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Universal Soldier Series – Review: Part 2

11 Nov

In my last review for the Universal Soldier movies, I talked about the original from 1992 and the god awful sequel from 1999. The first movie was an adequately entertaining movie while the second movie was the worst I’ve seen in quite some time. Well, buckle in because what I’m about to say is very shocking to me. Direct to DVD movies are normally a pain to sit through. I’m never that thrilled to watch something released strictly in that format, but I am always willing to. In the cases of Universal Soldier: Regeneration and Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, I’m glad I did. These entries are, without a doubt, far superior than their theatrical released predecessors. How weird is that?

Let’s start with the 2009 cult favorite, Universal Soldier: Regeneration.

After a group of terrorists kidnap the son and daughter of the Ukrainian Prime Minister, Commander Topov (Zahari Baharov), the leader of this terrorist cell, announces he plans to detonate what’s left of the Chernobyl Power Plant. This would cause a major problem with fallout and leave many people dead if the Prime Minister does not answer his demands. The joint team of American and Ukrainian officials try sending in a unit of soldiers and UniSols to combat the situation, but they soon see that Topovs Next Generation Unisol, or NGU (Andrei “The Pit Bull” Arlovski), is a much more vicious opponent than they originally expected. Their next course of action is to find Luc Devereaux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and reactivate him for UniSol combat. As Devereaux leads the charge into Chernobyl, Topov’s men have another trick up their sleeves: a regenerated clone of Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren) who is still out for blood.

After seeing the first two Universal Soldier movies that were major theatrical releases, I can’t believe that I have to say Regeneration, a direct to DVD sequel, is way superior than its predecessors. I had a blast with this movie, and I really wasn’t expecting much. Let’s get some negatives out of the way, because this movie is still far from perfect. There are lapses in common sense and continuity that do make things a bit messy. For one thing, Devereaux just runs to the Chernobyl plan from the army base in a matter of minutes. How close are they? Seems a bit too close for comfort. It’s also worth noting the inclusion of Dolph Lundgren in this movie is a little unnecessary, other than just having him there for fan service. The real match for Devereaux is NGU, but I will say the showdown between Devereaux and Scott is really badass.

Universal Soldier: Regeneration is a surprisingly well shot and well choreographed action film. The fight scenes are brutal, shot with the full view of the action, and cringeworthy in all the right places. This does feel like a real tribute to the talents of Van Damme and Lundgren while also having MMA fighter Andrei Arlovski showing off just what the newer generation is capable of. While the camerawork in this movie is excellent, I can’t really say the same about the color. It’s muddy and gray throughout the entire movie, which does work for the environment, but it just felt bland. While the camerawork and directing are both way better than I expected, I can say the same about the writing. There’s no feisty journalist making snarky comments throughout the movie, there’s no love interest for anyone, nor is there any unnecessary humor. This is the darkest Universal Soldier movie yet, and it’s all the better for it.

I can believe I’m saying this, but Universal Soldier: Regeneration was a really entertaining movie and it’s one I’d watch again over the first two. It has great action, a welcome return by Van Damme, and writing that is way more focused than the other entries. The AV Club called this film the most important action movie of 2009, and I certainly agree. It shows that with the right talent and the right vision, direct to DVD movies can be just as good, if not better than its theatrical predecessors. Long story short, if you’re a fan of the first film (no one’s a fan of the second), do yourself a favor and watch Regeneration if you haven’t already.

Final Grade: B

The final film in this long running series was released in 2012. Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, and even Andrei Arlovksy return. Like its predecessor, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning manages to blow the first two films out of the water.

After witnessing his family be brutally murdered by renegade UniSol Luc Deveraux, John (Scott Adkins) wakes up in a hospital with no memory of the events leading up to the assault. All he knows is that Deveraux killed his family and he needs to find out why and get his revenge. Meanwhile on the other side, Deveraux and his second in command, a clone of Andrew Scott, work to recruit other UniSols to their cause of cutting all their ties to secret government programs. Their latest initiate is a UniSol named Magnus (played by Arlovsky) who is given the task of hunting down John before he can confront Deveraux. Along John’s mission for revenge, he finds a lot of clues that point to shady dealings with him in the past, which leads John to think he may not be who he wants to find out he is, nor may he be as innocent as he thinks.

While Day of Reckoning still destroys the first two Universal Soldier movies, I can’t say it’s quite as good as Regeneration. With Van Damme, Lundgren, and Andrei Arlovsky back in front of the camera, we also have John Hyams back in the director’s chair and it’s a welcome return. For some of the faults this movie has, Hyams still keeps this a kinetic action thriller. Scott Adkins is a welcome newcomer, especially since 90% of the movie revolves around him. He owns the show here, but this is also where some of the negatives come through. There just isn’t enough of Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren. Lundgren once again feels like he’s been thrown in the movie for fan service, while Van Damme’s character feels so different from what he has been in the past films. When they are onscreen, however, and the fists are flying, it’s a great reminder of why they are there. Even at their ages, they can still crank out some mean action sequences.

