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Universal Soldier: Regneration
Tonight's Feature Presentation

UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: REGENERATION (2009)

Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Andrei "Pit Bull" Arlovski, Dolph Lundgren, Mike Pyle, Emily Joyce, Zahary Baharov

Written By: Victor Ostrovsky Directed By: John Hyams

The Short Version

An action classic gets its first worthy sequel.

By “worthy,” I mean “as good as or better.”

This is a thoroughly modern take on Universal Soldier with a hard edge that earns its hard “R” rating.

The cinematography is far better than you’d ever expect… until you see that Peter Hyams is behind it.

Even if you didn’t see the original, Universal Soldier: Regeneration is worth it for anyone who digs dark action.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

COLD BLOCK CHEDDAR.

Hard.  Flavorful.


Pairs Well With...

STOLICHNAYA.

Hey, if you’re going to storm Chernobyl, you might as well fortify yourself with some of Mother Russia’s finest.

“Do you often contemplate the complexity of life?  Yes or no?”


Wow.  Just… wow.

Universal Soldier was one of those flicks like Highlander – the original was great, but the sequels range from utterly awful to decidedly mediocre.  As such, I had very low expectations coming into Universal Soldier: Regeneration.

You’ll notice that I said Universal Soldier was like Highlander.  That’s because Universal Soldier: Regeneration absolutely floored me.  This sequel rocks.

With that said, it rocks to the beat of its own modernized, darker drummer.  If Universal Soldier rocked like KISS, Universal Soldier: Regeneration rocks like Nine Inch Nails.

You’ll be way ahead of the game if you’ve already seen the original Universal Soldier (and I do suggest it), but it’s not strictly necessary to being able to follow this story.  It boils down to this: the fictional former Soviet Republic of Pasalan has been occupied by Russia.  The son of Pasalan’s leader (Zahary Baharov, The Way Back) doesn’t take well to this, and so he takes some of Pasalan’s army to the abandoned nuclear disaster zone that is Chernobyl and occupies that.  His demands are simple: release of all of country’s political prisoners, and Russian withdrawal from Pasalan within 72 hours.  If not, he’ll set off enough explosives to send a massive radioactive cloud up from Chernobyl’s wreckage and cause everyone downwind for thousands of miles to have a really bad next few decades.  To provide the Russians with a little extra incentive, he’s also kidnapped the Russian Prime Minister’s children and taken them to Chernobyl with him.

But wait; there’s more!

Along with his army, Mr. Bad Guy has also hired a disgruntled former US government employee (Kerry Shale, who’s voiced a ton of video games) who recently saw the cancellation of his pet project to make the next generation of Universal Soldiers – super killing machines created by resurrecting and “enhancing” dead soldiers – to provide extra security in the form of one of the aforementioned NGUs (MMA fighter Andrei “Pit Bull” Arlovski).  Since the Russians know this, they’ve asked the US for help.  Along with a Special Forces team to back up a Russian military squad, the Americans have agreed to thaw out some “retired” first generation Universal Soldiers.  Well, four of the five they have left, anyway.  It turns out that the fifth one, a certain Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme, Bloodsport), has some psychological issues and is hanging back.

Anyone care to guess who they’ll have to send in anyway?  Yeah, thought so.  But don’t worry; the bad guys have a backup plan for that eventuality, too…

The original Universal Soldier is one of the last great action flicks from the Golden Age of Action that was the 1980s and early 1990s.  It was a true expression of its era, combining gunplay, massive explosions, martial arts, and just enough humor to keep things light between asskickings.    As noted above, the three sequels that followed were expressions of something else entirely.  The first two were the hacked up result of a TV series pilot that went bust, followed by a low-mediocre theatrically released flick that ignored the television stuff and succeeded on the action side, but failed at everything else.  While in theory, the production team of Universal Soldier: Regeneration acknowledges the existence of Universal Soldier: The Return (by virtue of the “Unisol 3 Distribution” name in the end credits), the fact of the matter is that when one looks at the screenplay here, this story cannot possibly exist in the same universe as that one.  And really, that’s just fine, because when all is said and done, this is the first worthy sequel to Universal Soldier (with the understanding that even at that, this film assumes that its predecessor did not end quite as happily as most audiences probably wanted to imagine).

