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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.

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Spawn – Review

19 Jul

Even while I was a kid I still loved movies, but there were a select few that I really loved. There was Star WarsMighty Morphing Power Ranger: The Movie, and then there was Spawn. Until recently, I forgot all about Spawn, so I decided to revisit one of my favorite childhood movies and see how it stood up to the test of time.

 

Al Simmons (Michael Jai White) is one of the best assassins in the business, but he’s beginning to realize that he needs to settle down and focus more on his wife and prospects of a family. His boss, Jason Wynn (Martin Sheen), offers him one last job. While on the job, Wynn betrays and murders him. Instead of simply dying, the devil Malebolgia (Frank Welker) and The Violator (John Leguizamo) offer him a deal to lead the hellish army and prepare for the apocalypse. Now Simmons is reborn as Spawn, and must decide who to fight for: good or evil, redemption or revenge.

Cool story, right? I can’t say I know anything about the comic books or the HBO animated series, but I would definitely like to check them out. As of now, all I have is this mess of a movie. I can see the obvious appeal it would have to me as a kid, but now it is borderline horrible. Once I started it, I was ready for it to end.

The problems here are many. For one, Spawn is a great anti/super hero, with a great origin story and powers. These powers and abilities make for some cool scenes in an otherwise bad movie. I feel like we don’t even really get to see him make use of these abilities until towards the end of the movie. That’s fine since this is an origin story, but that would be like having no web in Spider-Man or shield in Captain America. Instead, we get very quick uses of these powers that could have been so much more satisfying.

Let’s talk about the writing. Wow. Movies like this give me confidence in my aspirations of becoming a screen writer. The dialogue and character development is so cliché and generic that there is no possible way it could have been more bland. Martin Sheen is the CEO of a large corporation who talks tough. Surprise! He’s a villain that we’ve seen in hundreds of other movies. Thank goodness there is a nice family backstory that somewhat supports the character, Spawn’s, story arc. The characters and the writing were entirely two dimensional.

 

It’s one thing to talk about the writing in Spawn, but I almost can’t even mention the special effects. Before you say anything: yes, I realize this movie is from 1997 so the effects can’t compare to todays. Fine. But, look at Jurassic Park and The Phantom Menace (the only time I will positively talk about this movie), which only came out three years later. When Spawn is in hell, I could swear that it wasn’t finished. There’s no way that the special effects artists looked at the “finished” product and said, “Yeah, that looks good.” The only really cool effect is making John Leguizamo look like a short, fat clown.

It’s so disappointing to look at a movie that you used to love and have it let you down after years of not seeing it. This is exactly what Spawn did for me. The character and story seems really cool and interesting, but it was certainly not given ANY justice here. I’m going to start finding the comic books and watching the animated series in hopes that it will wash the hellishly bad taste that the live action film left in my mouth.