Our review of Universal Soldier: The Return (Blu-Ray), published March 30th, 2009, is also available.
Prepare to become obsolete.
Jean Claude Van Damme kicks a lot of butts and shoots a lot of guns and blows things up. Unfortunately he doesn't do even his usually average job with this one. A fine disc though.
I've got as much testosterone as the next guy. I like movies with lots of action, stunts, and gunfire. I'm not even prejudiced against Jean Claude Van Damme. There have been films of his I liked, especially Bloodsport, one of his early ones. I know better than to expect a real story and characters with depth when I watch one of his films; I just want to see some great action. I even liked the first Universal Soldier a little bit. It wasn't nearly as bad as the disastrous Double Team with Dennis Rodman.
None of this helped me with this picture. One element of fiction in general is called suspension of disbelief. This means (for those who don't already know) that the viewer or reader must be willing to accept the setting and people in the story, and to let himself believe it even though he knows going in that it isn't a true story. It is the job of the author, writer, director, or actor to make it at least somewhat easy to do that. Make things too improbable given the setting or leave gaping holes in the plot, and your ability to suspend disbelief can be stretched to it's limit or beyond. That's what happens here.
I'll give a brief overview of the story now, and elaborate below. In the first movie, Van Damme played Luc Deveraux, a Vietnam soldier who was killed and brought back to life as an enhanced soldier, a killing machine. In this one he has had the process reversed and is now a living human free of the implants and such. He advises the government on the next phase of the UniSol project. Now a self-aware computer named SETH controls all the new soldiers. But when the government decides to end the project, and SETH finds out, he takes matters into his own hands, and uses the 30 or more Unisols to take over the complex. The system had a fail-safe though, that a code would have to be entered within eight hours or SETH would shut down automatically. Luc is the only surviving person at the complex who knows the code, so he must be captured and forced to give up the code, or SETH will die. Not being satisfied to stay on the sidelines, SETH decides to implant his own mind into a bio-enhanced body, that of Michael Jai White (Spawn, Ringmaster). Let the mayhem begin.
As for the disc, I have little to complain about. The disc has a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer of the film on one side, and pan-and-scan on the other. I only watched the widescreen side, and if you ask me to watch it again to see the full frame one, I'd have to kill you. The video was quite good, with no complaints. No dirt, edge enhancement issues, or color bleeding. The audio was equally as good, a fine Dolby Digital 5.1 track that got the room shaking during the explosions and frequent gunfire. Surrounds were used when the occasion called for it. This wasn't a special edition, but I still found enough extras to stem any complaints. There were three featurettes; one highly promotional one for several of Van Damme's flicks, a very nice but short one showing Michael Jai White's workout regimen for the film, and a "Making of," pretty vanilla but nice. We also get theatrical trailers for this film, Double Team, Desert Heat, Knock Off, Maximum Risk, and Nowhere to Run. The trailers range from full frame to anamorphic widescreen depending on the movie. Lastly we see Talent Files for the fledgling director Mic Rodgers, Van Damme, Michael Jai White, and Bill Goldberg, the professional wrestler in his acting debut as one of the soldiers.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
So what do I have to complain about? Huge, gaping holes in the plot for one thing. Supposedly Van Damme isn't to be killed because he alone has the code to save SETH, but every time they mention it, they are trying to blow him up or shoot hundreds of rounds at him seconds later. Michael Jai White actually isn't bad as SETH, but he conveniently forgets about the code needed to keep him alive too, and goes off on this plan to create a huge implanted army to defeat all of humanity first. He remembers briefly back and forth throughout the movie. Next, these soldiers; I know they're bioenhanced and all, but these guys are still flesh on the outside, and take explosions to the chest over and over without becoming some endoskeleton like the Terminator. When the plot calls for it, they die much more easily, even though other times many troops firing at them doesn't work. Right after Van Damme tells these troops that only the grenade launchers have a prayer of stopping these Unisols, and a regular M-16 will just make them mad, the soldiers still go into the open with nothing but M-16s. And die in a prescribed military manner of course. As for the guns, the supposed over and under rifle/grenade launcher combos try to look futuristic and just end up looking like toys. There are lots of little things as well, like how in the heck did Bill Goldberg's character get up with this five ton truck sitting on top of him? You never see. It all resulted in being unable to get past these things and just follow the story, instead you're always shaking your head and saying, "I don't believe it, this is so bad."
I know you don't expect Lawrence Olivier caliber acting in one of these flicks, but Van Damme does worse than his usual stony-faced emotion in this one. Only Michael Jai White and Bill Goldberg come close to being entertaining with their acting ability, with Bill having only a few lines, but worth a chuckle. The rest of the cast is best forgotten. The obligatory nudity scene is perhaps one of the most entertaining, where you see a strip club get turned into a big brawl.
My last complaint is that the director, Mic Rodgers is in his debut, but has extensive experience as a stunt coordinator in great films like Braveheart, and Lethal Weapon 1-4. You'd think that the fight scenes would be great given some real fighting if not acting talent, but they are very generic. Out of the many such scenes, there is only one good fight scene in the movie, and it's the one at the end between Van Damme and SETH, which I must admit was very well done.
If you already have seen and like the film, then by all means get the disc, I rate the technical aspects of it very highly. Columbia has done another fine job with this one. But if you're asking my advice on it, this film would be eminently forgettable if it wasn't so bad. It's not even campy bad where you might like it because it's so bad. It's just bad.
Jean Claude Van Damme is sentenced to detention in the acting school of his choice, but is not allowed to leave until he learns to act. The writer of this farce, who is also responsible for the dreadful Teen Wolf Too, is sentenced to Purgatory; perhaps the prayers of the faithful will get him out to write again. The director is admonished to at least do the part of movies he is expert at, stunts, with more vigor in a film that has stunts and fights as it's only draw. Columbia is acquitted for a fine disc, but I would ask them "Why?" as for the reasons this disc got this treatment.
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