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Universal Soldier: The Return (1999)
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Michael Jai White, Bill Goldberg, Heidi Schanz, Kiana Tom

Written By: William Malone, John Fasano Directed By: Mic Rodgers

The Short Version

Also known as “the real sequel” to Universal Soldier.

Is it great?  No.  Is it fun?  Yes.

Don’t ask too many questions; just enjoy watching the people kick and shoot and blow things up.

The stuff that isn’t good is at least funny if you want it to be.

If you enjoy 1990s style action, Universal Soldier: The Return is worth your time.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


Goldberg’s non-acting in a nutshell.

Pairs Well With...


“Of what” is immaterial; whatever mass market beer-flavored water is on sale will do.  Miller Lite, Bud Light, whatever.  (Knock it down to a six pack if you’re riding solo.  After all, it is only 80-odd minutes long.)

“He’s good.”

“He’s stupid.”

Actually, he’s both, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Once upon a time, Universal Soldier kicked ass at the box office, and in the process won legions of fans.  Though it begged for a sequel, nothing happened until six years later, when someone though it’d be a good idea to turn it into a made for cable television series.  Thankfully, that didn’t pan out, though the results were recycled into two cable-direct movies that most people still don’t know ever existed.

Plan B?  Forget that the TV crap ever happened, get Jean-Claude Van Damme back into the mix, and put something together for the big screen like most people had been expecting in the first place so many years before.

Too bad they forgot to advertise.

I’ve known a lot of action fans over time, but to this day I am the only person I know who actually saw Universal Soldier: The Return in a theatre.  Despite living in one of the movie capitals of North America at the time, I hadn’t seen or heard one bit of advertising (apparently I missed WCW wrestling that week, because that seems to be where all of the effort went), and only happened upon the movie by chance during its opening weekend when I saw the poster outside the multiplex.  Given that the auditorium was nearly empty despite the fact that it was Saturday night, I can’t say that I was the least bit surprised when the film was already gone by the following weekend.  I was, however, a little disappointed.

In the mid-late 1990s, the action genre that fans had known and loved for the previous decade and a half was disappearing from the big screen, replaced by something that felt more watered down.  Moreover, the big names that had been the major draws for the genre were either fading into direct to video hell or just plain fading.  Seeing Jean-Claude Van Damme’s name headlining a theatrical release – especially a sequel to one of the decade’s great action flicks – had been cause for hope.  Instead, people stayed away in droves, resulting in an overall loss at the box office, and Mr. Van Damme’s next stop would be alongside Mr. Seagal and Mr. Lundgren on the direct to video shelf. 

It’s sad, I tell you.

Is this to say that Universal Soldier: The Return is a lost nugget of pure action gold?  Um, no.  In fact, in a lot of ways, it’s a pretty bad movie.  However, if you dig 1990s style action, then the idea of casting a film aside just because it’s what the average critic would call “bad” is somewhat hypocritical, don’t you think?  There are many different levels of “bad,” you see, and if you walk in with a “let’s have fun” attitude, reach for the beer, and put your brain in “neutral,” it turns out that Universal Soldier: The Return is actually a blast.

You just need to remember the ground rules.

The first rule is that you really do need to remember the original Universal Soldier to get the most out of this movie, and by “get the most out of” I mean “understand the underlying premise of what a UniSol is.”  There is exactly one (maybe two, if you’re feeling generous, but I say one) quickly spoken line wherein it is mentioned that UniSols are actually soldiers brought back from the dead, but it is very easy to miss even if you’re paying complete attention, and in any case it certainly doesn’t provide any real context.  This script assumes you saw the first flick, and basically says “to hell with you” if you didn’t.

The next rule is to forget most of the rules governing UniSols that you learned from the first movie.  I’m especially thinking about the overheating thing, which is only given the barest lip service here (when the new UniSols are resting, they sit in lounge chairs in a room where the thermostat’s set to 38 Fahrenheit), but otherwise ignored.  These guys never overheat, even when they’re set on fire.

