After a bad (but watchable) initial movie, Universal Soldier weathered two horrific direct-to-video sequels with the original lead, Jean-Claude Van Damme, noticeably absent. Now, seven years after the original film, Van Damme’s career is struggling. Perhaps reuniting with this flagging movie series will help put Van Damme back on the upslope? Don’t hold your breath. Once again, Van Damme has made a truly horrendous movie that’s not even worth watching for the mindless action.
For those unfamiliar with the concept, the Universal Soldier program reanimates dead soldiers as powerful, nearly unstoppable cyborgs. Formerly a Universal Soldier himself, Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) is now a doting single father, who is leading a taskforce to train and perfect the Universal Soldier program.
The new UniSol’s are faster, stronger, and even more unstoppable than their predecessors. They are centrally controlled by a powerful supercomputer named S.E.T.H. (voiced by Michael Jai White), who certainly wouldn’t go berserk and attempt to take over the world with his personal army of UniSol’s…would he?
Well, surprise, surprise, this happens to be the situation that arises when the government threatens to pull the plug on the UniSol program. Now, since the armed forces are powerless against this new breed of soldier (isn’t that just always the case?), it is up to Deveraux to single-handedly defeat S.E.T.H. and save the known world.
Of course, no action hero would be complete without a leading lady. That role is filled by Erin (Heidi Schanz), a TV newswoman who wanders around spouting bon mots like, “I’m not getting killed until I get my story!” Of course, dialogue is never the strong spot in any action film.
But there’s a problem with the action as well. There’s a frequently used cliché wherein the hero comes upon a big, mean opponent. The hero delivers his best blows, but the big meanie just stands there unflinching, until finally delivering a powerful strike of his own that sends the hero reeling. Well, apparently the brilliant minds behind Universal Soldier: The Return, felt that this cliché was so good that every single fight scene in the movie should be like that. While amusing at first, quickly the action sequences become tedious. (See Van Damme. See Van Damme fight. See Van Damme get thrown across the room. Repeat.)
It doesn’t help matters that his opponents in the film aren’t too inspiring. Van Damme’s most frequent fight buddy is wrestler Bill Goldberg (playing a sneering UniSol named Romeo). Of course his fight scenes are always eerily reminiscent of a bad WCW match…you almost expect Romeo to begin trash talking his opponents. Heck, at least that might have made the movie a little amusing.
The plotting on the film is minimal, as can be expected, and contains one major flaw (and countless minor ones). Because Luc has a secret code, S.E.T.H. orders him captured alive (the only way Van Damme survives the numerous one-sided beatings he takes throughout the film). But when S.E.T.H. has the technology to resurrect the dead (and gain complete control over them), why does he bother? It’s a given that most action plots won’t stand up to any serious scrutiny…but they should at least have the decency to remain coherent while the film is running.
However, Universal Soldier: The Return does, sadly, have one memorable feature. The utterly worthless, cringing performance by Brent Hinkley as a revenge-prone hacker named Squid. The fact that his hideous performance is noticeable in this movie is sure to tell you something. But Brent’s half-snivelling, half-sneering presence is so incredibly bad that he has immediately become the front-runner for worst performance of the year.
Universal Soldier: The Return is a perfect candidate for the “what were they thinking?” file. It’s another rung down the ladder for Van Damme…and for anyone unfortunate enough to watch this drivel. (Columbia/TriStar)