I’ve always found it ironic when franchises that concern themselves with characters that keep regenerating back to life get an inordinate amount of reboots in an attempt to try and forge new ground. Think Michael Myers has more separate timelines than Kang The Conqueror? Try Luc bloody Devereux from the Universal Soldier movies.
After wading through the bilge of the two UniSol TV movies and sight of Van Damme repeatedly making Bill Goldberg look like a tit in the beefcake-stuffed Universal Soldier: The Return in the late nineties, filmmakers took yet another swing at following up Roland Emmerich’s original in 2009 with Universal Soldier: Regeneration. However, this time matters were arranged to not just have JCVD scrap with more swole dudes with cameras strapped to their eye sockets and simply call it a day – no, this time the movie would have a secret weapon locked away in its sinister-looking cryo-tube; this time they’d be an actual return.
After a brazen, daylight attack, Commander Topov and a band of terrorists manage to successfully kidnap the children of the Ukrainian Prime Minister and vow to hold them hostage until various, imprisoned comrades are given their freedom. In order to sweeten the deal further, they’ve also made their base of operations among the desolate ruins of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant with the intention of detonating it within 72 hours if their demands are not met.
How has a relatively low-level terrorist group managed to pull off such a feat? Simple, Topov has managed to secure the services of rogue UniSol scientist Dr. Robert Colin who has brought an experimental, next generation UniSol (or NGU, for all you acronym enthusiasts out there) along to the party. Virtual indestructible and able to reattach busted limbs, the U.S. forces trying to liberate the power plant and save the hostages send in four regular old UniSols who are routinely turned into bloody piles of protein power by their superior enemy and so scientist Dr. Richard Porter has no option but to secure the services of Luc Devereux.
However, Devereux has since retired and, after years of gruelling therapy, has finally started to get out of the mindset of a back-from-the-dead soldier programmed to be a mindlessly obedient, one-man slaughter factory. Bringing him back into the fold means doing so against the will of his therapist, but nevertheless, Luc eventually finds himself soon strapped to a table taking in UniSol goo through a tube in his arm – however, this might actually be a good thing, because there’s not just the NGU to deal with, but Dr. Colin’s insurance policy against his terrorist patners; a cloned Andrew Scott – a two-time nemesis of Devereux’s, whose grudge goes back to when they both killed the crap out of each other in ‘Nam!
So, file this one under pleasant suprise!
Now, hold on. Before you all get super excited, this fifth entry into the Universal Soldier cannon isn’t some low budget action masterpiece that’s been hiding under our nose, disguised by the fact that its operating undervalued brand name no one’s given a shit about since 1992. However, it is something of a notable step up in quality from a franchise that’s been suffering in gargantuan lapses in quality since the very second it was first sequalized. Director John Hyams – son of fellow director Peter Hyams who directed Van Damme in Timecop and Sudden Impact and who serves as cinematographer here – obviously believes there’s faint life in the property yet and while the previous installment was understandably preoccupied with dropping wrestlers into the mix, here Hyams turns to the world of MMA to supply him with scowl-faced heavies to bring the pain. Leading the charge is professional face-breaker Andrei Arlovski, whose, giant, breeze-block shaped head endows the NGU with all the personality of a discarded shopping trolley, but reveals himself to be a veritable Lawrence Oliver when it comes to wiping the floor with a string of hapless stuntmen. Elsewhere, in a subplot that goes nowhere except to pad out the already anaemic story, we find fellow fist-flinger Mike Pyle who plays a captain named Kevin, who attempts to infiltrate Chernobyl solo and ultimately is only present to give Arlovski someone formidable to batter whole we wait for the glorified cameos from Jean Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren to kick in.
It’s here that we unlock Regeneration’s biggest flaw and yet also its most fun aspect as, thanks to the rise of the aging action hero (The Expendables was only a year away) we get to see Devereux and Scott face off once more – but only if we’re patient. Watching Arlovski utterly destroy his opponents with fight scenes that look suspiciously like they were staged with full contact blows is certainly fun, but the fact that the NGU’s zombified persona matches his emoting ability perfectly means he’s hardly magnetic and the same goes for Pyle’s truly meaningless plot threat, so the first half of the movie is as much as a tiring slog as dragging yourself up the side of Ben Nevis while wearing ill-fitting clown shoes.
The far more serious tone, while welcome, doesn’t really help at first, either. Hyams introduces grim themes that covers the misuse of soldiers for selfish wars and mistreatment of veterans trying to overcome traumatic events and places them in locations that have almost every speck of colour mercilessly saturated out of them by the most excessive use of colour grading seen since Zack Snyer.
For a while there, you’re wondering why you’re bothering as, aside from an opening car chase that’s satisfyingly crunch-worthy, the film is seemingly content to tread water and hold back on it’s two stars, but as the film enters its third reel, business picks up substantially and doesn’t stop.
Essentially, what saves the film is a magnificently brusing brawl between Van Damme and Lundgren (or, for a sizable part, their stunt doubles) that not only meets your expectations, but wildly exceeds it as the two men put each other through solid brick walls and hurl each other through the air. A fight in a low budget, fifth installment of an idling franchise has no business bring this good, but I drop to my knees and thank the movie gods that it is because it ends up making everything that came before it worth it, even if JCVD’s best days are visibly far behind him. Simply put, while Ludgren looks suitably grizzled, the muscles from Brussels looks haggard.
While any semblance of levity or logic noticably takes a holiday (if the NGU can eventually heal from any wound, why is he sporting a broken nose so flat it would barely trip a spirit level), but Hyams manages to make his shots count thanks to a rousing final act that actual delivers on its promises on a noticably tight budget.
Sometimes, soldiering on actually provides results.