Friday, July 2, 2010

"Universal Soldier: Regeneration" (2009)

Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren and Andre 'The Pitbull' Arlovski
Written by Victor Ostrovsky
Directed by John Hyams

The History of "Universal Soldier"
-The original "Universal Soldier" starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren is released in theatres in 1992.
-A TV movie sequel, "Universal Soldier II: Brothers in Arms," not starring Van Damme, is released in 1998
-A second TV movie sequel, "Universal Soldier III: Unfinished Business," also not starring Van Damme, is also released in 1998.
-A second theatrical feature, "Universal Soldier: The Return," once again starring Van Damme, is released in 1999.  It ignores the events of the two TV movies.
-In 2009, a direct-to-video sequel, "Universal Soldier: Regeneration" is released, once again starring Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren.  It seems to ignore the events of both "The Return" and the TV movies, and even muddies the history of the original film, as well.

Ah, Jean-Claude Van Damme.  It's easy to rag on this guy, considering the sheer number of bad movies he's made.  Of course, it's nothing like what Steven Seagal has become, and at least Van Damme is still in reasonable shape, so let's give him credit where credit is due.

Much of "Universal Soldier: Regeneration" feels like a cash-in on the property.  Van Damme spends most of the movie strapped to a chair, and Dolph Lundgren only appears in about two scenes.  Despite this, "Regeneration" is actually rather entertaining.  Director John Hyams, son of Peter Hyams (director of films like "Outland," "Sudden Death" and "End of Days") directs this direct-to-video sequel rather well.  Despite its low-budget origins, "Regeneration" presents a number of well-executed, entertaining action sequences.  While Van Damme spends most of the movie sidelined, once he gets going, he's the incarnation of badass.

The movie begins with the two children of the Russian president being kidnapped by a well-armed and prepared strike team.  The resulting chase wrecks a number of cars and slaughters the local police force.  The children are loaded into a helicopter and the escape is made.  Not long after, a rogue military force under the command of Commander Topov (Zahary Baharov) seize the abandoned city of Chernobyl, and more importantly, the remnants of the nuclear reactor there.  They wire it with explosives, and give the president 72 hours to release hundreds of political prisoners, or he'll kill the children and detonate the nuclear reactor, releasing a radioactive dust cloud that could poison millions.

Complicating matters is that Topov has an "NGU," or Next-Generation Universal Soldier, (Andrei 'The Pitbull' Arlovski) under his command, thanks to corrupt scientist Dr. Colin (Kerry Shale).  Impervious to pain, programmed only to follow orders, the NGU proves nearly unstoppable when a rescue force of American and Russian soldiers storm Chernobyl to get the kids back.  Only Captain Burke (Mike Pyle) makes it out unharmed.  The rest of the soldiers are decimated, including four original UniSol's brought in to assist them.  The mission's last hope is Luc Devereaux (Van Damme) the last remaining original UniSol, who now lives in Sweden and is undergoing therapy to try and reintegrate into society.

Unfortunately, the only way Devereaux can be effective in battle against the NGU is to reverse all the progress he's made over the last few years and revert to the mindless weapon he was before.  The military, of course, isn't about to give him this option, and kidnaps him outright and begins the procedure.  Meanwhile, Captain Burke convinces his superiors to allow him to attempt to infiltrate Chernobyl alone to do recon for Devereaux's eventual mission to retrieve the kids and stop the bomb.  He manages to sneak in alone, and manages to plant surveillance cameras around the area. 

But the president has other plans, and announces his intentions to go along with Topov's demands.  Topov's men celebrate, but Dr. Colin isn't along for the ride.  It seems he's revived a second UniSol, a clone of Andrew Scott, the man who went nuts and tried to kill Devereaux in the original film.  Of course, his clone proves just as insane and impossible to control as the original.  Now reverted to a mindless automaton, Devereaux is tasked with the mission to take back Chernobyl.

What follows is the best part of the movie, bar-none.  Van Damme is an unstoppable killing machine, and by-god does he kill.  The cleverness and the technical craft on display here is far too good for a direct-to-video movie.  It gets even better once he runs out of ammunition and starts taking on Topov's goons with his bare hands and a knife.  This sequence is entirely too cool to be squandered on a movie with such a small audience as this one likely has.

Van Damme's fight with Lundgren is also pretty cool, but sadly disappointing in that it simply is over too soon.  In fact, I question why Lundgren is even in this film.  His role could easily have been fulfilled by the NGU soldier.  The fact that Devereaux loses his memory and personality and that Scott is a clone with no memory either means that their eventual confrontation carries no meaning for either of them.  It matters only to the audience members who have seen the original movie and know what happened between the two of them, since "Regeneration" doesn't bother to recap those events in any fashion, either through flashbacks or expository dialogue.  Lundgren's role is essentially a cameo, which is unfortunate since he's so much fun to have around.  I will say, though, that his defeat, quick as it was, is also one of the film's most clever kills.

The same can almost be said for Van Damme.  He gets only a handful of lines, and spends most of the movie strapped to a chair.  Most of the plot moves forward following Burke and his men, with the occasional cut back to Van Damme running on a treadmill or, again, strapped to that chair.  The characters are paper-thin, and the plot is paint-by-numbers "rogue Russian general wants independence for his hard-liners bla bla bla".  But the action sequences are key here.  They're surprisingly well-produced, right from the opening chase, to Van Damme's killing spree and the fights with Lundgren and Arlovski. 

It's on that level that I have to recommend "Universal Soldier: Regeneration."  Van Damme looks bored the entire time, even when he's pulling off all these badass moves.  It's kind of ridiculous, but I suppose it's part of his character, or something.  I'm not sure.  But when he kills, he does it well and it's a blast to watch.