Speaking of which, you must not expect anyone to explain how Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme, Replicant) managed the transition from zombie to perfectly normal human being who doesn’t have to worry about things like, say, overheating and such.  Just forget all about that.  No one’s going to tell you.  Just like you aren’t told whether he married someone other than Veronica Roberts or if they just couldn’t get the same actress back to pose for the wedding photo; that’s just one of the great mysteries of Universal Soldier: The Return.

Along the same lines, don’t ask how Luc went from fighting the Universal Soldier program to being its biggest advocate and actually being put in charge of the newest batch of “recruits.”  Again, you’re just supposed to be happy that they brought Mr. Van Damme back (which is especially easy if you’re familiar with a certain Mr. Battaglia) and display your gratitude by not asking any silly-assed continuity oriented questions.

I’ll pause to say that if you were a 1990s style action fan to begin with, this is an acceptable concession.

Moving on, there’s a standard ground rule for many action flicks that says “don’t take it seriously, because once you get past the ass kicking, nobody filming it did, either.”  That rule doesn’t play for Universal Soldier: The Return.  This isn’t to say that you should be taking it seriously – I strongly recommend that you don’t – but rather that many of those involved did, though the results are no less amusing.

Jean-Claude Van Damme was definitely being serious about it; probably too much so.  His star was fading fast, and even amongst many action fans, he was starting to be thought of as a joke.  Listening to interviews he made about this film, Van Damme was really pinning his hopes on having Universal Soldier: The Return be his triumphant comeback to prominence.  This is very much a business decision, and he’s all business about doing his part.  Physically, he’s still got it; he’s in great shape for this flick, and his fights look good with his signature spin kicks intact and even a creative variant on the splits that he’s so famous for.  Unfortunately, he seems to be so serious about what he’s doing that he’s forgotten the one element about his actual, y’know, acting that people loved him most for: his humor.  All action stars of the era are expected to be quick with the smart ass comments and one liners, but Van Damme especially was always known for his impeccable sense of comic timing and that vaguely goofy smile that sealed the joke.  In Universal Soldier: The Return, however, his fun side isn’t there.  The action’s fine, the drama’s okay (he’s totally believable as a devoted single father), but every attempt at humor just falls flat, and when it’s a guy like Van Damme, you can’t help but notice.  (Worst of all is when he repeats the punch line to one of the world’s most famous dirty jokes in response to seeing a female fellow soldier tied to a tree with her top torn open; his delivery is so bad that most people probably won’t realize that he just told a joke, even if they were already familiar with the joke he was telling.)

It’s not just Van Damme who forgot how to laugh, either.  First (and only) time director Mic Rodgers (“Mel Gibson’s personal stunt double”) is too busy keying in on the action to be worried about things like how the humor plays or how the other subtleties of acting are coming along.  On the plus side, though, as a longtime stuntman and stunt coordinator, he does know how to showcase the action, and that – along with the fact that his three top fighters can actually fight in at least one legitimate style or another – earns a lot of “we’ll forgive your shortcomings” brownie points for this flick.  When it’s time for combat, Rodgers pulls out all the stops to make sure you’re catching the best angles and to make it very clear that what you’re seeing is the real goods (with only a few gimmicked shots that betray the existence of a wire), and when stuff goes boom, he makes sure that you’re there for the explosion.  Yeah, Rodgers goes for an “all business” approach when it comes to his filmmaking style, but at least it’s the right kind of business.

Also riding the all business train is our supreme badass, Michael Jai White (Spawn).  He’s one of those actors who casual moviegoers never recognize by name, but who dedicated action fans can’t believe never became a superstar headliner.  He’s also a guy that action professionals love to work with, and in Universal Soldier: The Return, the camera shows you why.  He is a fighting machine with that awesome gift of being able to exhibit both extreme polish and brute power in the very same move.  What’s more, along with his martial arts chops, he’s got real presence as an actor, and when you throw in that powerful voice of his… it just seems impossible to believe that he hasn’t a zillion more starring action roles and that he remains largely unknown by the general movie going public.  Out of everyone who headlines Universal Soldier: The Return, Michael Jai White is really the only person you should be taking seriously.

