Imagine yourself as a muscular second-tier actor in the late 1980s. You see Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone making millions of dollars for doing nothing more than shooting people and grunting. No talent necessary.
What do you say to your agent? "Get me on THAT gravy train!"
Thus, Universal Soldier was born.
Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren weren't nobodies in 1992, but they weren't exactly at the Arnie level yet. JCVD, a so-called karate "expert," had headlined a host of B-movies (Double Impact, Bloodsport). Dolph was most known for his role in Rocky IV, during which he spoke little English; he had also starred in awful movies like Red Scorpion and Masters of the Universe.
This movie was going to be different. A decent-sized budget; two recognizeable stars; a 1980s-style action movie. As The Terminator propelled Arnie to fame, so would Universal Soldier for JCVD and Dolph.
It didn't exactly work out that way. Oh well.
The movie's plot, as you may expect, is ridiculous.
JCVD and Dolph are United States soldiers during the Vietnam War. Dolph goes crazy and kills peasants; a homesick JCVD tries to stop him. They both die in the process.
Instead of getting soldiers' burials, they are sent to some super-secret U.S. lab (the necromancy division of the CIA, I'd imagine) and are turned into Special Ops zombies. They follow orders exactly and are impervious to bullets and stuff.
But during a mission, Dolph remembers that he's crazy, and JCVD remembers that he hates the army. JCVD decides to go home to his rather surprised (and now elderly) parents, while Dolph takes control over the necro-Marines. Also, a TV reporter (played by Ally Walker of "Profiler" fame) teams up with JCVD as he goes AWOL. Much fighting ensues.
JCVD's status as a corpse prevents the movie from following the stock formula for action movies, as any romantic relationship he could have with the reporter would fall under necrophilia. Moreover, I wonder if his lack of a functioning cardiovascular system would prevent him from "raising the bar."
(Counterpoint: In the movie's climax, JCVD shoots himself up with steroids and immediately becomes even more powerful. So that blood is sure pumping!)
The movie made $36 million, about as much as a bad Stallone movie would earn at the time. Needless to say, JCVD's and Dolph's respective careers did not take off. (JCVD would later star in horrible movies with Rob Schneider and Dennis Rodman; Dolph would play a supporting role in Johnny Mnemonic.)
Roland Emmerich directed Universal Soldier. He would later be responsible for Independence Day.
Two made-for-TV sequels later came out (Universal Soldier II: Brothers in Arms and Universal Soldier III: Unfinished Business). Neither JCVD nor Dolph were involved in these, which should tell you something. JCVD would, however, make a theater-released sequel in 1999 named Universal Soldier: The Return, which is alternatively called Universal Soldier II or Universal Soldier IV by people who keep track of these things. Michael Jai White and the professional wrestler Goldberg co-starred. Shamefully, Burt Reynolds was involved in the made-for-TV "sequels."
Sources: IMDB, of course.
Thanks to Master Villain, Zerotime, mr100percent, and Servo5678 for helpful feedback.