The Universal Soldier Quadrilogy Review

universal-soldier2It’s funny that  everyone – and by everyone I mean me – thinks of Universal Soldier as being a child of Van Damme and Dolph, for while were around at the moment of creation, this franchise would have been but a regrettable 90s flashback were it not for the last two films, both of which grew in efficiency and quality as Van Damme’s screentime reduced.

Like so many brainwaves from the 90s the premise was so open to possibilities that it could have taken the franchise anywhere, and it still might, but this is the tale of a series of films almost two decades since inception, that took a welcome turn for the better by reinventing itself from the ground up.

unis__34745Universal Soldier

With a couple of low budget martial arts hits under his black belt, Hollywood obviously felt that the time was right for Jean Claude Van Damme to be unleashed upon an audience salivating for action.

But first some obvious questions needed to be asked?

1/ Could Van Damme carry off an action film by himself?
2/ What could be done to mask his sub-par acting and grasp of coherent English?
3/ Would an audience dumb enough to embrace Cyborg, Bloodsport and Wrong Bet follow JCVD to a film not especially heavy in karate action?

The answer to all three questions – surprisingly – was Dolph Lundgren, still basking in the warm glow of a career of even crappier films that JCVD highlighted by his mono-syllabic Ivan Drago from Rocky 4.

Dolph is awful acting proof that Hollywood didn’t think JCVD was ready for the solo spotlight, and Mr Lundgren’s slightly more capable English couldn’t possibly mask acting deficiencies that make Van Damme look like a young Brando. And yes, Dolph Lundgren is the answer to whether a young action audience would watcha big dumb action film.

And if you think that makes no sense, you should see this film…

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War changes you. Some guys drink, some do drugs, some lose the plot and slaughter innocents and make necklaces from their severed ears.

Dolph’s Sergeant Scott fits into the latter category, which brings the disgust and ire of Van Damme’s Sergeant Deveraux. The two get to a fussin’ and a feudin’ with the net result being two dead bodies.

(For the record I saw ‘Deveraux’ spelled various ways. None of them looked right. I chose this anyway and stuck with it.)

Their bodies and several others are shipped back to the United States, only they aren’t to be buried or returned to their hometowns for military honours. Instead they are packed on ice long enough to have their corpses reanimated and their memories erased, with their now vacant (oh who are we kidding always vacant!) skulls reloaded with nothing but the thought processes of elite, mindless, order following soldiers.

Further to this is a super-charging of their physical self, which includes being practically impervious to low level punishment and a remarkable healing capacity. These new thoughtless automatons are almost indestructible, they take a lickin’ and keep on tickin’, and they are almost immediately thrown into action to serve as an ‘at call army’, ready to be sent where most needed, anywhere, anytime.

It takes all of a few minutes before shards of the old memories start to peek through, and only a few more moments before they break programming altogether. Deveraux takes to protecting a nosy and annoying TV reporter from a re-psycho-d Scott, while the slack jawed bosses of the top secret operation fruitlessly try to take down both as they wage their own personal war through the small town United States.

Even the part-robot Deveraux has an overwhelming desire to nude up at the drop of a pants – I swear Van Damme had a ‘nudity clause’ written into the contract of his first dozen films – and Lundgren gets all the gold plated dialogue, including proudly exclaiming “I’m all ears” while holding up his necklace adorned with the listening apparatus of his most recent victims.

Priceless.

The trick that these filmmakers never learned (which thankfully the makers of ‘Day of Reckoning’ did) is that supersoldiers can commit a variety of damage upon each other again and again. This has obviously been well utilised in films like Terminator to great effect as the bad guy(s) are submitted to immense punishment for our viewing enjoyment, and should be a license for over the top guilt free violence.

With Universal Soldier the results are diluted. Sure Van Damme and Lundgren pound into each other repeatedly with their fists and many blunt weapons, but it never feels visceral or exhilarating, it just takes longer.

