Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Universal Van Damme: Universal Soldier: The Return (1999)

Years after his adventures in the first movie, Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme whose accent seems to have grown heavier in the years between the first movie and this one), has long since been re-humanized, married, acquired a daughter (Karis Paige Bryant), and become a widower. Because that sort of thing makes complete sense for someone with Luc's background, he's now working for the new, improved UniSol project under a Dr Cotner (Xander "Just Popping In For Minute" Berkeley). The new UniSols have a lot less impressive uniforms, but they are stronger, more effective and randomly allowed to emote and spout horrible, horrible one-liners if they are played by wrestlers. To avoid the amok problems of the first UniSol project, all of the soldiers are controlled by a highly developed artificial intelligence called S.E.T.H. (the voice of Michael Jai White).

Things go well until the military, represented by General Radford (Daniel von Bargen) decides to shut the project down for ethical reasons (seriously). Turns out S.E.T.H. kinda dislikes losing his job enough that he uses the UniSols to take control of the project base with what we must assume to be plans for world domination. It's a little unfortunate for the poor machine that he's on a timed kill switch with a code nearly impossible to crack for the computer science of 1999, a code only the very dead Cotner and Luc know. Of course, getting the code from Luc will not be easy, even after S.E.T.H. transfers his mind into a superior body (the body of Michael Jai White) he had squirreled away for a bad week, but that's what daughters are for right? There's also some stuff about a journalist (Heidi Schanz) providing the mandatory love interest, but we can ignore her role in the plot without losing out on anything.

What a difference seven years make. By 1999, seven years after the first Universal Soldier movie, Jean-Luc Van Damme's fortunes had - like those of all contemporary action movie stars - slowly turned, pushing him into the direct to video market and films with increasingly lower budgets and increasingly more problematic scripts. The same can be said of the Universal Soldier franchise, whose two outings after the original movie (without Van Damme or anything else worth watching) were in form of a cable TV mini-series that seems to have, as far as I can ascertain, premiered as two direct to video movies the rest of the franchise would go on to ignore, as will I.

Unlike the rather well-made first Universal Soldier, The Return is pretty much what most people - somewhat unfairly - imagine all movies with Van Damme to be: a series of fights and explosions barely connected by a deeply stupid script and horrible, horrible one-liners; though, talking of the latter, wrestler Bill Goldberg has to bear the brunt of their horridness.

The whole shebang is the only directorial effort of stunt guy Mic Rodgers who does a decent enough job in so far as he isn't actively bad, and religiously holds to the tenet of low budget action cinema that says that an action movie needs at least one explosion, shoot-out, or face-kicking (it's a Van Damme film, after all) every five minutes. Add to this that many of the film's action sequences may be pretty dumb and contrived (or as contrived as you can get in a movie that mostly takes place in a - at least decorated - warehouse) but are at least staged with a certain degree of creativity, and you end up with a piece of good (bad) fun that's good for some giggles about the quality of the quips, some delighted gasps about the more outrageous plot points, and some mild cheers for the decency of the action. In brief, Universal Soldier: The Return is as good as one can reasonably hope for in this kind of thing.

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