Solo (1996) — A puzzled, programmable man in action

“First rule when you’re dealing with the devil: Don’t.”

Shalen’s rating: One out of three actual Spanish words found in this film.

Shalen’s review: When I reviewed Soldier, I thought not many people would be familiar with it. Conversations I’ve had with people suggest this is true. And yet somehow, Solo manages to share elements with that film. The Mechanical Man archetype is fairly universal and bound to come up again and again, but there’s more to it than that. Take the scene in which Solo (Mario Van Peebles) catches a striking snake with his hand to save a child, or the part when he uses his newly found “bluff” skills to deceive another android. There seem to be some transplants from Predator and Terminator as well, not to mention Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Did anyone else wonder why Data seemed to be able to “feel” things even before he came up with the emotions chip? Expect to see a lot of that sort of thing here, such as when Solo suggests he cares about Bill by putting out the latter’s cigarette. At least they didn’t cop out to the extent of allowing Solo a sex drive. Laughs galore at his reaction to the nudie poker cards the villagers are playing with.

There is a plot to this film… in a manner of speaking. Solo is created by the military to fight guerrillas in some tropical nation that is never named and whose foliage frequently looks rather temperate. The U.S. spent a billion dollars, yet somehow managed to get a product whose computer brain is slower than the average office PC from 1990. Then there’s the fact that he tends to be squeamish about killing people, possibly because the single scientist who built him appears to be a Berkeley graduate. Solo’s programming problems first show up when he kills a soldier in a practice fight (Which raises the question, why are they using their own soldiers to test this invincible superweapon?). It’s a good thing this project is classified, or it would be awkward to explain to the mens’ families: “We’re sorry. We told him to attack our new android that is ten times stronger and faster than a human. Wouldn’t you know it, it snapped his neck like a cheap pencil.”

Before you know it, Solo is refusing to slaughter civilians, escaping the base in a helicopter he stole, and crashing it in the jungle near some friendly natives. Then some guerrillas plus some Americans start harassing the locals, and of course they turn to their new acquaintance for help. The rest, as they say, is history, and Solo spends the rest of the movie defending them from the various bad fellows, including a scenery-chewing Colonel Madden.

The script is bad and often hilarious. The acting, for the most part, is wooden or over the top. The camera work seems fairly pedestrian, and there’s nothing particularly interesting in the use of color. (See Terminator 2’s washed-out blues and grays or Soldier’s blue/tan contrast for examples that were interesting.) The action scenes are nothing new, either, but at least this director had not yet been to the “shake the camera around so we can’t see what’s going on” school of action direction. The fact that Solo manages to be topless for almost the entire film began to suggest to me that this was a tactic of distraction aimed at viewers, but since most viewers are presumably going to be straight males, I could be wrong.

There’s more. While the filmmakers managed to get someone on the crew that knew how to handle an orange-kneed tarantula — and kudos to Mr. Van Peebles for handling the cuddly arachnid himself as well — they did NOT manage to get anyone who could tell them that spiders are not “anthropods.”* Someone must have also realized how it sounded for the comically pseudo-Southern General (Barry Corbin) to say, “Somethin’s cookin’ in that boy’s head,” because they make sure we know that Solo chose to look African American.** This is really too bad, because they could have created an interesting social commentary on the white fear of black violence a la Night of the Living Dead. I suspect that would have required too much depth for this kind of film.

None of this should suggest that I think this movie is not worth watching. Far from it. I actually paid seven dollars at my local Bi-Mart to have it for my very own. I personally love movies that are this bad, and when I get the chance, I can watch them by the dozen. As the discerning reader probably realizes by now, there is considerable unintentional humor in this film. I’m particularly fond of the fact that Mario Van Peebles chose, instead of going the menacing Terminator route, to play Solo with a permanently puzzled expression. Everything about his performance says, “What am I doing here, again?”

Mostly this is a film to watch for the purpose of mocking it, which is one of my favorite pastimes. If you’re looking for a moving, philosophical, thought-provoking action flick, go watch something directed by Kurasawa. If you’re looking for some cheap fun with friends, this is absolutely the right film for you. Now put down the weapon, before you damage yourself.

* I am an anthroPOID, and presumably so are you, unless my reviews have become popular with the tentacled inhabitants of the Planet Cephalopoda. Spiders are ARTHROpods.
** This and other films strongly suggest to me that if you join the Army, and your CO turns out to have a Southern accent, you might as well kill yourself right then. There is no way on earth he’s not going to turn out to be evil, crazy, or both.

Didja notice?

  • Is it just me, or does Solo’s onboard computer seem to be a Kaypro? This might explain some things.
  • Solo has to select from menus to perform internal commands, as if he is a user instead of a computer. Why?
  • Don’t play with guns, kids!
  • Solo likes spiders. Hooray.
  • The New Model appears to be wearing some kind of fetish ensemble. Check out the metal knobs and pikes.
  • The New Model’s vision looks like the creature’s vision from Predator.

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