Final Rating – 6 / 10. I, among many others, lapped up this in my late teens, as any consumer of needlessly violent tripe would, but Universal Soldier hasn’t aged well at all. Once big, dumb fun, this is no longer fun.

universal-soldier-the-returnUniversal Soldier 2: The Return

This film may be responsible for the biggest collection of amazingly bad dialogue ever to be crammed into 80 depressing minutes. Universal Soldier 2 goes from ‘so bad it’s good’ to ‘nope I was wrong – just plain bad’ within the first five minutes.

It doesn’t even survive the basic premise, where Deveraux (JCVD) is not only no longer a Unisol, but he’s also no longer reanimated. This means he went from dead, to undead, to alive – though his acting is hardly proof…

Don’t just take my word for it, take that of the dashing undead Mr Deveraux; “I was killed in Vietnam. A doctor reversed the process. He saved my life.”

I’m sorry for ever doubting you.

Now merely a unisol trainer, Deveraux and the team have developed a new breed,  bigger, stronger, meaner and dangerouser all round, which doesn’t stop Deveraux from permitting Seth, the supercomputer in charge of the operation, to babysit his daughter. Oh didn’t I mention Deveraux has a daughter? Well he does. Get used to it and many other things that don’t make sense.

Deveraux and his boss steadfastly defend their program even as the big-wigs in Washington threaten to shut it down, even though the opening scene is essentially about the most beefy and over-acting unisol Romeo (Bill Goldberg) going haywire and trying to skip his programming. Of course that very night Seth the computer program mods all the unisols overnight making them even dangerouser-er, and foils all attempts to shut down the system.

Re-enter Deveraux with the solution; “Turn it off an on.” (Really!?!)

Michael Jai White shows up as the human personification of Seth (don’t ask), leader of the rebel unisol forces, and there is another pesky female reporter for Deveraux to save as she learns war is indeed hell – she tears her pants!

With the unisols running wild and free, it seems every second bullet manages to explode something – and there are an awful lot of bullets – which sets a bystander on fire, causing them to flail about three or four times before falling down face first, all accompanied by some heavy metal paean to sorrow and stupidity. Others leap from the explosions as if on some sort of unseen trampoline, and did you know that merely pushing someone into a sign marked “Danger – High Voltage” is enough to electrocute them?

I didn’t either until last night.

Also from the ‘huh?’ files; Deveraux decides he requires the internet to uncover who is behind this evil operation, so he takes the reporter to a strip club, fights his way into the computer room(!), then with his research completed (and presumably his Recent History deleted) he calmly walks out, punching out bouncers all the way as the reporter contemplates an advance from a stripper for some girl-on-girl…

… Didn’t happen. Of course it didn’t happen. Everything about this film is wrong.

Romeo the primary unisol fills in the gaps when Seth is taking a break from oiling his new body, and he is lumbered with many of the lamest lines, however the pinnacle of inane dialogue must go to this brief exchange between Deveraux and his ex-colleague, who has just reappeared on the scene;

Deveraux – “Maggie! Romeo killed you!”

Maggie – “Yes. I’m one of them now!”

Gold. Just gold.

Final Rating – 4 / 10. In this case the suffix is not enough. This film should have been marketed with its full title; Universal Soldier 2: (The) Return to Sender.

Universal-soldier-regeneration-poster-lgUniversal Soldier: Regeneration

The original Universal Soldier – to me at least – signified the beginning of the extremely drawn out end to the functioning career of Jean Claude Van Damme. It took a vaguely intriguing concept and wasted it by taking every short cut and turning the film into a sub-B movie shlockfest.

After the second film was even worse that relegated JCVD to consideration only when no other alternatives are available. This was the case for many years, which was why it took a while for me to catch this film originally.

A pretty effective opening gets us right into the action. The children of a high-up are kidnapped in a hail of buwets that kill many innocent bystanders (are there ever any guilty bystanders? Felons and criminals that just like standing around watching things happen around them?). A long car chase ends when the getaway car reaches “da-choppa” – as Arnie would say – and off they go. The scene is perhaps 10 minutes, totally dialogue free and works very well.

