Out of all those sub-Schwarzenegger/Stallone '80s action heroes, like Van Damme, Wesley Snipes and Dolph Lundgren, my personal favourite has always been Steven Seagal. He may be a total one-trick pony, but that's ok as long as you enjoy watching that particular trick. And yes, he may wear his environmental and political beliefs on his sleeve (see On Deadly Ground) but at least he has some valid points, even if they are often expressed inappropriately. And even if he can't act worth a damn, him just being himself makes for a fair amount of charm, charisma and slickly-executed martial arts moves. Oh, and if you're not sold on him having given anything back in all his years of success, he's apparently been working as a cop for the last 20 years in his spare time. And keeping it fairly quiet, too, by the sounds of it. I honestly have no idea where he finds the time to churn out 3 bad Straight-to-DVD movies a year.
Van Damme, on the other hand, always seemed like just a one-trick pony too, and I happened not to enjoy his particular high-kicking (or trademark 'doing the splits) moves half as much as Seagal's almost-effortless, classy Aikido movies. And they really never managed to satisfactorily explain his damn accent - his desperate efforts to emote seldom succeeding whilst he mumbled, often almost incoherently, in his bastardised French/New Orleans/American tongue. It wasn't until I saw a little-known DTV gem called Wake of Death that I actually realised something that I had never noticed before - this man can act. No, seriously. Once you've stopped laughing, I'm going to repeat it. Jean-Claude Van Damme, the kickboxing, double dragon timecop himself can act.
A few lacklustre DTV movies later (though not quite of the Seagal standard, they weren't much better really) and he signs up for an indie film that's simply called JCVD, where he plays... well, himself really. It's a pseudo-factual docu-drama disguised under the thin veil of being a heist thriller. And after seeing the hell he goes through losing his daughter in a bitter court battle during the first act, you know you're in for some serious tragedy here. If there was any forum for Van Damme to show off his acting mettle, it was with this movie and, about two thirds of the way through, he does exactly that, giving us an extended monologue - told directly to the camera - where his words and tears are so moving that you could easily draw comparisons between this effort and the effort of a certain Mr. Rourke in The Wrestler. And whilst I would have given Rourke the Oscar for that performance, where does that leave the oft-overlooked Van Damme. Well, I think that was exactly his point. Speaking in his native French tongue, talking about the hell of Hollywood, the drugs, the women, the bad movies - it all rang so true when you looked back on his litany of increasingly poor action vehicles. The Muscles from Brussels must have truly hated his nickname. It seemed all he ever wanted (and, all he ever needed, from the evidence in JCVD) was a chance to also flex his acting muscles. And really, the guy can be compelling in his native French.
After seeing JCVD I wondered whether it might mark the end of an era for this high-kicking action superstar. Maybe we would never see 'the Muscles' again, the days of his throwaway action movies would finally be over. And that made me a little bit sad, even if I rejoiced in the fact that his dream was finally coming true. He turned down The Expendables, that all-(80s)-star ensemble action vehicle from Stallone, which has just about everybody else from the 80s action era in it, and instead was looking to write, star and maybe even direct something. Was this the end of old, classic JCVD?
Then he signed up for a 14 day shoot on Universal Soldier: Regeneration. I was shocked. What the hell was going on?! Shot on a ludicrously low budget, with just a bunch of MMA fighters playing the main characters, along with an extended cameo from the Universal Soldier franchise's original villain - Dolph Lundgren himself - I wondered whether this may just end up ruining everything that Van Damme set out to do with JCVD. Even if that little indie flick made just a small percentage of its viewers sit up and take note of what the guy was saying, that meant something, and I was worried that his return to UniSol monotone would undo all that good, as had happened before when he attempted a comeback with the universal flop Universal Soldier: The Return in 1999. Could this, his second sequel in the franchise, actually be any good? I mean, come on?! Surely it's just another shoddy, Seagal-standard DTV paycheque for the man? Well, you'd be surprised...
