Sunday, February 17, 2013

Universal Van Damme: Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009)

Let's just pretend Universal Soldier: The Return never happened or was a long dream sequence created by Luc Deveraux's addled mind. It's easier than you think.

In this new, improved timeline, a Russian terrorist group led by a guy named Boris (Aki Avni) kidnaps the children of the Russian Prime Minister, and holes up with them and his small private army right next to Chernobyl reactor number three, wiring the reactor to blow if his demands are not met. To make a bad situation worse, Boris has acquired the services of mad scientist Dr. Colin (Kerry Shale), one of the core developers of a new, improved for the age of cloning and genetic restructuring UniSol project. Colin has brought one of the new UniSol prototypes (Andrei Arlovski) he stole when the project got shattered because of the psychological unpredictability of its subjects with him, providing the Russian with a rather effective one-man defence perimeter for his radioactive base.

Because the Americans are at least half responsible for this little problem, they bring in a bunch of troops and the four last first generation UniSols to take Boris down. Unfortunately, the old UniSols turn out to be no match for the new model, and after they are slaughtered, the remaining soldiers turn out to be even less of a problem for the unstoppable killing machine.

The only chance to disarm the explosives and rescue the kids is now good old Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) who has been in experimental psychological treatment with a Dr Flemming (Emily Joyce). Flemming's attempts to de-program Luc and turn him into a complete human being again are not very successful. Luc is disoriented, depressed, and still prone to violent outbreaks at mild provocations; one might even think he was happier as a mind-controlled killing machine, or at the very least more at one with himself. Of course, the military-industrial complex has no qualms using him again, if he wants to or not, so his opinion really doesn't matter all that much.

While Luc is being prepared for slaughter, tensions between Colin and Boris lead to the activation of Colin's fail-safe device, a clone of Luc's old enemy Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren). Alas, Clone-Scott is in the middle of an existential crisis himself, and we all remember what happens when he starts to think, so the level of chaos and violence when Luc finally becomes whole (that is, a monster) again will be rather higher than expected.

My, John Hyams really is a rather good and clever director of what by all rights should be low-rent, low budget action movies. His UniSol: Regeneration trades in the slight silliness of the first movie and the ridiculous cheese of the second for a somewhat more thoughtful treatment of the whole undead, genetically modified clone warrior business, using the necessary breaks between the ultra-violent punch-outs and shoot-outs to actually try and imagine its psychological effects on said warriors. The film does clearly realize that there's a bitter irony in the fact that Luc, the most fully human UniSol we meet, is much more himself when he leaves his humanity behind; there's already the hint of the UniSols becoming a species different from humanity Day of Reckoning (more about that one at a later date) would go on to deliver lurking in the shades.

Regeneration does not yet crawl as deep down the rabbit hole as the later film does. The comparative thematic complexity in Regeneration is used to enhance the impact of its action scenes, and not the other way round like in Reckoning, but as with most action movies that actually use themes and characterisation (even Boris has actual motives and an implied history to explain his actions), the film does become all the better for it, proving again that carnage is much more interesting when a movie provides the audience with a reason to care. On the negative side, Regeneration's plot is a bit unfocused from time to time, the script clearly working around the fact that Van Damme and Lundgren weren't available (or not cheap enough?) for all that many days of shooting but the film needed to get to length. However, the film's more flabby moments do at least always connect with its thematic interests, so there's never that horrible moment so typical of the way low budget movies have to be produced when scenes have no reason to exist in a given movie at all.

Van Damme gives one of his better performances here, selling Deveraux as a killing machine (no surprise there) as well as an existentially confused human being with the appropriate degree of subtlety. Even Lundgren, generally the weakest actor on this level of US action cinema (unless you count Seagal and Norris, but I've always found it better to ignore those two completely, for moral and political reasons) for my tastes, does rather well in his relatively minor appearance, even using a bit of subtlety in his approach I honestly didn't think think him capable of. The rest of the cast is appropriately good - physically menacing in the case of Arlovski (who actually takes part in more fights than anyone else on screen), scenery-chewing in that of Shale, and so on.

But what, the impatient may ask themselves about the action in this action movie? Well, Hyams is pretty great at staging that too, using the film's industrial building locations and grimy corridors (there are a few equally grimy outside locations too) as creatively as possible under the circumstances, and even finding money for a neat little car chase at the film's beginning. The numerous fights and shoot-outs here are too bloody to be pretty (the director obviously likes a good bit of gore), but are impeccably edited and staged with all the physicality and tempo one can wish for.

If you're like me, and you sometimes start to drink heavily when thinking about the sad state of contemporary low budget action cinema, a film like Universal Soldier: Regeneration comes as a fine antidote for the blues, for its ambition as well as its ability to turn its few resources into something nearly spectacular.

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