Promising so far.

It turns out that the kidnappers are bad guy terrorists who have set up base camp in Chernobyl and are threatening to set off a bomb that will release all the pent-up radiation trapped since the 80s meltdown.

Now logic says that the threat of another nuclear meltdown would be enough to demand attention from the government and that kidnapping the kids of a dignitary is a little redundant and unnecessary; but if there is one thing that action movies have taught us over the years it is that you can’t rescue a bomb.

The first Universal Soldier introduced the concept of super-soldiers created from reanimated corpses. They were largely immune to most deadly situations and immensely efficient in both firepower and manpower, as one soldier could do the job of dozens – you didn’t even have to pay them! Of course that wasn’t enough for a movie so they made one go haywire (Dolph Lundgren) and had Van-Damme have to hunt him down and save the day.

In this “reality” Unisols as they became know have been banned for decades, however a rogue scientist with delusions of magnificence has been secretly redesigning a new and improved Unisol. The Unisol to end all Unisols.

The terrorists have hired the evil scientist and his creation to provide the muscle for their operation, and we see chilling evidence of the new Super-Sol’s efficiency and abilities when the base is attacked by the army.

So Plan B = Fight fire with fire. Four of the old-school Unisols are thawed out to defeat the Big Fucker – and he is a Big Fucker indeed, the new guy – let’s call him Larry – toasts the other 4 in about 7 minutes in a variety of brutal and violent ways. Advantage : Naughty guys.

But wait there’s one more…

The only remaining Unisol is the still thawed out Van Damme (Wait. Wasn’t he human again?… oh who cares?) who they have tried to reintegrate back into society with mixed results – if the definition of mixed results include the death of a simple coffee shop worker.

The guy has a name but let’s call him JCVD from here. He is retrained and unleashed on the scene to save the day and kill the bad guys, mainly Larry.

Only that ain’t all folks. The scientist has kept another weapon up his sleeve…

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In the end it was always inevitable that JCVD would take on the bad guys for all the bikkies, otherwise why is he on the DVD cover. The addition of the kids provides a “human” element to the film which was really not required. Isn’t big muscly guys punching piss out of each other reward enough?

There are some good long combat scenes and thankfully they manage to make it look like two beefy guys with almost superpowers going at it, rather than two guys on wires clumsily pawing at each other. The punches and kicks seem to have real impact and there were a few blows that made the lips purse together in an “ow that musta hurt” way.

All in all Universal Soldier: Regeneration is solid B movie “weekly-rental” fare, for guys aged 16 – 39 at least, the inclusions of Van Damme and a Lundgren cameo aren’t likely to get you misty eyed but they don’t hurt either, and the big Larry Unisol is legitimately fearsome and capable as the dead-eyed robotic bad guy.

I had low expectations from the point I pressed play, this met all of them and exceeded a few. If the film was an employee this might not put the guy in line for promotion, but he is definitely carrying his weight.

Final Rating – 6.5 / 10. An efficient low budget shoot-em-up that is as entertaining as it could be considering the limitations of the material and the team behind it.

Universal Soldier 3

Universal Soldier 4: Day of Reckoning

The first hour of Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is a strange acid trip, disconcerting, brain addling with occasional sudden rushes of energy. It’s hard to follow and at times more than a little frustrating, but the reward for enduring the rough patches is a great second half, and the chance to tell your doubting friends about the most unlikely nominee for best action flick in many years.

Luc Deveraux (JCVD) is back and leaves little doubt about which side of the good/evil fence that he is on. Killing a guy’s wife and daughter in cold blood as he watches on distraught will do that.

It seems that Deveraux and his propaganda spewing sidekick Scott, have amasses a small army of unisols, beefy, mindless, emotionless and possibly primed to take over the world.

Standing between them is John, the former husband and father left with nothing after Deveraux’s actions, who after a long term coma moves homes to find that almost everything triggers bittersweet memories of times past. Memories that fuel his hatred and rage.

