Monday, July 4, 2016

Universal Soldier Saturday: The Return & Regeneration

After revisiting 1992's fantastic Universal Soldier a couple of weeks ago to prepare for Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin's Independence Day: Resurgence, I had the hankering to check out the further adventures of Luc Deveraux and Andrew Scott in what is one of the most unlikely franchises in film. Jean-Claude Van Damme has probably spawned the most number of sequels that he does not appear in of any star in history. Bloodsport, Kickboxer, Universal Soldier and Timecop have produced 11 further chapters not featuring the Belgian. Of course the original Unisol is a classic example of it's time and studio as the 90's were the golden age of big screen muscles, machine guns, martial arts and one liners. Carolco, the studio behind action blockbusters Rambo: First Blood, Part II and Terminator 2: Judgement Day, gave Jean-Claude Van Damme his first studio push with his biggest budget to date and a prime summer release date. Emmerich and Devlin crafted a handsomely produced chase flick with big stunts, guys, action and explosions. Both JCVD and Dolph get to shine as Van Damme's innocent yet wounded inner strength shines and Dolph's crazed Sgt. Scott is arguably his best performance to date. Released in July of 1992, Unisol would give Van Damme his largest opening up to that time and gross over $100 million worldwide.

In August of 1999, the high school version of myself went to see Universal Soldier: The Return, contributing to a weak $4.6 million opening weekend on it's way to a tepid $10.6 million total, about what the first film opened with 7 years earlier. It would ultimately be Van Damme's final headlining theatrical release. Upon re-watching, The Return comes off cheap, low brow, hokey and near chauvinistic with women being tied up, their boobs leered at, strip club fight scenes and the like. Bad heavy metal music accompanies every action scene and there's just not much class throughout. Story wise not a lot makes total sense as Luc is now a human after being an original Unisol, training a new army of them that are bigger, faster and stronger but not quite under control. Oh and he has a daughter. But for everything that doesn't compare to the original film, The Return manages to be an exciting flick with top notch action. Legendary stuntman Mic Rodgers directs for the first time and fills the 83 minute running time with flying jet skis, exploding trucks, huge guns, lots of scraps and plenty of Van Damme kicking. The Muscles From Brussels looks good and healthy here, brawny and muscular while still athletic as he jump kicks villains Bill Goldberg and Michael Jai White. His performance isn't quite as emotional or nuanced as the first film with a lot more flailing and mugging. While the original Unisol had a tacked on guitar heavy yet lyrics challenged credits song by Ice T's led Body Count complete with a video featuring Van Damme and Dolph, The Return sees Van Damme hanging out with Megadeth for their track Crush'Em.

Ten years later, Sony released Universal Soldier: Regeneration, an anomaly of the Direct To Video factory that stood out as a hands down excellent film. Rising from the ashes of jettisoned project The Smashing Machine, Van Damme returns in a reduced role as rehabilitated Universal Solider Luc. The main story involves the Unisol program going rogue with New Generation Units being used to kidnap the kids of local politicians and threatening to blow up Chernobyl. Whereas The Return lined up entertaining athletes like Goldberg and fitness model Kiana Tom along with martial arts expert Michael Jai White, Regeneration recruits MMA fighters Andrei Arlovski and Mike Pyle. John Hyams directs the unnerving affair filled with havoc, great action, stunts, explosions and a level of brutality that still shocks years later. Shot digitally, it's a bit muted and kind of blurry at times but using an abandoned steel mill in Bulgaria, Regeneration oozes a gritty real world authenticity. The flick ain't as fun or goofy as the first two films but instead is a dark and haunting affair. Van Damme, his face haggard and eyes tired, continues to show he can act with his expressions and emotional availability. Dolph turns up late in the film as a clone and gets some very heavy scenes that call back to his excellent and dramatic work in the first film. There's an eerie, John Carpenter-esque vibe to everything down to a low key, synth based score. I'd be interested to see what Hyams could do with a decent budget and strong script.

Next up, the most recent chapter in the series, 2012's Day of Reckoning. I wonder if the Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren-less Showtime TV films are on YouTube...

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