By Clint Morris
If Roland Emmerich’s “Universal Soldier” had been an independent film, made outside the studio system, with a skeleton crew, hand held cams, and few stuntmen, then it’d probably look, maybe even play, a little like director John Hyams’ direct-to-video offering “Universal Soldier : Regeneration”.
The second sequel to the smash-hit Jean-Claude Van Damme/Dolph Lundgren flick (which, for what it’s worth, was a fun ol’ flick – some great action sequences in it), and the first one to go straight to DVD, “Regeneration” is, not unexpectedly – considering the regrettable moribund box-office appeal of its leads – the most fiscally-friendly and no-frills of the series. And yes, it looks it. Maybe even plays it. But unlike the last sequel, which severely lacked some Andrew Scott-baddism, producers have managed to coax Van Damme and Lundgren back to the fold. And, age aside, they both bring it like it was, er, 1992. To say they save the film is a huge understatement. They’re great!
Van Damme is probably only in half the film, and Lundgren might only be on screen for 15 minutes or so, but that’s enough to plant the film with a ‘worth a look’ sticker. The boys bring it – and then some, especially in the rough and tumble skirmish they participate in near the film’s end.
And watching the two masters of action mayhem at work reminds us (and will hopefully remind Hollywood) just how much more deserving both Van Damme and Lundgren are of being cast in bigger, better vehicles – the likes of which they both headlined in the 80s (Lundgren – “Masters of the Universe”, “The Punisher” and so on), and 90s (Van Damme with “TimeCop”, “Sudden Death”, “Double Impact” and so on), respectively. They mightn’t be the finest actors on the planet – but I will say, having recently seen Van Damme in “J.C.V.D” that the man is much more than brawn and high-kicks, he can act. He’s even quite good here, bringing much more to the character than, I imagine, was on the page. And in addition, Lundgren is a master at bringing home a cheeky quip! He has some doozies here – but they know how to entertain. Really entertain. They’re the real deal, too – they likely didn’t have too many stuntmen doubling for them on this, because in most sequences you can see its Van Damme and Lundgren getting belt, or giving out the beltings, and if I didn’t any better, I’d swear knuckles were actually touching in a couple of those fight sequences. More so, they’re a charismatic couple of cats. Say what you will about either of them, but they’re still two of the most entertaining and interesting mean guns in the action-movie arsenal. Great to see them paired up again.
If it sounds like I’m singing the praises of Van Damme and Lundgren more so than their latest movie, well, I guess I am. Thing is, if “Regeneration” had gone the way it was originally going to go – have it feature different actors, since Van Damme and Lundgren seemed reluctant to return (Lundgren, for instance, only signed on to the picture a few days before it went into production, after they re-wrote his lines for him) – it would’ve likely sucked worse than a cheap hooker. I say that because whenever the film is focusing on the ‘third lead’ of this thing, Andrei ‘The Pit Bull’ Arlovski (I suppose you’d say he’d the lead. He does appear in much more of it than either Van Damme or Lundgren), who plays the big bad, or becomes bogged down in exposition or stationary sequences that don’t involve anyone handling a big-ass weapon or someone getting whacked, it’s pretty clear there’s nothing but a thin shell here.
In a nutshell, the story involves a group of terrorists taking over a power plant, and the military’s attempts to take them down.
One of the doctors on the old Universal Soldier program has crossed over to ‘the dark side’, and with him, brings a few of his old robotic pals – predominantly, NGU (Arlovski). NGU’s an unstoppable son-of-a-bitch that wipes his way through the military, and anyone else that gets in his way, quicker than a semi on a dusty highway. He hasn’t got much to say, but he’s got a lot to spray.
With him, the doc wakes up a clone of (original “Universal Soldier” villain) Andrew Scott (Lundgren), who, though at times questioning his alliance to the rogues that have given birth to him, is still is nasty and as a threatening as Scott.
With little options left, the military calls on Luc Deveraux (Damme), the UniSol who’s been decommissioned for years. Reactivated and retrained, Deveraux must make a full-out assault on the heavily armed fortress – encountering both enemies new (Arkovski) and old (Lundgren).
Not to say the story is terrible, it isn’t – – it’s just that it’s not an especially compelling one. It also doesn’t feel like an extension of the previous films – and in fact, unless it was pointed out to us that the guys with the guns were ‘Universal Soldiers’, and JC and DL were back as Luc Devereaux and Andrew Scott, it could pass for a stand-alone film. I dare say the story was written to fit the foreign location (besides a couple of sequences, set inside a building in Virginia, it all takes place offshore) and the budget (probably a fifth of what the first film cost; thus it all essentially takes place in the one location). Understandable, but it’s a pity, with a few more bucks, and some more lavish locations, the thing might’ve – like the original – gone off like a nympho in a pyjama party. Still, it’s not half as bad as many might expect it to be.
There are three guys who save the picture from mediocrity and that’s Van Damme, Lundgren, and director John Hyams. Accompanied by his father Peter (who directed Van Damme’s “TimeCop” and “Sudden Death”) on the Nikon, Hyams has crafted a fairly slick, rather showy action movie – considering the lowly sum he’s got to work with. Knowing every penny counts, and likely eager to show the big boys how imaginative he is, the commercials director has crafted a film that’s not so much an action-thriller (as the first was) as it is a war movie. He shows real flair here. Even the camera angles, movements and placement look like something out of “Full Metal Jacket”. Give the man a budget, and I think he’ll really hit it home.
So yeah, got a little bored in spots, but as soon as Van Damme and Lundgren entered the picture – and more so, came face-to-face – I found myself quite enjoying the latest (and likely, not the last) in the “Universal Soldier” series. Good beer and pizza flick, fellas.