Deveraux controls his PED popping army of roid-heads with triggers embedded in their flesh which influence behaviours, kind of like human shock collars. Unfortunately when triggered the effect is a hypnotic pulsing light for both the Unisol and we the viewer. The pulsating flicker is in fact so disconcerting that at times I simply looked away from the screen until I could tell that it had stopped. I fear for those for whom this film becomes proof that they are prone to epileptic seizures. It is that off-putting.

Once suitably brainwashed, Deveraux uses these soldiers to do his bidding, siccing one particularly huge plumber with a Leonidis beard onto John’s trail, who as the leading man is wont to do in this series has aligned himself with a young woman named Fantasia while he performs his research.

As John learns more about the unisols and his own reality, he finds evidence that suggests he might not be the pure and perfect good guy after all. I mean a big clue might be that he is effortlessly able to dispatch massive practically impregnable killing machines, and that he has chosen a stripper slash hooker named Fantasia as his study buddy.

The simple joy derived by watching two or more behemoths pounding each other into bloody pulp is in full effect here, with the added bonus of superhuman strength, meaning anything goes. In one memorable scene John takes to his personal tormentor with huge gym weights and baseball bats. And frankly it’s a great scene. But this scene is only one of many extremely well handled action sequences.

An early shoot out in a brothel works just as well, and the lead in to the finale boasts a lengthy sequence that seems like it was a single shot (I suggest some clever editing was involved) which is as exhausting and tense for us as it must be for the one guy vs many. And this is all before John takes on both Scott and Luc in scenes that effectively mask the fact that the opponents are both well past their used by date. Let’s just say that JCVD still has the exaggerated facial expressions in both attack and defence, but on the evidence presented here his body is no longer up to the challenge.

Perhaps the kookiest and most unexpected development is that Van Damme and Dolph are mere bit players in this film. Day of Reckoning is the Scott Adkins show. You heard me, Scott Adkins! Now while I have never even heard of him before, I must admit that he is very competent in the action sequences and equally forgettable in every other scene. Of course neither of these traits will prevent him from becoming a big action star should he  choose the right roles.

Critics will walk in having already marked Day of Reckoning down because it is a Universal Soldier movie and because it is straight up brutal and unrelentingly violent. Potential punters – action fans really – will walk right past the DVD on the shelf thanks to bad flashbacks relating to films one and two. Others will write off as being big, dumb and ugly, and that’s the fashionable reaction these days.

Admittedly several moments of Day of Reckoning are dumb, but I’ve seen a whole lot dumber earn praise and box office. Strangely enough this is one example of the image of the franchise working against the film itself. Day of Reckoning is a damn good action film held back by the fact that is associated with a series long ago written off by almost everyone.

I am marking this up only because it is good. Very good in fact. And I’ll be watching it again in the not too distant future, something I haven’t said about an action film for some time.

Final Rating – 7.5 / 10. Expect grunting. Expect violence. Expect lots of blood. Expect less JCVD and Dolph than you might think. Expect a better action movie than you predicted prior to loading the DVD.

Expect a pleasant surprise in a film that would be better served if it were not attached to the Universal Soldier universe.

Take the wheel grasshopper...

Take the wheel grasshopper…

Final Quadrilogy Rating – 6.5 / 10. Universal Soldier is the rarest of commodities, a series of films with inauspicious beginnings, a god awful franchise killing follow up, and then a decade later, two surprisingly decent and effective under the radar action flicks.

It’s rare that a quadrilogy improves without technology being a major factor, but that’s exactly what happens here. More than Unisol 5, I’d rather see what director John Hyams and Scott Adkins could do with a decent budget and a fresh slate, though if they do end up involved in Unisol 5 I will definitely check that out too.

About OGR

While I try to throw a joke or two into proceedings when I can all of the opinions presented in my reviews are genuine. I don't expect that all will agree with my thoughts at all times nor would it be any fun if you did, so don't be shy in telling me where you think I went wrong... and hopefully if you think I got it right for once. Don't be shy, half the fun is in the conversation after the movie.
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