Universal Soldier: The Return

Seven years after the original “Universal Soldier” was a worldwide box office success, and two made for TV sequels bored audiences at home, Tristar Pictures released “Universal Soldier: The Return”. Serving as the first “official” sequel to the 1992 original, this film brought back star Jean-Claude Van Damme, but even his presence wasn’t enough to bring back repeat business for this lackluster film.

“Universal Soldier: The Return” picks up several years after the events of the previous movie. Now, Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) is a technical adviser/trainer for the next generation of UniSol’s. Led by a powerful supercomputer named S.E.T.H. (Michael Jai White) this new crop of soldiers is more controlled, faster, and deadlier than their predecessors. However, when the government seeks to cut the funding to the UniSol program altogether, S.E.T.H. takes drastic measures to protect his army and ensure his survival no matter the cost.

You know, it’s never a good sign for a movie, when the moment the first scene ends the viewer is already rolling his eyes at how ridiculous everything has been thus far. From that first scene alone, which was also the film’s first action sequence (talk about not wasting anytime), I already had a growing suspicion that I was going to regret watching this movie. Of course, much to my dismay the remaining hour and twenty minutes or so managed to prove my suspicions correct; leaving me with 90 minutes of my life stripped away with nary an ounce of enjoyment from the experience.

The story for “Universal Soldier: The Return” sounded like a promising follow-up to the vastly superior original film. Yet, a promising story does not always make for a good movie, and screenwriters William Malone (“Supernova”) and John Fasano (“Darkness Falls”) saw to that. The plot for this entry is so riddled with holes and inconsistencies that it is borderline incoherent and I for one was stunned that the studio even allowed this movie to see the light of day. Events in the movie would repeat themselves, bits of information previously brought to light in an earlier scene would be rehashed (with the same characters present, mind you) as if the information had never been heard before. Not to mention, the dialogue is so amateurish that it is more cringe inducing than the worst written daytime soap opera or your typical tweens show on the Disney Channel.

The action sequences are average at best, some of them were exciting, but for the most part even they felt tired and boring. I would have never suspected that fight scenes could become so generic that I could almost doze off, yet somehow this movie found a way. What’s surprising about how run-of-the-mill the action in this film was is that two skilled martial artists are involved in the movie, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Michael Jai White. One should feel fairly confident in the assumption that with two martial artists on the set, that one of them could have ensured that at least the action sequences would be top-notch. However, that assumption would be incorrect. Not to mention the director, Mic Rogers, is no stranger to action movies having served as Assistant Director on several high-profile films, such as “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and “Wanted”. Apparently, no matter who was involved in this production, with horribly written material as the backbone, it was only a matter of time before the rest of the movie would begin to suffer.

Speaking of other areas that suffered in this movie, the acting in this film was laughable at best. Sole returning cast member Jean-Claude Van Damme was given far too many comedic moments (whether intentional or not) that his character didn’t even remotely feel like the same man from the original. I just have a hard time picturing the Luc Deveraux from the first film, whether an active UniSol or not, kicking and/or punching some bad guy, then spouting off some lame one-liner. Also, I guess no one noticed that in the first movie, Jean-Claude’s dialogue was kept to a minimum to disguise his thick accent that didn’t fit his namesake; however, in this film no such effort was made and his accent was a definite distraction.

As if the problems with Jean-Claude’s performance weren’t enough, the movie’s villains didn’t fare any better. Serving as the main antagonists to Jean-Claude are former WWE wrestler Bill Goldberg (“Half Past Dead 2”) and martial arts expert Michael Jai White (“Spawn”). Bill Goldberg must have been under the impression that the method of “acting” used in the WWE is the same for movies. Because every line he speaks or grunts or whatever, sounds as if he’s giving a sound bite from a cue card on “Monday Night Raw”. His lines all fall flat and his acting is so wooden that he makes Keanu Reeves look lively.

As for Michael Jai White, his fighting ability looks to be above reproach as he believably holds his own against the skills of Van Damme. As for his acting it’s not nearly as impressive in this film. I’ve seen him in other movies, and typically he turns in a solid performance, but like everything else in this abysmal film, his acting manages to fall well short of expectations and/or talent.

I feel fairly safe in saying that if given the opportunity, every single person associated with this movie would go back and undo the damage this movie did to the franchise, and potentially to their careers. This is especially true for Jean-Claude, who shortly after this film’s release began to see his movies making their way to Direct-to-DVD shelves everywhere. This movie is a prime example of what can happen when money talks more than quality, and the end result is nothing short of terrible.

Lastly, “Universal Soldier: The Return” is one of those rare films that will make you question your sanity for even bothering to finish the movie. Very few action films will make you long for the most brainless Direct-to-DVD efforts, but this one does its level best to do so.

“Universal Soldier: The Return” is rated R for violence, language, and nudity.

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