Rounding out our top three fighters, the primary henchman in Universal Soldier: The Return is played by WCW (and later WWE) wrestling star Bill Goldberg, who splits the difference when it comes to his approach to things.  On the one hand, comments he made about the film indicate that unlike others, he really didn’t take it seriously at all, but at the same time, he takes himself way too seriously, if you catch my drift.  Calling his work here “a cakewalk” compared to his WCW day job, his acting reflects his attitude, which is to say that he doesn’t even try.  Charismatic as he may have been in the ring, when it comes to film acting, the dude’s on par with a cinder block.  But, as luck would have it, that’s all he really needs to be here.  His ridiculously named “Romeo” character is just a big, mean, blunt object whose most challenging dialogue is “I hate that guy,” and there’s just no way for Goldberg to screw that up.  Modern audiences aren’t going to catch it when he uses his signature wrestling moves to take down opponents, but that doesn’t matter; he’s a perfectly credible brute force brawler with a neck that’s bigger than his head and he makes mean faces.  In fact, casting Bill Goldberg was a stroke of genius, because he’s the key to the second half of what makes Universal Soldier: The Return work.

The first half, as noted, is the action.  The second part is that even though the intentional humor often falls flat, the movie is still funny as hell.  Just look at Bill Goldberg’s “acting.”  It’s so horrendous that you can’t help but laugh.  Indeed, after a while, even the fact that Van Damme and company can’t seem to deliver a decent joke to save their lives becomes funny in its own way.  When the good guys need to find a computer with a working net connection, they automatically go to – a strip club!  Needless to say, hilarity ensues, as does all of the film’s gratuitous nudity.  (I know that many people were hoping it would come from fitness guru and former Raiderette Kiana Tom, but sorry, dudes; tied to the tree is as close as you get.)  This script – which jumps more sharks than a Great White Streetwalker – is so full of holes, inconsistencies, and “you have got to be kidding me” moments that it transcends into the realm of absurd humor.  Yes, on a “critical” level, just about everything about Universal Soldier: The Return that isn’t a fight scene (Michael Jai White is considered a walking fight scene, by the way; he’s in combat mode even when he’s standing still) is really bad, but from the perspective of a 1990s action fan, this is awesome stuff if you’ve got the right attitude.  Really, folks, you’ve seen and enjoyed and partied with way worse than this.

Universal Soldier: The Return even comes with its own built in drinking games.  Here’s one to get you started called “Spot the Reference.”  Solo version is to take one down whenever you catch one; multiplayer is if when you catch one, everyone else has to figure out where it’s from and the loser pays up.  For example, the opening boat chase is a combo steal from two different James Bond flicks: Live and Let Die and Moonraker.  I actually lost count of the number of callbacks to 2001: A Space Odyssey, but trust me, those are worth a twelve pack on their own.  I think you get the hang of it now.

Bottom line, Universal Soldier: The Return may not be the awestriking comeback that Jean-Claude Van Damme wanted it to be, and it certainly isn’t anyone’s idea of a critical masterpiece, but if you like the cheesy action flicks of the 1990s to begin with, it really deserves better than most people are willing to give it.  Yeah, it’s bad.  Yeah, in a contest between Bill Goldberg and a cinder block wall, he might knock it down, but the wall does the better acting.  But when it’s time for the bullets, fists, and feet to fly, this flick gets it right, and even though it’s not particularly funny when it wants to be, Universal Soldier: The Return is a treasure trove of unintentional laughs for any even remotely savvy audience.  Go on and give it a chance.  There are certainly worse ways to spend 80-odd minutes of your time.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, February, 2012

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


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