1999 - Cinema’s Greatest Year Ever: UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: THE RETURN

“The only way is to blow them up and hope the pieces don’t keep fighting.”

I feel like everyone should know my love for the Universal Soldier series by now. But my love is strange and only really extends to the series’ John Hyams entries Regeneration and Day of Reckoning. I’m not really big on the supposedly paramount original entry, and until last week I hadn’t even seen its sequel Universal Soldier: The Return.

But I had good reason, kind of. No one likes this movie. While people seem to all-out ignore the series’ two non-JCVD DTV entries, Brothers in Arms and Unfinished Business, some actually saw the theatrically released The Return, and few have anything nice to say about it. Since I’m not really a fan of the first film, I figured I wasn’t missing much.

Well I was wrong about that. This isn’t any kind of paragon of action cinema or anything, but I found tons to enjoy with this movie, both as its own thing and as a strange precursor to what Hyams would later do with the series. There is a ton of embarrassing shit going on, mostly thanks to Bill Goldberg - one of action cinemas most egregious quipping machines, but the highs far outweigh the lows.

This probably sounds like sacasm, but Universal Soldier: The Return’s greatest strength is its plot. This is what I like to call a situation movie, as in, hey here’s an immediate situation and we’re going to spend the rest of the movie dealing with it in something resembling real time. I’ll do by best to summarize:

The Unisol program has grown leaps and bounds since the first film. New Unisols are just shy of bulletproof and can heal from their wounds in a matter of moments. A HAL-like computer program called SETH monitors and controls them. When SETH overhears Army brass discussing the termination of the Unisol program, it goes rogue, overriding a bunch of security systems and sending its Unisols out to take over the world. Not only that, but it later puts its consciousness into a Super-Unisol played by Michael Jai White. The only man who can stop all this is motherfucking Jean-Claude Van Damme.

If you don’t think that sounds kind of cool, I don’t know what to tell you. Except for its twenty minute-long setup and a couple brief field trips to a hospital and a strip club, all of Universal Soldier: The Return takes place at the same facility, giving its conflict a compact, immediate feel. The Unisols are all inside; the rest of the army surrounds them, trying to figure out a way to keep them contained. The whole thing takes place over the course of one day. I love movies like this.

Jean-Claude Van Damme still plays #1 Unisol Luc Deveraux, but he’s no longer a Unisol somehow. As the action picks up and he starts kicking all kinds of ass, he does so as a regular guy. I mean, he’s JCVD, but he doesn’t have any zombie superpowers like his foes. When the film begins, he’s really more of a white collar advocate of the Unisol program. He has a daughter from his romance in part one, but he’s widowed. This marks the beginning of JCVD’s transition from happy go lucky guy who does the splits to the tragic and world-weary ass-kicker he is today.

The film doesn’t have any of the dourness or ultra violence  of Hyams’ entries, but there are interesting similarities. For one, the idea that Unisols can regenerate is highlighted here. But more than that, Hyams’ Day of Reckoning, which ends with the Unisols on the verge of covertly taking over the world, kind of gets a first draft in this film. It’s far more straightforward and stupid, but that’s basically the gist. The Unisols are incredibly strong but once out of our government’s control, they become a threat too powerful to manage. They make a pretty strong case for this, not just by showing Unisols killing the shit out of Army guys, but by illustrating how hard it is for JCVD, who is trapped among them, to get an edge while fighting. He almost always relies on some last minute environmental aid to save his neck. It doesn’t make him John McClane or anything, but it’s certainly makes the action more interesting than it needed to be.

If you go into Universal Soldier: The Return expecting a masterpiece or even a sensible sequel to the first Universal Soldier (as was probably the case with audiences in 1999) disappointment is inevitable. But expecting something atrocious and/or coming at it from the context of what Hyams would later add to the series, this is actually an interesting action film. I suspect the truth for most people lies somewhere in between. But for me, the film was a joy from beginning to end. I’ll tell you what: At one point JCVD goes to a strip club and breaks into its back office to use a computer. For reasons I cannot fathom, even the back office has a naked lady working a pole. I’m not saying that makes it a good movie, but I will say the film never really stopped surprising me.

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