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Universal Soldier II: Brothers in Arms
Tonight's Feature Presentation

UNIVERSAL SOLDIER II: BROTHERS IN ARMS (1998)

Starring: Matt Battaglia, Chandra West, Jeff Wincott, Gary Busey, Richard McMillan

Written By: Peter M. Lenkov Directed By: Jeff Woolnough

The Short Version

A failed TV pilot gets split into two movies; this is the first.

Though a direct sequel to the classic action flick, it plays nothing like the original.

Universal Soldier II: Brothers in Arms is the sort of movie you watch on a dare.

Put succinctly: this flick is really, really bad.  But that could be a good thing.

There are two ways to react to this movie: laugh at the idiocy, or cry from the pain.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

CHEAP CHEESE PIZZA.

If you’re going to endure this half-assed movie, you might as well make a half-assed party out of it.


Pairs Well With...

LABATT BLUE.

Realistically, the beer is way better than this movie deserves, but one of its “aw” moments involves the Deveraux brothers cooling off in the back of a Labatt truck and cracking some cold ones.  Sounds like a good plan to me if you’re going to endure this flick.

“Now ice ‘em!  On second thought, bury ‘em.  They’re too stupid to bring back to life.”


The most famous of the classic Zen koans asks: what is the sound of one hand clapping?  If you’re willing to reinterpret the action of one hand clapping as the action of one hand smacking your own face at high velocity for a facepalm, then Universal Soldier II: Brothers in Arms surely must represent the sound of one hand clapping.

And that, folks, is way deeper than this flick deserves.  I’d call it a train wreck, but there’s way more energy involved in a train wreck.

Back in 1992, Universal Soldier sprang forward from nowhere as the surprise action hit of the summer, grossing over $100 million worldwide despite being generally reviled by mainstream critics.  (Reality check: that game was still dominated by stodgy newspapers at the time.)  Usually, studios see that kind of success and run with it immediately; that is, after all, how we got franchises like the Friday the 13th series or even the Police Academy flicks.  For some odd reason, though, the powers that be chose to just sit on the success of Universal Soldier and do nothing with it…

…until six years later, when someone decided that it would be a great idea to make a television series based on Universal Soldier.  An extended pilot was filmed, and the results were such that the TV people ran away screaming.  Studios may be wasteful, but they’re not that wasteful (especially when tax incentives are involved), and so the three-odd hours of film on hand was edited into a pair of direct to video/cable flicks which were credited as Universal Soldier II: Brothers in Arms and Universal Soldier III: Unfinished Business, and which are more popularly known today as Universal Soldier 2 and Universal Soldier 3 (which is how I will be addressing them from this point forward).  Of course, I use the term “popular” loosely, since even amongst fans, these aren’t very well known movies, but rather a pair that collect dust in the darkest corner of the video cabinet where, hopefully, innocent eyes will not be tainted by their malaise.  There’s a reason for that, folks.

Universal Soldier 2 is the kind of movie you watch on a dare, or as a challenge on the order of, “oh, I’ll show you what a bad action movie looks like!”  It’s the kind of flick that draws people who feel compelled to see just how awful things can get; the kind of flick for people whose personal collections include not only a shelf full of the best, but also a shelf full of the worst.  It’s the generic house vodka six shelves below the Stoli and one shelf below they stuff they use to polish the bar.  Or, simply put, Universal Soldier 2 is crap on a stick.

Assuming the choice to endure it, there are two ways to deal with wretchedness such as this.  The first is to wince in agony as the pain unfolds and the cardboard underwear model tries to act, hoping that you have enough alcohol on hand to see you through the entire ninety minutes of torture.  Personally, I’d vote for the second, which is to marvel at the lunacy before you and laugh your ass off at how bad it is, hoping that you have enough alcohol on hand to see you through the entire ninety minute party.  Notice the appeal there?

I suspect (but of course cannot prove) that once all of the incentives from various Canadian agencies were used up, Universal Soldier 2 was funded by conspiracies.  The first conspiracy, I think, would have been backed by Roland Emmerich, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Dolph Lundgren, who all wanted you to miss their work very, very badly.  My circumstantial evidence for this is the opening scene, which is a reshoot of the final duel from Universal Soldier shot with this incarnation’s new cast: former football player Matt Battaglia (Thor) as the heroic Luc Deveraux, and Andrew Jackson (Shadow Builder) as the vile Andrew Scott.  What had been Roland Emmerich’s triumphant directorial moment in the original film is a limp wristed disaster here.  The guys are clueless, the fighting is lame, and if the direction was any more pedestrian, it’d need a crossing guard.  If you didn’t walk in with the foreknowledge that Universal Soldier 2 had originally been made for TV, this scene would be your first clue, and the choice of fonts for the credits would seal the deal.  (You know how made for TV stuff always looks “too clean”?  You get that here, in spades.)