And just as Universal Soldier was a true expression of its time, so, too is Universal Soldier: Regeneration a true expression of its own.  This is a dark, angst-ridden film where even the good guys don’t deserve to be trusted.  The sun never shines, and not even one joke is cracked.  This is all about tension, betrayal, action, and rage.  There is no redemption, and everyone in this flick is damaged goods.

Fortunately, director John Hyams is savvy enough to avoid drowning the audience in this endless sea of angsty darkness, and instead harnesses it to ramp up suspense in service of the action.  The effectiveness of this film’s atmosphere cannot be overstated; it really is the extra presence in the room no matter what’s going on.  Of course, it helps that the director of photography is none other than John’s father, Peter Hyams, whose resume speaks for itself.  Doing the DP chore for the first time for any big chair director aside from himself, the elder Hyams takes the bleak Bulgarian shooting locale and uses camera lenses alone to make them turn haunted.  The cinematography is leaps and bounds above what any regular action fan would be expecting here, and it is a very welcome treat indeed.

But don’t think Hyams and son are just there to breathe life into the scenery; they know what else is going on in front of the camera, and they’re determined to capture all of it.  For those of us who dig violent action, this means that we’re going to get our money’s worth and then some from Universal Soldier: Regeneration.  Forget those wimpy shots where you hear the knife go in while the camera stays focused on the victim’s face; here, the camera’s focused on where the knife goes in and where the blood comes out… and that blood is an actual physical effect instead of the CG trash that so many movies are chickening out with these days.  Bones protrude from breaks, and when blood spatter hits the camera lens, it stays there until the next shot as a reminder.  Be it from sharp objects, bullets, pipes, or good old fashioned fists, the damage is plentiful and nasty and bloody, and with only rare exceptions, the audience gets to see just about all of it.  This is one action flick that went all-out to earn its “R” rating for violence, and it’s a very cold, hard “R” indeed.

Of course, the damage is only as fun as the fighting that causes it, and again, Universal Soldier: Regeneration fires on all cylinders.  From the very beginning, the audience knows it’s in for something special.  The opening vehicle chase/gun battle is simply awesome, and audiences get a taste of what’s to come when the baddies’ driver gets bloodily blown away by the cops only to have the passenger (our NGU, of course) calmly step out and waste the entire roadblock in return.  Whether they’re at close quarters or out in the open, the firefights in this flick are intense.  They’re balanced off by some truly excellent hand to hand fighting, with most of the highlights coming from MMA bad boy Andrei Arlovski, who makes it very clear how he got the moniker of “Pit Bull.”  (Don’t think that the Pit Bull’s just a muscle bound tank, though; Arlovski’s got real presence on the screen, and expresses himself as an evil force to be reckoned with despite having hardly a word to say, with an approach to craft that makes it hard to believe that this is his first foray into large scale film acting.)  Having done MMA documentary work in the past, John Hyams knows how to highlight the fights for maximum impact so that the end result of any match is that the audience wins.  He’s also got some other MMA guys to fill out the human ranks so everything’s not all one-sided.

The fighting and performances of these MMA guys are important, because one of their main jobs is to keep you watching while you don’t notice that your two headliners have relatively little screen time.

Amazingly, this works out okay.  Why?  Because even though the production team deliberately stripped down their original screenplay ideas to the barest essentials, the one area they allowed the depth to remain for was the characterization of the two boys everyone’s paying to see.  Instead of swinging for stock portrayals, they went for stark, pessimistic realism.