Terrorists have seized control of an abandoned nuclear reactor at Chernobyl (in the part of the former USSR that is now the Ukraine), and order the Prime Minister to release several hundred of their political prisoner comrades within 72 hours, failing which they will destroy the reactor, creating a nuclear explosion estimated to be 100 times as devastating as Hiroshima. With the Prime Minister's own children held hostage within the camp, the military have to act fast if they want to save the lives that are on the line. Complicating matters somewhat, the terrorists have managed to obtain a prototype super-soldier, on 'lease' to them by the project's designer, a rogue scientist who wants to fund his own private super-soldier program and create an army of the hard-to-kill machine-like men. The prototype soldier is a next generation universal soldier (NGU) and, after the military's first batch of thawed-out first-generation UniSols fail to prove much of a match for his might, they have to pull the last remaining member of the UniSol team out of retirement.
Luc Devereaux, formerly known as UniSol GR44, is still in rehabilitation following his earlier escapades as a regenerated ex-Vietnam vet supersoldier. Although seemingly much more placid and domesticated, he still has his violent outbursts, and still finds it difficult to get accustomed to a normal human life. Reluctantly drafted back in, as the military's last, best hope to rescue the children and stop the terrorists, he has but 35 minutes to assault the compound and kill his way to the reactor. Of course, even if he makes it through the terrorist army, he still has to face their most deadly weapon, the NGU. And since the rogue scientist in league with the terrorists has decided to thaw out a cloned first-generation UniSol - Devereaux's old 'Nam nemesis Sergeant Andrew Scott - Luc may just have his hands full trying to complete this mission.
In nearly a decade of reviewing, this is easily the best DTV release that I have ever seen, better even than some of the theatrically-released action-thrillers that I have come across recently. Made for a budget of just $14 Million (!!), its success lies in avoiding trying to look like a big budget actioner - with plenty of CG and glamorous effects - and instead allow the solid 'The Rock'-style premise to play out as more of a classic 80s sci-fi thriller like the original Terminator. The key to what made these sorts of movies work was the fact that they used the framework of a horror movie, only set in a sci-fi setting, and with more action (i.e. gunplay) thrown into the mix. Escape from New York had those kind of horror elements working for it (well what did you expect from John Carpenter) and Terminator used them perhaps better than any other movie to date - the Terminator himself marking the ultimate 'serial killer'.
It's rather an odd twist in evolution for Universal Soldier: Regeneration to revert to such dark and moody aspirations in its third (or fifth, if you really have to count the two non-Van Damme TV movies) instalment, as normally it is the other way round. Normally, the first movie is the low-key, claustrophobic affair, the sequels upping the action ante (Alien to Aliens, Terminator to T2), but in this case the original Universal Soldier, whilst an enjoyable chunk of 80s throwaway sci-fi action, was certainly less horror and more Hollywood actioner. Universal Soldier: The Return is barely worth mentioning, but if we have to talk about it - which strictly we don't, as this story ignores it entirely - it should be regarded as a bad (and commercially disastrous) movie made during a potential comeback period in Van Damme's life. The Return even had a theatrical run, and the result of its supreme failure was JCVD's relegation to the DTV ranks. Regeneration turns the whole franchise on its head, stripping it of any previous glamour, uneasy comedy, or hammy villainy, and instead imbuing it with an unsettling, cold horror edge. There's no escaping that uneasy feeling that anyone and everyone is expendable, that there are no heroes, no happy characters, no romantic interests, and even no blue skies. There's just the mission, and the soldiers who will take whatever punishment is in store to complete it. If this had been the story and production team behind The Return in 1999, and with the budget of said film (three times as much as Regeneration which, ten years ago, was a fairly hefty chunk of change considering that in the same year The Matrix was made for not much more) I wouldn't have been surprised if Van Damme would have succeeded in his comeback, and spent the last ten years free from the straight-to-DVD dungeon that he's been locked in.
Although Van Damme may be the star of the movie, there is definitely more going on here. This movie is good for reasons above and beyond his participation (even if he is great in it), and the credit for that should really go to the production team. Now, the reason why I say production team is because the Director John Hyams isn't technically the only man to thank. He's practically unknown, has directed little of any significance, but is famous for being the son of Peter Hyams, the Director behind films as wide ranging as the classic Capricorn One, the Sean Connery High-Noon-in-space Outland (which is touted for a remake), and 2001's sequel, 2010. Peter Hyams has also worked on a few action movies, including the gritty Schwarzenegger vehicle End of Days, and two of the more successful Van Damme action films - the enjoyable Sudden Death and the sci-fi Timecop, the latter of which marking Van Damme's biggest Box Office success. Now why does he get such a big mention? Well, he may not technically be the Director on Regeneration, but he shot most of it as Cinematographer. And you can see his input here as being the deciding factor when it comes to the quality and substance of the production. With the tiny budget the Hyams family have fashioned a classically-styled but not dated little sci-fi thriller that relies heavily upon - but, crucially, does not depend on - its standout action sequences.
