“Why me Lord? What have I ever done / That was worth even one / Of the pleasures I’ve known / Tell me Lord, what did I ever do / That was worth loving you / or [Universal Soldier 3].”
–Kris Kristofferson, “Why Me”
Holy shit fellas, I didn’t see this one coming. I was excited about the idea of Van Damme and Lundgren doing a movie together again, but honestly I assumed they (and everybody else) would be phoning it in. Man, was I wrong. There are no phones used at all. This is a masterpiece of DTV.
I mean seriously, how did this happen?
It comes out February 2nd and I can’t wait to discuss it with everybody here after you’ve seen it.
The screener had been sitting around my apartment for about a month. I was excited that Dolph Lundgren was in it, but didn’t expect much. When I finally got around to putting it in it seemed like the wrong disc. The trailers were for classy foreign films, and the opening was a quiet scene in an art museum. But then ski masked commandos nab a young man and woman and take them on a kill crazy high speed chase through security, police, a road block and away in a helicopter. The lead kidnapper takes massive bullet hits, but doesn’t seem to mind.
On the surface you have your usual DTV qualities: masked gunmen from some vaguely defined radical faction, dreary European locations, car crashes, and no sign of the stars on the cover yet. But the weird thing is this is a *great* action sequence. Cameras attached to the cars, putting you right inside the mayhem, you feel like you’re getting knocked around and dragged away but (get this) you can tell exactly what’s going on. It’s fast, brutal and unfashionably comprehensible. It had my heart beating. You don’t expect that in the opening of a DTV action movie or, let’s be honest, any modern American action movie.
The hostages are the children of the Russian premiere, the reason is a fictional political conflict, the threat is that if political prisoners aren’t released the kids will be killed and a bomb will be set off in Chernobyl, spreading radiation all over the place. Where the fuck do the zombie super warriors of UNIVERSAL SOLDIER come in? Well, the rebels have on their hands one NGU (Next Generation UniSol [Universal Soldier]) thanks to a rogue scientist from the UniSol program (Kerry Shale) now working for hire. Theirs is a more powerful model than the old ones and played by former UFC heavyweight champion Andrei “The Pitbull” Arlovski.
Unlike most DTV this gets straight to business. The CIA sends in their four remaining UniSols along with American and Russian troops. It’s all very procedural, we see the whole strategy of how the troops are arranged, how they move in, and then we watch The Pitbull single-handedly dismantle their entire team. The fights are raw and brutal – people punched 8-10 times in the face, thrown through walls, covered in blood, expertly knifed or surgically machine gunned. The Pitbull is a legitimately scary Terminator, the fights are perfectly staged and the movie cuts effectively between the breathing and grunting of the fights in quiet Chernobyl and the panicked war room where the military brass shout at each other while watching everything go to hell through the POV of the UniSol eyepieces.
Meanwhile, Jean-Claude Van Damme is still Luc Devereaux. But he’s in the care of a female psychiatrist (Emily Joyce) in a small town trying to rehabilitate him. He can’t remember who he is, but he can remember yesterday, which is an improvement. Van Damme is in “I actually get to act in this one” mode, a quiet, sad performance more like UNTIL DEATH and JCVD than UNIVERSAL SOLDIER. Then he snaps and beats up an old man for looking at him, and he’s more quick and brutally effective than we’ve seen him in a while.
Of course poor Luc is the only one that might stand a chance against The Pitbull, so he gets de-rehabilitated and sent in to clean up this Chernobyl shitstorm. But where does Dolph Lundgren’s character Andrew Scott come in? Dolph gets the least screen time of the guys on the cover, but he’s the most memorable. In part 1 he was a crazy Vietnam war criminal turned evil UniSol turned pile of chopped up meat. Here he’s an upgraded clone grown by the scientist as an insurance policy. A really bad insurance policy, it turns out. There’s something about that Andrew Scott that makes him hard to control. So he follows his own path in life, let’s say.
In this movie Dolph looks like – and basically is – Frankenstein’s monster. A routine diagnostics test where they ask him simple yes and no questions reveals that his mind is working better than it should, but the scientist is too ignorant to understand that’s what’s going on. All three of the NGUs, but especially Dolph, are tragic monsters, not really human anymore but almost able to remember what being human was. I won’t give away his interaction with Van Damme, but what he says to him is haunting, somehow almost poetic. In a UNIVERSAL SOLDIER movie.
