an action hero leading man with better material. And though Brody’s character is not well written either, the young actor does show a good bit of range in this early role.
Solo is, sad to say, best left remembered as the movie you put back on the Blockbuster shelf when you decided to rent The Terminator for the fifth time instead. It’s too silly, cheap, and dull to stand on its own next to similar (and better) movies.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 3/10