Tom Jolliffe revisits the Universal Soldier franchise…
With today’s home entertainment release of director Roland Emmerich’s WWII epic Midway, now seems a good time to revisit the original Universal Soldier, and the eclectic sequels the director’s 1992 sci-fi action film spawned.
The early 90’s. In the wake of Terminator 2: Judgment Day came Universal Soldier. It was a lower budget (albeit still fairly hefty) action sci-fi that saw reanimated dead soldiers being used by an off record Government agency. Stripped of all soul and humanity, and wiped of memory, the soldiers become essentially cyborgs needing constant cooling to account for their new found strength, stamina and regenerative powers. Complications arise when two of the Nam vet re-animated soldiers get flashbacks to the war and their own personal conflict resurfaces. Those two of course, were Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren (as Luc Devereaux and Andrew Scott respectively).
By this point in time there was a crossover. Van Damme was well into a progressive career rise, starting from the relatively small, and cult favourite, Bloodsport and then establishing himself firmly as a strong cinematic pull in low budget action films. Lundgren on the other hand was in decline having hit the big time quickly in Rocky IV. He never quite managed to find the momentum and in no small part his choices were a string of misfortune with crippled companies (New World Pictures, Cannon), nefarious producers (Jack Abramoff) and more, meaning that films which on paper could have done well theatrically (Masters of The Universe, Red Scorpion, Dark Angel, and The Punisher), bombed at the box office (or due to external issues with The Punisher, bypassed theatrical release in the US). Ironically, going back to Terminator 2, that film also played no small part in terminating Showdown in Little Tokyo at the box office, which came a week after Ahnuld’s monster hit. The film was quietly put out and left to drift its way off screens in the hope of getting good returns on home video (which Lundgren’s films all did at the time).
Van Damme as hero, opposite the imposing Lundgren as villain. It showed Van Damme could headline a bigger budget and still make a hefty return ($100 million worldwide on a $23 million budget). This was also Roland Emmerich’s step into prominence, following on from his previous film, Moon 44. Universal Soldier would lead him onto Stargate, onto Independence Day and beyond. Whilst Universal Soldier’s nods to the likes of Robocop and Terminator may bring about unfavourable comparison, the benefit of time has helped a film that actually has a good blend of action and wry humour. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, while the inclusion of a strong, feisty female character (played by Ally Walker) to humanise the action a bit is also underappreciated.
Van Damme displays his physical prowess well with his trademark high kicks, but in addition a puppy dog demeanour that makes for some enjoyable comical moments. He’s better here than anyone back then would give him credit for as an actor. It might have ended up launching Van Damme onto bigger things but it sadly didn’t springboard Lundgren back up as a viable theatrical star. Not aided by sore luck with on paper hits like Joshua Tree and Men of War, the latter of which even had Oscar powered pedigree with John Sayles writing, suffering issues affecting their chances. Again, video numbers were strong suggesting the home audience were keen admirers of Lundgren but couldn’t be persuaded out the house (not that foul luck in distribution etc gave much chance, with no US theatrical releases forthcoming). Lundgren steals the film, chewing scenery with a Nic Cage-esque aplomb as the PTSD suffering Scott being ramped up to the max and going excessively haywire because of it. Lundgren handles the wry humour well but has fun playing a villain he can let loose with, in a way his heroes weren’t allowed to.
This remains one of the strongest, most enjoyable films of both CVs (and indeed probably Emmerich too). It also benefits from some impressively staged set pieces including a bus/truck chase and the hoover dam opening (and the inevitable mano-a-mano showdown).
Universal Soldier: The Return
After the success and Van Damme’s subsequent run of hits (which hit the kibosh shortly after Street Fighter when his behaviour and choices derailed his career) a sequel seemed almost inevitable. That said by the time it came around, following a number of misfires from JCVD, there was an air of desperation. Further, from a goofy concept to a poor script (that made the original look like a Francis Ford Coppola masterpiece of writing) everything seemed to go wrong.
Stunt men turned directors have produced mixed results. There have been notable successes like Chad Stahelski, David Leitch and Jesse V. Johnson but also a few who never quite kicked off. Best known as Mel Gibson’s longtime stunt-double, Mic Rodgers helms The Return, and with a horrid script and an off key Van Damme to contend with, he’s left holding the can for an excessively messy work with very few redeeming qualities beyond potentially qualifying as ‘so bad it’s good.’ That said, it’s not found that just yet, but it took a few years for Street Fighter to attain the cult status it has now for those reasons.
Most interestingly, Michael Jai White, whose big break in Spawn a couple of years previously, had gone quiet after the film tanked (it actually has its redeeming values even if it’s a huge steaming mess of a film) is handed the role of chief villain (he appeared briefly in the original too). Jai White is Mr Perennially Underrated. He’s shown that in the likes of Black Dynamite and Blood and Bone. He was also good in Spawn, so, that he never quite managed to even get close to the level that Wesley Snipes managed as an action man (not least because White is also a physical beast) will always remain a cinematic mystery. That being said, he’s not great in this, not least because everything is a mess, including the goofy presence of Goldberg at the height of his wrestling fame.