Day of Reckoning is probably the most unique film in this entire series, even if it doesn’t pack the punch of its predecessors. In many ways, this film acts as a mystery with Scott Adkins’ character slowly chipping away the truth about his recent past. I was actually genuinely curious to know how all of the pieces fit together, and the result is quite satisfying in that Philip K. Dick sort of way. I can’ believe I just referenced Dick in a review for a Universal Soldier movie, but it’s something that I can’t deny. With all of this mystery, this is also probably the slowest film in the series, but because of the intrigue and questions I was still interested in the proceedings. Like I said, the action is explosive when it wants to be, but this movie isn’t afraid to slow down a little bit.

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is a good way to end this series even if I could have watched more entries of Hyams was involved. This film has everything you could ask for in a movie like this. There’s plenty of action, mystery, suspense, and performances from some of your favorite action stars. Unfortunately, Van Damme and Lundgren are both underutilized. While this movie may have objectively less flaws than Regeneration, I can’t place it quite as high on levels of entertainment. Still, this is another surprisingly quality work for a direct to DVD title.

Final Grade: B-

It’s so strange that the direct to DVD titles for this series were so much better than their theatrical predecessors. It just goes to show that sometimes money isn’t the be all end all of film making. If you have the right director, writer, and crew everything can work out a lot better than you may expect. If you’re a fan of the first Universal Soldier, don’t let the second movie dissuade you from seeing these two way above average direct to DVD titles. They really are a blast.

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Universal Soldier Series – Review: Part 1

1 Nov

The 1990s were a very hit or miss time for certain genres. The 1980s saw an explosion of really memorable and popular films, especially in the action and horror genre. By the 1990s, these movies were starting to wear a little thin, but studios were desperate to keep them alive. One of these movies is Universal Soldier, which was released in 1992 to less than favorable reviews from critics and audiences. That being said, it still managed to create a franchise that spawned three theatrical titles and two TV movies. I’m going to be looking at the theatrically released entries and not the TV movies since they have completely different actors and don’t really tie into the other films. My bar is set real low and so I’m just going to dive right in.

Let’s start with the original 1992 release.

Luc Devereaux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren) were two soldiers in the Vietnam War who killed each other after Devereaux caught Scott committing terrible atrocities to the civilians of a small Vietnam village and members of his own unit. Years later, the two are reawakened as part of a secret military project where they operate as genetically enhanced troopers known as Universal Soldiers, or “UniSols.” After part of a mission triggers memories of his time in the war, Devereaux begins to remember more about his past, which is exactly what the heads of this program are trying to prevent. When Scott attempts to murder a reporter named Veronica (Ally Walker), who snuck into their facility, Devereaux defends her and they run off with Scott and the rest of the Soldiers in hot pursuit. Andrew’s memories also begin to return, along with his vengeful and violent disposition against Luc, which will ultimately end in a conflict between the two genetically enhanced fighters.

When Universal Soldier was first released, it was criticized as just being a Terminator rip-off, and in may ways it is. From the style to the genetically enhanced beings squaring off with one of them protecting an innocent person, to the attempts at humor (although Terminator 2 succeeds at said humor). There is nothing really special about this movie other than having Van Damme and Lundgren facing off against one another. At it’s best, the humor is chuckle worthy, but a lot of it just breaks up the mood of the movie and takes away from a lot of the actual drama and suspense that the movie builds up. It isn’t a particularly long movie, so extended light hearted scenes only slow the action down. The action itself is ok, but it’s nothing really to write home about. Later in his career, Roland Emmerich really gets familiar with creating action spectacles, but it’s clear that this is his first real attempt at it. All of these mesh together to create a much less than spectacular film.

There are parts of Universal Soldier, however, that does save it from being totally forgettable. For one thing, Dolph Lundgren really steals the show once his memories start coming back to him. That scene in the supermarket is probably my favorite part of the movie because I can really tell that Lundgren is giving it his all. There’s also a great chase scene by the Grand Canyon that does preview Emmerich’s skill with handling large action set pieces. Van Damme has some funny moments and it can’t be ignored that this film helped shape his career. This all still amounts to a little bit of fun, but not something for the action history books. I’d like to give the good parts more praise, but they really just are serviceable and not really deserving to be lauded.

Universal Soldier is alright, and that’s all that can be really said. It’s a 90’s action movie that somehow spawned an entire franchise, and after fully experiencing the first one, I don’t really know how it happened. It’s a disposable film that works great as background noise or just something to mindlessly watch and forget about the next day. There’s some good action, but a lot of it is unexciting. The humor didn’t work for most of the movie, but it was cool to see both Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme share the screen. That’s all that can really be said.

Final Grade: C+

With the response Universal Soldier received, I find it a little surprising that it would get a sequel, but at the same time it does feel pretty run of the mill for action movies of this time. This brings us to the 1999 film Universal Soldier: The Return, which I can truly say is one of the worst movies I’ve seen in a very long time.