And I can see why Van Damme signed up for this, despite his participation in JCVD indicating an aversion to brainless action movies and their sequels. Because this is anything but brainless. He may not have quite as much screen time as his fans would have hoped for, but his input is vital, and he is the star of the film. His is the most well-rounded (well, arguably the only developed) character and it allows him to actually do what he has always wanted to do - act. His ex-Vietnam Vet, ex-UniSol is a shattered, broken man. And rather than just painting him as that clichéd stereotype - the ex-soldier who is living peacefully in the middle of nowhere and has to be pulled out of retirement to return to what he does best, and save the day - here they have added an extra, more authentic dimension. Like an addict barely getting over his debilitating addiction, who is forced by the powers that be to return to the juice, his semi-rehabilitated Luc Devereaux wears the trauma he has witnessed over the decades on his sleeve. You believe the tear that runs down his worn face when they inject him with the serum that he knows will not only give him enhanced strength, but also once again take away his humanity. Something he has been fighting all this time to regain, and hold on to.
Despite his pitiful state, you know that he's still going to be forced to eventually return to the killing that he does best, and that is perhaps the ultimate tragedy of the role. And even at 50 Van Damme still has the moves, single-handedly taking on dozens of soldiers, with guns and knives (the third act has several long, superb, uninterrupted single tracking shot-filmed action sequences as JCVD's GR44 slaughters his way through mercenary-packed corridors) before finally fighting the two enemy UniSols with anything that he has got left. And they certainly manage to present the 5ft 9in Van Damme as a convincing opponent for both the 6ft 5in Lundgren and the 6ft 4in MMA fighter, Arlovski. You will not be disappointed by the extended final fights.
Dolph Lundgren's limited participation is still a nice touch, and despite the fact that he feels a little crow-barred into the plot (why would a clone to the original GR13 Andrew Scott have aged?), he certainly adds something to the mix, his brutal clone still exhibiting those psychotic traits that have been causing Luc grief ever since 'Nam. He plays the part with more than a little hint of Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner, relishing the mystery behind the characters motivations, and giving us so much in so very little screen time. And his climactic interaction with Van Damme is certainly a film high point.
Of course there's just about nobody else famous in this movie which, whilst understandable considering the budget, is a bit of a negative point. They could have done with either a) slightly more Van Damme (his setup is played out in bit scenes peppered over the first hour, before he finally gets full screen-time for the last half-hour) or b) a stronger actor to play the NGU part, a dominant role in the first half. Andrei 'The Pit Bull' Arlovski may be the UFC Heavyweight Champion, but he has about as much presence as an ex-WWE Wrestler, although perhaps little more was required for his NGU role. And the participation of him and couple of other MMA veterans (Mike Pyle has quite an interesting stint as a scout sent in to recover the hostages) certainly does allow for some superbly choreographed, brutally authentic fight scenes.
Universal Soldier: Regeneration may not win any Awards, may not really be critically recognised, and may not satiate fans expecting to watch 90 minutes of Van Damme and Lundgren kicking each other silly but, credit where due, it does deserve to be recognised as a superb straight-to-Blu-ray flick, so good that it even tops many of its bigger budgeted, more theatrically viable brethren. There are some who may say that this film supersedes the first outing - and I can see why because it does indeed successfully employ the same technique of using the action/horror/sci-fi/thriller themes (particularly with the memorable synth-driven score) to cover up any deficiencies in the acting or characterisation. It basically plays out to a story akin to The Rock, only with Universal Soldiers thrown into the mix, and done in the classic 80s style of a John Carpenter movie. And it works. Personally, I would say that it marks an excellent sequel, that is definitely comparable to the original, but that works on a different level. Just as Stallone's recent Rambo instalment outdid all of the previous Rambo sequels to compete with the quality of First Blood, Universal Soldier: Regeneration breathes life into a seemingly long-dead franchise. It gives us one final (or is it?) spark of dark thrills and brutal action, and proves once again that a huge budget does not necessarily determine the quality of a film produced. All of those involved should be pretty chuffed with their creation. Recommended.
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