Universal Soldier: Regeneration
That should probably have been that after The Return, and was expected to remain a franchise killer. Even two made-for-TV extensions of Unisol lore between the first and second, which were awful, only re-emphasised the fact that as a potential franchise there was little interest. Step forward a decade after the second one, Van Damme is well and truly homed in video land along with Lundgren. John Hyams, son of Peter Hyams (Timecop) is tasked with regenerating Luc Devereaux again and on half the budget of the first film and a quarter of the second. Not too much to contend with for your narrative debut then.
Regeneration, a film no one asked for, that even fans seemed half hearted at the prospect of, was shot with little interest or fanfare. It wasn’t until some early positive responses at festivals and sales markets that word spread the film was actually surprisingly solid. Despite having no clear protagonist (as though Van Damme is essentially the leading man, the budget and schedule meant he had limited shooting time… ditto Lundgren) it’s engaging. So Luc has spent years retraining himself to cope in society as a now defunct piece of government war property. A strict diet of meds and psychological evaluations but he’s still triggered to return to the instinct of battle. Then comes the inevitable situation where, with a terrorist holding the President’s children hostage in an old nuclear reactor guarded by a new grade of Unisol (played by UFC fighter Andrei Arlovski), Devereaux becomes the only possibility of successfully extracting them and disarming a bomb strapped to the reactor.
Gone is almost all the humour and goofy charm of the original, replaced with seriousness (not without some darkly macabre moments mind you). What is amazing though is how visionary it is despite being a Universal Soldier film, and despite some areas that the budget hampers (such as allowing for more of Van Damme). The film owes more to Blade Runner than RoboCop and Terminator with some philosophical musings and Van Damme gives an interesting performance. Despite the inherently goofy manor of Lundgren’s re-appearance (having been minced by a combine harvester in Universal Soldier) thanks to cloning, his role is Rutger Hauer-esque, and if that’s not praise, then I don’t know what is. He makes a comical, show-stopping villain from original genesis, to something more Frankenstein monster and imbued with tragic existential confusion. He’s rarely been better and similarly Van Damme, so there is this sense of wanting more from them, just in as much as screen-time, which the budget didn’t allow. A lot of JC fans seemed to really hate Luc’s arc and there’s an add rebellion against this film from the people who should probably like it the most.
Regeneration never forgets its action routes either. An opening car chase is legitimately one of the best of the last decade. Many of the action sequences, which include almost third person, video-game esque p.o.v and long takes, are all brilliantly put together, as are the fight sequences which essentially consist of huge supermen smashing the living shit out of each other. The pick of the bunch is Van Damme and Lundgren’s centerpiece finale showdown which is fantastic. Walls cave in, mise-en-scene is obliterated and the two super-soldiers batter themselves and their surroundings epically.
Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning
Okay… so Hyams establishes himself as somewhat visionary in the previous film and so strong in that vision that he alienates a portion of the most devout Unisol/Van Damme fanbase. So he plays it safe next, right? Hell no. He doubles down. Big time.
There is plenty of action in Day Of Reckoning but what it is at heart is a brain melting, genre-blending but predominant horror that melds Kubrick, Noe, Cronenberg and Lynch and casts Scott Adkins in the leading role as a man whose family is inexplicably murdered by a terrorist leader (Luc Devereaux). He’s left for dead, emerging months later from a coma with only residual flashes of memory and an overwhelming desire to find and kill Devereaux. Nothing is quite as it seems as Adkins turns gumshoe in this dark, macabre and odd cinematic landscape of gruesomeness (but odd beauty).
The film, given its budget and lineage picked up a lot more critical attention than you would expect following a strong festival run. It received a split love/hate response but those who loved it, including some of the most high brow publications around, really loved it. Many, given it starred three action specialists were more surprised than anything at just how strong the vision was (whether they took to it or not). A lot of the reaction to the film rang similar to the reaction a director Nicolas Winding-Refn often gets with his singular vision films. It’s no surprise thus, that Hyams as a film-maker struck a chord with Refn and the pair have been working on the long gestating Maniac Cop reboot (which has now shifted from film project to TV).
It remains one of Adkins’ strongest performances. Van Damme plays a spectre figure, with Devereaux turning to an almost undead-Colonal Kurtz figure, whilst Lundgren once again raises his game as the returning Scott. The film deals with moral aspects of cloning, manipulation and the philosophical power and meaning of memory. Again, there are shades of Blade Runner and the film is beautifully shot. If you can attune to the grimness, the obtuse story and the violence (with a point, if you can appreciate the point) you will find it rewarding and a film, that belying it’s placing in the straight to video genre bargain bin section has much to revisit and decipher. All meaning aside, for genre fans it has the requisite (expertly choreographed, savagely brutal) action.
What do you make Universal Soldier and its sequels? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or reach out on our social channels @FlickeringMyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has several features due out on DVD/VOD in 2019/2020 the first of which, Scarecrow’s Revenge, is available on Prime. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.