Universal Soldier: The Return feels like what it almost certainly was: One final flailing grasp at box office relevance for Jean-Claude Van Damme before being trapped in the desert of direct-to-video exile for more than a decade.
The first film in the franchise remains one of Van Damme’s most financially successful films, so wanting to dip back into that well makes sense given the dire need for a hit at this point in his career. And why not? The original is also one of the few works in his filmography that truly lends itself to a sequel, so all in all (on paper at least) a film like Universal Soldier: The Return makes sense.
Would that it were so simple.
Technically speaking, this is the fourth entry in the UniSol series. The Roland Emmerich-directed 1992 original was succeeded by two made-for-TV movies, Universal Soldier II: Brothers in Arms, starring Gary Busey and Burt Reynolds (!), and Universal Soldier III: Unfinished Business, starring Reynolds and Jeff Wincott (yes, he’s related to THAT Michael Wincott). Luc Devereaux returned, but Van Damme was absent. The Return neither invalidates these sequels, nor does it acknowledge them.
It’s probably for the best (such as it is), as the film opens an unspecified number of years after the events of the original. It’s long enough, though, that ex-UniSol Luc has married, become father to a daughter and lost his wife. (Is it Ally Walker’s character from the first film? It’s never specified, and the blonde in Luc’s family photo isn’t Walker. So who knows? Continuity doesn’t seem to be much of a priority here.) More importantly, enough time has passed that the UniSol program is back up and running and seemingly more successful than before. A whole new group of dead soldiers has been reanimated and modified for combat, only with even more powerful enhancements this time around, making them all the more formidable thanks in large part to a computer A.I. named S.E.T.H. Luc serves as both a consultant for the project as well as trainer for the new “recruits.”
However, things go awry when S.E.T.H. takes a cue from HAL 9000 and reads the lips of those plotting to shut him down. Funding for the UniSol project has been cut off, and that means terminating the entire project. S.E.T.H., as vaguely sinister-sounding AI programs are wont to do, decides the reign of men should come to an end. Naturally, this means exterminating all humans, starting with his creator and progenitor.
What ensues may be the most blandly-executed action film ever committed to film. The original may as well be Terminator 2 by comparison. Guns are fired. Explosions go off. Collateral damage is racked up. All the things one expects to see in an action flick are present, almost none of it is interesting or exciting to look at. It simply happens and then slides off one’s brain the moment it leaves the screen. “Competent” is about the best thing one can say regarding Mic Rodgers’ direction, though just barely. Universal Soldier: The Return was Rodgers’ first film as a director. He, wisely, did not make a second.
There was potential here. Potential that, hopefully, was tapped in the sequels that began to appear a decade later. But that’s for another time. What’s here is an utter waste of the concept as the film does absolutely nothing interesting or imaginative with the concept of reanimated, nigh unstoppable super soldiers. At least use this as a chance to explore what it’s like for Luc to once again be working on a program that, for all intents and purposes, was a disaster the last time through. It gave him a second chance at life, but at what cost? Does he ever have doubts that starting that program again may well be a bad idea? What are Luc’s limits now that he’s apparently been relieved of the handicaps that came with being a reanimated soldier? Already I’ve put more time and thought into this concept than the writers ever did. One might be tempted to blame a low budget on many of the film’s shortcomings. And yet Rodgers had roughly twice the budget of Emmerich’s original. You’d be hard pressed to tell, though, considering there are SyFy Originals with a more expensive look and feel.
On second thought, “competent” feels too generous a descriptor.
Van Damme mostly just goes through the motions here. Although there are times he clearly wants to latch onto something, anything to bring this to life, he is failed at every turn by a script that’s interested in little more than moving from action scene to action scene out of sheer obligation. Michael Jai White is likewise failed as he’s given little to do beyond glower, growl and sneer until it’s finally time to go hand-to-hand against Van Damme in the finale.
There are two lonely bright spots here. One is the running gag of Bill Goldberg’s Romeo essentially playing the part of Wile E. Coyote, constantly being taken out due to his own incompetence and/or some kind of comedic mishap, be it an explosion or a truck running over him, etc. The other is the fairly decent final showdown between Luc and the new UniSol body S.E.T.H. transfers his consciousness into that just so happens to look and fight like Michael Jai White. Both at least get to show off their signature kick moves, and the choreography of the fight (while by no means exemplary of either actor’s skills) at least has a bit of personality and sense of fun to it.
Beyond that, however, Universal Soldier: The Return serves no purpose beyond being a sterling example of how not to make an action film.
Van Dammage Report Statistics for Universal Soldier: The Return:
Number of splits: 0
Number of splitkicks: 1
Reason for being European: Creole parents from South Louisiana
Best line: “I hate that guy!” – Romeo, repeated each time he’s foiled by Luc.
Previously on the Van Dammage Report:
Legionnaire | Knock Off | Double Team | Maximum Risk | The Quest | Sudden Death | Street Fighter | Timecop | Hard Target | Nowhere to Run | Universal Soldier | Double Impact |Death Warrant | Lionheart | Kickboxer | Cyborg | Bloodsport