First off, let’s not try to pretend that UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: REGENERATION is anything more than something for the boys-with-toys set to get off on. Director John Hyams (Peter Hyams’ son) makes little effort to mask this fact. He’s a big fan of mixed martial arts – he even directed a documentary on the subject – and it definitely shows. The man also hired MMA fighters as actors (Andrei ‘The Pit Bull’ Arlovski and Mike Pyle to name a couple), so right off we kinda know where this project’s mindset lies.
The story goes like this: Liberation fighter commander Topov (Zahary Baharov) is trying to liberate the fictional territory of Pasalan. To achieve his ends, he and his team take over a nuclear power plant and its nearby town. They rig the plant with explosives and Topov makes his demands – the imminent release of all 227 political prisoners currently held captive, along with the complete independence of Pasalan – claiming that if these demands are not met in full he will blow up the plant, “generating an explosion causing a radiation cloud 100 times stronger than the atomic bombs dropped on Japan.”
To make matters worse, there’s a new, improved model of UniSol out there on the bad guy’s side – thanks to renegade Dr. Colin (Kerry Shale) – who’s kicking butt on those brought in through the U.S. military to stop the terrorists and their smashing machine. There are four of these new generation UniSols on the good guy’s team, but they’re no match for the robotic ueber UniSol (think TERMINATOR with real flesh & bone).
Meanwhile, Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and a Dr. Sandra Fleming (Emily Joyce), who is somehow reminiscent of a Japanese anime character, are simply trying to mind their own business as they attempt to reintegrate Luc into society through a privately funded program (which we learn nothing about). But of course, no matter how hard the two try to pull poor Luc out of his connection to the Universal Soldier program, the “theys” out there drag him back in.
Oh yeah, just in case you’re dying to know: good ol’ Dolph Lundgren is brought back for this one, too, as a cloned version of sergeant Andrew Scott from the original movie. Now, if you’re a fan of cheesy actions flicks and if you had fun with the first UNIVERSAL SOLDIER, then you’ll get a kick (sorry about the pun) out his bit in this installment. But he’s shoe-horned into the story and brings little meaning to things, as he exits nearly as quickly as he enters.
Now, as with other UNIVERSAL SOLDIER installments (most of which I have not seen), this one won’t exactly win any awards, but it does have a couple of things going for it. One is the hand-to-hand combat action. It’s nicely choreographed and has a thumping “sense” of realism to it, even though it’s preposterous, if that makes much sense. Watching it you don’t feel as though you’re watching stylish cartoon action from, say, the recent G.I. JOE release. Observing these guys is like watching a couple of brick walls smashing up against each other; there’s a visceral, raw quality that’s to its credit.
Another positive aspect is the manner in which Hyams shoots his action. He uses a steadicam most of the time instead of a standard hand-held camera and the audience can actually see what’s going on. In other words, we’re not forced to sit through ADD style camera work and extreme close-ups that make us struggle in futility to decipher the action. I don’t know about you, but this viewer finds little more frustrating than going to watch an action film, and then not being able to tell who is hitting whom, let alone who’s winning.
Peter Hyams (CAPRICORNE ONE, OUTLAND) is also on hand for this one, but he leaves the directing chores to his son while he focuses on his duties as the film’s Director of Photography. John admits that he initially wanted to stay more with a darker, colder look, but his father talked him in to warming things up a bit at various points. Probably a good call, too, because the film is somewhat claustrophobic and takes itself pretty seriously, so something is needed to offer a change of pace in terms of mood and character. After all, this ain’t no SAVING PRIVATE RYAN or SCHINDLER’S LIST.
Although it’s probably better than most of the others in the UNIVERSAL SOLDIER franchise, it does have that issue of taking itself a little too seriously. Van Damme merely looks tired and depressed from beginning to end. And when the script does inject attempts at humor, the jokes comes off as more insipid than anything because of its overall deadly serious tone. There’s a scene in which one UniSol gets a two-inch pipe rammed right through his head, yet he still maintains the capacity to see, think and speak. In the commentary, the filmmakers laugh heartily and exclaim that it is a great moment, but in a supposedly serious film it’s just lame. It belongs in a bad late ‘80’s Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.
Speaking of the commentary, what we have on the UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: REGENERATION DVD is that – with John Hyams and Dolf Lundgren – and a fairly brief making-of doc. The doc is almost surprisingly pleasant to watch. In so many “making-of” features we simply get the talent involved explaining the story and praising each other’s “talents.” But this one actually lets the viewer follow a short while as the team explains its purpose and methods.
The commentary, on the other hand, comes off as a couple of fight fans mainly talking about how cool and physical their fighters-actors are as they go on about the stunt work. Oh sure, there’s an observation now and then about this or that, but those are few, and Dolf even interrupts a discussion about shot coverage and editing to focus on his entrance into the movie; then the two chuckle like school boys during those moments. The commentary really adds to the boys-with-toys vibe of the movie; one feels as if watching something made by jocks with cameras, rather than something from a team interested in being creative and wanting to tell a truly good tale. And frankly, Lundgren comes off a bit mono-syllabic and stoned; he sounds like, well, Rocky Balboa.
Still, at one point Hyams makes an interesting observation about not having that much of an interest in video games, but that his film plays out very much like one because, even though he doesn’t play much, he does like they manner in which games are generally laid out visually. He makes obvious use of that style in REGENERATION.
Comparing the commentary in UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: REGENERATION to that of the original film (with Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, Dean Devlin, and Roland Emmerich) suggests that the new team is much more interested in pound and grind instead the craft of filmmaking. (One can tell that the first team just gets off on movies in general.) This isn’t really meant to short change Hyams, who grew up in the business under his father’s wing and graduated from a respected art school. He doesn’t have too many features under his belt yet, so the jury’s still out – although the fact that UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: REGENERATION went straight to DVD says something.
When all is said and done, like TERMINATOR SALVATION, UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: REGENERATION may make for better late night TV viewing on a Friday or Saturday night rather than any rebooting of a franchise.
UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: REGENERATION (Foresight Unlimited/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2009; 97 min.) Directed by John Hyams. Screenplay by Victor Ostrovsky. Produced by Craig Baumgarten, Moshe Diamant, and Peter Hyams. Executive produced by Mark Damon and Courtney Solomon. Production Design by Philip Harrison. Art Direction by Rossitsa Bakeva. Special Effects Supervision by Ivo Jivkov. Visual Effects Supervision by Joseph Oberle. Music Composed by Kris Hill and Michael Krassner. Edited By Jason Gallagher and John Hyams. Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, Andrei Arlovski, Mike Pyle, Corey Johnson, Garry Cooper, Emily Joyce, Zahary Baharov, Aki Avni, Kerry Shale, Yonko Dimitrov, Violeta Markovska, Stanislav Pishtalov, Marianne Stanicheva, John Laskowski, Trayan Milenov-Troy, Jon Foo, Danko Jordanov, and Dian Hristov. MPAA Rating: R for pervasive strong brutal violence and some language.