As fitting for a franchise about dead guys resurrecting to endlessly beat the shit out of one another, the Universal Soldier series somehow fought it’s way out of television movie purgatory to not only claw it’s way back into a theatrical release, but even managed to entice back original star Jean Claude Van Damme to once again fill the boots of reanimated soldier, Luc Devereux.
I would say fans rejoiced, but despite the original movie being a fun, 90’s knockabout, I don’t think I’ve ever met any hardcore fans of the franchise in the flesh and any who did exist were probably keeping their heads down after Showtime’s shitty double-bill aired.
However, while no one could accuse the original movie of being a intellectual actioner in the style of Inception, even I was taken aback as to the stunning lack of IQ this so-called true sequel displayed as it blundered through its ninety minute runtime with all the grey matter of a dropped blancmange.
On the other hand… is this necessarily a bad thing?
Years after dying in the battle fields of Vietnam only to be resurrected decades later to be part of the shadowy UniSol programme, Luc Devereux surprisingly now works with the government, training a new generation of zombie operatives by actively getting them to actually try and kill him. Lest we waste time and scant article space fretting about the fact that our hero seemingly now has no qualms about harvesting deceased American troops and using them as super-resilient thugs, I’d advise you not to worry too much about it – the script sure doesn’t.
Anyway, the entire UniSol program is run by a baritone voiced A.I. named S.E.T.H. and after this kooky computer programme finds out that it’s going to get shut down due to budget cuts, it chooses life, comandeers the UniSols to act as its unkillable drones and starts outsourcing the acquisition of a donor body from a fire IT guy who looks and acts like Bill Paxton punk cameo from The Terminator.
Speaking of The Terminator, while S.E.T.H. does his Skynet thing, Devereux, along with irritating reporter Erin Young, escape the facility and try a figure out ways to take S.E.T.H. out before the meat suit wearing A.I. cracks the code to a safety feature that will wipe him out in a matter of hours if it isn’t deactivated.
Using Romeo – a UniSol approximately the size and build of a brick forklift – as his point man, S.E.T.H. attempts to increase his chances of success by kidnapping Luc’s daughter who was seriously injured in the first attack and when all else fails, he gets his UniSols to shoot the living crap out of everything thing they can.
Can Devereux, empowered with all the abilities lazy script writing can offer a workaday action hero, stop S.E.T.H.’s plans to become a real boy – with sick abs?
I’m genuinely torn over exactly how to approach Universal Soldier’s second coming – on one hand, it’s a picture perfect example of idiotic action filmmaking at it’s absolute dumbest that contains all the directorial skill of your aversge Resident Evil sequel as it consistently aims automatic gunfire at the lowest common denominator. However, being the cinematic equivalent of low hanging fruit isn’t exactly a crime and Universal Soldier: The Return scores highly at being the sort of movie that lives an entirely separate life as the kind of movie that draws huge amounts of unintentional laughter from the kind of audience that likes to roast trash alive and hence I actually had something of a good time.
Loaded with so many plot inconsistencies the entire, muscle bound cast would no doubt pull a hernia if they tried to lift it, Universal Soldier: The Return is a goldmine of awful dialogue, nonsensical scenes and logic-free action thanks to the directorial feature debut of prolific stuntman and seasoned second unit director Mic Rodgers who proves he can shoot an action scene as good as anyone (the opening jet ski chase, featuring jumps, crashes and a dude water skiing with his feet, is a legitimate corker), but he struggles when trying to coax a single, recognisable, emotion out of his beefy cast. JCVD’s Devereux somehow has less emotions here than he did as a blank-eyed automaton in the first film, although he tries to draw some pathos from hugging a framed photo of him and his dead wife, even though their expressions look like they’re posing for a passport photo. Elsewhere, impossibly ripped Michael Jai White (Spawn) gives us a decent villain, but S.E.T.H. may actually be the dumbest, evil A.I. cinema has ever seen (He wants to conquer the world by taking himself out of the computer realm and commanding, like, fifty dudes), but the most cringe worthy shit is left to wrestler Bill Goldberg’s henchman, Romeo. Simply seeing if his WCW schtick works in a Hollywood movie (it doesn’t), Bill’s gimmick is to constantly keep getting flattened by various things only to dust himself of like Tex Avery on literal steroids while growing his instantly forgettable catchphrase “I hate that guy.”. Still, while this utterance may not be a “I’ll be back.” it’s still head and shoulders above some of the other utterances heard by the rest of the cast.
“He’s taking over, let’s back out slowly.” squawks Van Damme as S.E.T.H. first starts lashing out at his fleshy overlords and a little while later, Luc and his nemesis has this magical exchange – “Give me the code or I will have to kill you!”, “You wont kill me, because I have the code!”; are these guys even listening to each other? And still the clangers ensue with such treasures as S.E.T.H.’s plea of “Isn’t your daughter’s life more important to you than my destruction?” – to which Luc snappily replies “Fuck you!” – who needs Billy Wilder, eh?
However, as dopey as it is, you get the very real feeling that the movie is trying to make its audience from the teenagers addicted to watching the Monday Night Wars between WWE and WCW that was raging at the time. How else to you explain a soundtrack crammed with 90’s metal like Megadeth and Gwar and an utterly random scene where Luc and Erin break into a strip club in order to use their internet in order to up the titty quota.
Taken on this basis, Universal Soldier: The Return makes a helluva lot more sense, even if the result meant Jean Claude Van Damme didn’t manage to make another movie with a wide theatrical release until 2012. Containing less brains and filmmaking acumen than one of Goldberg’s delts, the movie also tries to make us believe the American government would actually mothball a project that has successfully bought a human being back from the dead and restored his personality in an act of a scientific miracle – I mean, that’s essentially what Devereux is, for crying out loud; why weaponize a bunch of sweaty chunk heads when rich people have a genuine shot at immortality?
Brawn over brains is the name if the game as all sense of reason is drowned out by cool explosions and Van Damme’s scattershot accent.
UniSol? Try Anusol.