In the original Universal Soldier, Luc Deveraux responded to the realization that he’d been killed in Vietnam and then brought back from the dead with confusion at first, but he ended up adjusting pretty well after a few days, and the audience was left with every reason to believe that he’d live happily ever after, free of government control and perhaps with a nice blonde reporter at his side.  In Universal Soldier: Regeneration, we discover that things didn’t turn out that way.  It’s clear that the government reclaimed him and did so quickly.  What’s more, his recollections of his past life faded, though whether that happened naturally or with help, we never know.  Though he’s still government property, his creators are just intrigued enough by his momentary break from them that they’ve had him undergoing a psychiatric rehab program for the past several years to see if he ever can be brought back into the normal world.  At the start of this film, he’s broken, depressed, and unable to handle life in modern society.  In short, he’s the poster child for modern Military PTSD.

And when Uncle Sam needs him, they don’t hesitate to undo years’ worth of therapy just to get a few good minutes of combat out of him, and there’s nothing that Luc can do about it.  It is, on a deep level, extremely sad… and Van Damme pulls it off perfectly.  Gone is the affable guy with the goofy smile who cracked jokes more easily than any of his counterparts; this is a Van Damme who’s been to hell and back.  (And given the fact that his star fell harder and farther than any of his Golden Age contemporaries’ did, one suspects that there’s more than just acting craft involved in finding the stuff to do this.)  Even when he’s “free,” Luc has no control, and Van Damme portrays that with just the right amount of pathos to bring the sadness of things across without slipping into the actual realm of being pathetic.  Though it’s a far cry from the “good guy” stuff that made him famous in the first place, this may indeed be one of the best true acting performances of his career.  And  even though age has definitely taken its toll on the man from the neck up (and a lack of steady work in North America has apparently caused his English to slip), he’s still got what it takes from the neck down to deliver the action goods.  He may not do the splits, but Van Damme does everything else you remember, from high kicks to quick reflex defensive slips.  He definitely holds his own when the time comes for him to step in front of the camera and fight.

At the end of the day, Jean-Claude Van Damme truly earns his top billing, even though he doesn’t have the lion’s share of the screen time.

Given even less to work with – barely over five and certainly less than ten minutes – is Dolph Lundgren, whose ability to return after what happened to him the first time around is explained by the line “We’ve come a very long way from replicating sheep.”  In the first film, Dolph’s character was a psycho to be sure, but he also had enough self-awareness to realize that he was broken and that life was going to hell all around him.  It turns out that his clone has inherited the same tendencies, only without the burden of immediate recollection of the nightmare that was Vietnam to drive him psycho.  The original Sergeant Andrew Scott was already one of Dolph Lundgren’s best acting performances; this time, he distills the character down to the core psychology (he had a fair amount of say into the character as a condition of coming back), with a little bit of Rutger Hauer as Roy Baty thrown in for flavor.  (The Blade Runner references are beautiful if you catch them.)  This makes for a fascinating counterbalance to the broken hero, Luc Deveraux, but that doesn’t stop either one from giving in to instinct when they finally meet and going after each other in a rematch beatdown that’s definitely worth the price of admission for fans who had been waiting roughly eighteen years to see it happen.  If anything, Dolph’s in even better shape than Van Damme, and together, they show that the “old guys” can still put on a clinic for the new blood and remind everyone how it’s supposed to be done.  The screen time given for this battle is relatively short, but it’s epic all the same, and its climax is just plain awesome.

And when the movie ends… there are no heroes; not really.  But the surprising depth given to a relatively simple, adapted-from-the-headlines story leaves viewers with a surprising amount to think about, and the wall-to-wall bloody action leaves genre fans feeling more than satisfied with the hard-“R” asskicking factor.  Indeed, everybody wins but the characters.

Like I said, Universal Soldier: Regeneration rocks like Nine Inch Nails.

Bottom line, if you had any love at all for the early 1990s action genre as a whole and/or Universal Soldier in particular, you absolutely must see Universal Soldier: Regeneration.  There’s just no question here; it’s compulsory.  The same holds true even if you have no familiarity with the franchise but happen to like your action dark and angsty; there’s plenty here for you, too.  This is one latter-day sequel that far exceeds expectations and kicks some serious ass.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, March, 2012


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


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