I suspect that the second conspiracy involved yet another coalition: this one involving Jean-Claude Van Damme and The League of Fed Up Wives and Girlfriends (which may not officially exist, but come on, dudes, you know it does).  Again, Jean-Claude wants you to miss him, and the Fed Up Wives and Girlfriends are sick of your action movies that parade around bikini models reading off of cue cards and try to call them “actresses.”  Their joint solution is the aforementioned Matt Battaglia, who definitely cuts a figure that screams “male underwear model” and who I’m sure is a wonderful guy in real life (in fact he is quite charitable), but who displays all of the acting prowess of the average end table.  Seriously, folks, if you have any pets – including goldfish – I guarantee that your pet is a more compelling actor.  While this may not entirely be his fault – we’ll get there shortly – it’s still damn painful to watch… unless, of course, you’re sporting that winning attitude mentioned earlier, in which case, the guy is funny as hell.  Oh, he’s not trying to be – the comedy’s very much unintentional – but after the third stack of cue cards, you just can’t help but either laugh or cry.

It doesn’t help that both writer Peter M. Lenkov (I have a lot of trouble believing that he’s the same guy behind the much more awesome Demolition Man, but there you are) and director Jeff Woolnough (who would later do a biopic about Celine Dion) are bent on doing everything in their power to turn the character of Luc Deveraux into a clueless idiot.  In the original Universal Soldier, with strong writing and direction behind him, Jean-Claude Van Damme was able to portray Luc as a man sincerely coping with the notion that he’s come back from the dead while stuff continues to go “boom” around him.  Battaglia, on the other hand, looks like Data from the first season of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” and believe me, folks, that is not a good thing.  The scenes where he is being taught to kiss, taught to hug a stuffed animal, and so on are supposed to have emotional resonance, but they don’t.  Instead, they’re just awkward, and Battaglia himself looks like nothing more than a blank slate reading lines written on cards held just off camera.  Range?  What’s that?  On the other hand, with this script and this kind of direction, maybe we’d all be a little dumbstruck.

Most of the rest of the cast seems to have been, at any rate.

It floors me to see so many directorial credits listed on Jeff Woolnough’s sheet, even realizing that all of them are for television.  I can only assume that no one else who hired him has ever watched Universal Soldier 2, because this is some of the worst directed nonsense I’ve ever seen.  From random speed-ups and slowdowns to nonsensical insert shots to bizarre angles, he tries every cheap stunt he can think of instead of, y’know, just shooting the damn movie.  It looks as though a film student on his first day of class just got a new toy and decided to play with it; this is total amateur hour material.  The average beer commercial has better direction, folks.  The action’s flat, there’s no emotional resonance during the character moments, and in between there all of that aforementioned randomness going on.  It’s just a mess… and again, it’s absolutely ripe to be laughed at.

Getting another laugh, by the way, is the League of Fed Up Wives and Girlfriends, because along with providing a male underwear model and some supporting male models who just stink up the room when they try to act, they’ve also provided, for irony’s sake, a female actress who’s certainly gorgeous enough to be a bikini model (though she stays fully dressed at all times here) and whose acting talent totally blows the guys out of the water.  I refer to Chandra West (White Noise).  Everything that Matt Battaglia’s performance isn’t, Chandra West’s is.  When you laugh at her, it’s because she’s funny.  Her performance has real emotional depth to it.  Hell, she looks as though she actually remembered all of her lines instead of having to look at cards for them.  And to top it all off, her fighting even looks better.  If you want a shining bright spot in this generally dismal movie, then Chandra West is the person you’re looking for.

And then there’s the wild card.  That would be one of the all time kings of playing batshit insane characters (and I do sincerely mean that as a compliment), Gary Busey (Predator 2).  Universal Soldier 2 comes after Busey crossed over the deep end, and frankly, it’s a funnier and more tolerable movie for it.  Gary Busey could read your junk mail and make something compellingly psychotic out of it, so he’s more than up to the challenge of drawing blood from a stone with this script... and he’s not even playing his “A” game.  Despite the fact that he’s just barely past the level of phoning it in compared to what everyone knows he’s capable of, I can honestly say that the producers were damn lucky to get Busey for this villain’s role, because aside from Chandra West, he’s the only genuinely interesting thing about this movie.

When it’s all said and done, all you can do is shake your head and consider it a wonderful thing that someone had the brains to realize that this was going to suck on a week-to-week basis and stopped the pain when they did.  With that in mind, of course, if you’re going to sit through Universal Soldier 2, you might as well see it all the way through and move on to Universal Soldier 3, where Gary Busey’s character is replaced by his boss who finally steps from the shadows at the end of this flick: none other than Burt Reynolds with a really shitty Irish accent!

You think I’m kidding, but I’m not.

Bottom line, if you’re even looking at the promo art for Universal Soldier 2 long enough to comprehend that there’s nobody named “Van Damme” or “Lundgren” in it, you already know what you’re getting into.  You watch a movie like this either because someone else dared you to, or because you enjoy laughing at godawful crap from time to time.  And really, I can respect that.  It is, after all, the Doom Cheez philosophy at work.  Just don’t say that I didn’t warn you.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, January, 2012


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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