PopMatters Film and TV Editor
It’s hard not to expect the worst of Universal Soldier: The Return. It’s clear in his late-night talk show interviews that the big story is not Jean-Claude Van Damme’s non-career, but rather his much more exciting personal life. To be fair, he has had a hard time of it recently, what with all his relationship hells, publicized addictions, and legal tribulations (for a while in 1998, he was a regular on Court TV). That is, interviewers don’t usually ask Jean-Claude Van Damme how he prepares for his parts.
And yet, there was a time when the Muscles From Brussels had something resembling a future in pictures, one which he proclaimed loudly and often. Given his immediate predecessors those much adored and well-paid no-necks Mr. T., Schwarzenegger, and Sly Stallone Van Damme’s ambitions were hardly out of line. Sure, he was loud and cocky, but they all were then, those proto-WCW action stars, competing at the box office and calling each other out in public (not to mention Arnold and Sly’s fighting over Brigitte Nielsen). All those pumped-up guys swaggered and posed. They did it well. They did it a lot. It’s what they were paid to do.
Van Damme knew he was lucky to be paid for such silliness: he said as much in interviews, which made him seem more humble than he was and also more human. And he had something else going for him, namely, those spectacular splits. Or rather, he had what those splits represented, grace and athleticism, a precision and beauty that the other he-men superstars couldn’t imagine or avoided on purpose. This made Van Damme slightly different from them (for a minute Steven Seagal had another approach you might have called it intelligence but he lost it almost immediately after the frankly extraordinary Above the Law, which had a cogent political agenda and a very cool Pam Grier, long before Quentin Tarantino was credited with reviving her career).
Van Damme’s martial arts were pretty and sustained, plus he had a real-life well-toned body that made him look sexy to straight and gay fans (what’s more, he publicly appreciated his gay fans, not exactly something the other muscleheads would do, even if they had gay fans). Over the past decade, Van Damme’s films have ranged from nonsensical with almost-smart moments (Hard Target, Timecop, and Double Team [in which the sublime almost-smart moment comes when a Coke machine saves Van Damme and partner Dennis Rodman from a nuclearesque wall-of-fire]) or just nonsensical (The Quest, which he wrote and directed, or Sudden Death, set in a hockey rink, or the straight-to-video biker flick fiasco, Desert Heat). In 1998’s simply awful Knock Off, inexplicably directed by the brilliant Tsui Hark and reportedly Van Damme’s first drug-free performance in years, it was obvious that the star would have a hard time coming back: the picture was incoherent, his performance was worse.
And so here he comes again, resurrected one more time, in a movie where he plays a dead and resurrected marine, Private Luc Devereaux. In 1992’s Universal Soldier, directed by Roland (ID4) Emmerich, Luc is killed in Vietnam, then put back together by some speed-up-your-bodily-systems technology that makes the Unisols virtually unkillable. In the States, these murder-machines are kept on ice (because their bodies run so hot) until they are deployed for fierce anti-terrorist activities. Originally a poor farm boy from the Bayou (hence his unkillable French accent), Luc has a rudimentary conscience as well as a reporter-sidekick (Ally Walker, trying out her Profiler tics and sighs), which make him the mortal enemy of the most diehard of the Unisols (Dolph Lundgren, in a sincerely great and frankly huge performance).
If the villains in the first film are the profit-minded Unisol manufacturers, in The Return, Directed by former Mel Gibson stunt double Mic Rodgers, the bad guys are the machines themselves. Specifically, the central computer, named Seth, overhears that the post-cold-war government is “pulling the plug” on the project, so he decides to protect himself and his minions, which include a humungoloid named Romeo, played by big-bald-mean (are there any other kinds?) wrestler Bill Goldberg. You’ve seen this technophobic plot before: Hal meets the Terminator meets the Lawnmower Man in Seth, the self-actualizing computer who inserts himself into a human body for better mobility (played by the beautiful martial arts whiz kid Michael Jai White, who can’t seem to catch a break after getting his starring break in the deeply flawed Spawn and then playing a man between two irate women in the grotesque Jerry Springer “biopic,” Ringmaster).
As per the formula, Luc has to fight Romeo like a wrestler and Seth like a kickboxer. He’s good at both, and the camera does like to watch Van Damme kick butt, but in between fights, he has to fight an unbelievably ill-conceived plot. Written by William Malone and John Fasano, the new movie takes up where the first one left off. Sort of. The premise is that Luc is human again, by way of a some ridiculous and unexplainable reverse technology. The problem is that he’s working on this project to which he is morally and very personally opposed, a science experiment which makes dead men (and in 1999, women too) into machines. In other words, Luc’s existence in this universe, helping a numb nuts scientist (Xander Berkeley) and the most passive and dull-witted general in history (Daniel Van Bargen) never makes a stitch of sense.
Given this major plot hole, the film motivates Luc’s interest in Seth’s egomaniacal takeover by giving him several damsels to fret about. These include his soldier-partner Maggie (Kiana Tom), his 11-12-ish daughter, Hillary (Karis Paige Bryant), and the memory of his dead blond wife (visible only in wedding photos, she’s not Ally Walker but maybe she’s supposed to pass, who can say?). He also picks up another sidekick female reporter, Erin (Heidi Schanz), this time with brown hair. She’s mostly annoying, particularly to the audience with whom I saw the film: they hooted at her every appearance on screen and rooted for Seth’s lunkheads to blow her up.
Van Damme has a hard row in this film: the direction is crude (cuts during supposed action scenes include everyone’s individual reaction shots, making the pace like molasses), the score is dumbfounding (speed metal by GWAR, Megadeath, and Anthrax for heavy artillery shootouts, thunk thunk minor piano keys for suspense, orchestral pile-ups for the one-on-ones between Luc and whoever), and the digital FX are singularly unimpressive. The star runs through his gamut: he smiles tenderly at Hillary, shows his pain over a couple of deaths, lectures Erin, head-butts Romeo, even makes the nuclear family unit look more or less whole in the inevitable closing embrace. But let’s hope, for his sake, that his own return is not riding on this one.