It’s been seven years since Luc Devereaux’s memories came back to him which caused the whole UniSol program to implode. Now, he’s working alongside the US government, a scientist named Dr. Cotner (Xander Berkley), and a supercomputer called S.E.T.H to train and maintain a new group of stronger UniSols for the military to use. After it’s announced to Devereaux and Cotner that the program and the supercomputer are to be shut down, S.E.T.H goes into defense mode and activates the UniSols to destroy all the threats in the facility. Now, Devereaux must team up with his partner Maggie (Kiana Tom) and reporter Erin Young (Heidi Schnaz) to take down the renegade soldiers and take down the two leaders of the revolt, Romeo (Bill Goldberg) and the body that S.E.T.H has created for himself (Michael Jai White).

Everything about this movie is so subpar, I’m amazed that it got a theatrical release. Even the title is boring. The Return? Yeah, I bet a lot of thought went into that. Let’s start with the major issues. There is very little continuity between the first film and this one. Devereaux had a wife who died but it’s never explained if it’s Veronica from the first movie or someone else. It’s also odd that there’s still a major government facility making these soldiers after it was established that it was below board in the first movie. Why is it so accepted now? Why would Devereaux want to work with them? Nothing makes any sense with what’s already been established. Even with a story as minimal and basic as this, maybe the action would at least be good. Well it’s about as boring as it gets. Director Mic Rodgers is actually a stuntman and this was his only movie, which is probably a good thing, but you’d think he’d have some creative skills when it comes to crafting an action sequence.

Everything else falls just as flat as the story and the action. This was Van Damme’s last film since his return in The Expendables 2 to have a wide release theatrically, and it’s really a stinker to go out on for such a long time. He has none of the energy he did in the first movie and his fight sequences seem very lackluster. It doesn’t really seem like he wanted to be in this movie, and the same can be said for Michael Jai White who just sounds bored the entire time. Bill Goldberg is the only person who really brings anything to the table, but his character got played out real fast. The humor that was distracting in the first movie is just cringeworthy in this one, and that’s all that really has to be said about that.

Universal Soldier: The Return shouldn’t have been made or it should have been made by people who knew what they were doing or wanted to be involved. What we get is a movie that clocks in at an hour and 18 minutes that is absolutely hollow. If this were a direct to video title I may be a bit more understanding, but this movie was given a wide theatrical release. With that being the case, this movie is absolutely unacceptable.

Final Grade: F

So far, this series isn’t off to a great start, but I’m going to power through the rest because there’s no way that I could give up now. Next, I’ll be looking at the limited release sequels Universal Soldier: Regeneration and Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning.

The Expendables 2 – Review

18 Aug

I’ve gone to see more movies at their midnight openings this year more than I have any year of my life. I’m proud to say that I can include The Expendables 2 to this list of movies. I loved the first Expendables, but I’m excited to say that the sequel has surpassed the original in every way, making it not only one of my favorite movies of the year (after The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises), but also one of my favorite action movies of all time.

 

Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) and his team of mercenaries are still out in the field doing some of the dirtiest mercenary work around. After a not so friendly meeting with Mr. Church (Bruce Willis), Ross takes a job to retrieve a package from a downed plane. This simple job quickly goes awry with the arrival of another team of mercenaries led by Jean Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme) who steal the package to unlock a powerful source of plutonium and hold the world hostage.

Something the original Expendables lacked was a strong plot line, but I felt like the movie took its weak plot seriously and tried to make it believable. In their second outing, the plot is still rather weak, but no attempt is made to take itself too seriously. Instead, we get a hardcore action movie that hearkens back to the eighties with quick one liners and plenty of over the top gunplay and fighting.

 

The Expendables 2 also has a lot less down time than the first installment. Thankfully there is also no Mickey Rourke monologue to get lost and confused in. I would go so far as to say that after a certain point in the movie, the action becomes a relentless barrage of guns, explosions, and satisfying blood spray (although some of it is still digital).

The sound design in this movie is really impressive. More than once I would stop and think to myself, “Wow, this movie is really loud.” The punning sound of Crews’ AA12 that is fired at the beginning of the movie is enough to make any action junky’s heart skip. In fact, the whole beginning of the movie has top of the line foley work and a adrenaline pumping sound track that made me more than ready for the rest of the movie.

 

What else made this movie really cool, you ask? Hmm, well, Chuck Norris gets to kick a fair share of ass along with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis. Not only these legendary action stars, but Terry Crews, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, and Randy Couture get a lot more to do than they did in the first film. They felt more like a team than in the original, which only made me root for them more. That, and Jean-Claude Van Damme is a real asshole and plays a villain that you love to hate.

The Expendables 2 exceeded my expectations in every way. I knew that it was going to be cool and exciting, but no where near as great as it was. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen out of fear of missing a split second of the action. This is a film that I can’t wait to see again, and will be seeing again before it is out of theaters. If you love action movies, or even ever seen an action movie, check out The Expendables 2.