Part of the genius of the movie is that it doesn’t try to humanize them more as it goes along. It doesn’t try to explain their history or even mention which war it was they fought in. All that matters is that they’re leftover weapons, unable to be useful in peace time. In fact, the human villains who instigate this conflict die early, and their demands are already met. But the Universal Soldiers continue the war. They don’t know how to shut off. They’re like perpetual war in human shape.
There’s not much that separates the good ones from the bad. All of them are scary. Deveraux happens to be the one that fights against the bad guys – unless you’re that old man. Or his psychiatrist. Or unlucky. At the end you’re glad he wins (SPOILER) but you’re not sure if he’s really on your side.
The characters are just right – they’re not real developed, but they don’t have to be. They’re mostly people of action, not words. They’re pieces in a game moved around just right for you to worry about what happens to them. For example there’s a great scene where a badass special ops type guy (another MMA fighter, Mike Pyle) is sent in to do recon but accidentally engages The Pitbull. By this point it’s been established that this guy is merely super at being a soldier, not a super soldier. We have seen the work of both him and his opponent, and it’s clear to everyone what must go down. This guy will die, but first he’ll put up way more of a fight than any other regular non zombie soldier would put up. He’s not supernatural, he’s just highly trained, but you can’t turn him off either.
The look, feel and whole mentality of this one are completely different from any of the previous
five four UNIVERSAL SOLDIER pictures. To me it seems more influenced by ALIEN, THE TERMINATOR and CHILDREN OF MEN than its own series. The story is perfectly streamlined, just setting the characters in motion and crashing them into each other, the type of elegant simplicity so many of these convoluted DTVs need as a role model in their lives. The tone is deadly serious, quiet, tense. The score is a nice John Carpenter/Brad Fiedel type keyboard droner. The sound design is really good too, lots of weird buzzes and distorted voices over radios creating atmosphere.
What I’m telling you is that this is a real fucking good movie, made with care and skill. I can’t believe how much I liked it. It joins UNDISPUTED II as the rare DTV sequel better than its theatrical originator. It’s also probly the first ever part
5 4 that’s better than its part 1. Unless you count porn. This is that you-would-think-mythical-but-it-turns-out-it’s-a-real-thing movie I’ve been naively waiting for all these years watching crappy DTV sequels. Sure, it’s unlikely that somebody would pour everything they got into something like a UNIVERSAL SOLDIER sequel. They probly wouldn’t do that. But they could. And for once, they did!
Did your dad ever tell you “If it’s worth doing it’s worth doing well”? I bet this director, John Hyams, heard that one. His dad is Peter Hyams, director of Van Damme’s SUDDEN DEATH and TIMECOP as well as OUTLAND and 2010: THE YEAR WE MAKE CONTACT, and cinematographer for this one. I had to immediately look up the younger Hyams to see what else he’s directed – he did a 16mm movie long ago that’s not on video, some TV, and two sports documentaries, one of them about MMA, so that probly helped with the fight scenes.
This year and last are shaping up as some kind of renaissance for DTV action. THE TOURNAMENT is good, NINJA is good, BLOOD AND BONE is great, and now this. I really believe REGENERATION is not just good DTV, it’s miraculous. Maybe not everyone will appreciate it the way I do. I read one review that was positive but said it was weird that Van Damme doesn’t appear for a little bit and Lundgren isn’t in it that much. Those would be problems in conventional DTV where the stars are all it really has to offer, but in this movie to me it’s not even of any concern at all. It’s too artful to care about that. It doesn’t seem like they weren’t available, it seems like they were placed in the movie for exactly the amount of time the characters demanded.
Maybe it’s just me. I don’t know man but if I was one of those Hollywood producers always looking for untapped talent I would sign this dude up for something ASAP. If he can make the fourth sequel to fucking UNIVERSAL SOLDIER this good I can only imagine what he’d do with a little bigger budget and a better concept. This guy could go on to big things. Or he could keep raising the bar for DTV. Whatever he does I’ll be watching for now on.
NUMBERING NOTE: The title screen called it UNIVERSAL SOLDIER REGENERATION, the cover calls it UNIVERSAL SOLDIER 3, which Hyams said in an interview is his preferred title. That’s kind of weird though since there’s already been a part 3. It seems to imply that the made-for-cable ones don’t count, only the two theatrical ones with Van Damme and now this. But the movie wisely ignores the last installment, where Deveraux was somehow alive and normal again, and had a daughter.
I watched all of the sequels to prepare for this one, but don’t feel like you have to. In fact, if you’ve never seen any of them it might be smarter just to skip straight to this one.
Originally posted at Ain’t-It-Cool-News: http://www.aintitcool.com/node/43749