Thursday, August 5, 2010

Universal Soldier: Regeneration

Action movie fans were crushed to hear that Jean-Claude Van Damme would not be among the cast of dream project The Expendables, which will feature appearances by nearly every other action star of the last three decades.  Before the limited theatrical release of 2008's JCVD, Van Damme had not appeared in theaters since 1999's universally panned Universal Soldier: The Return.  Following up on the positive press he won for JCVD, even a supporting role in such a sure blockbuster as The Expendables would have been the perfect way for him to get his career back on track.  But "The Muscles from Brussels" seemingly thought the project was beneath him, which, given the direct-to-video trash he's been putting out for over a decade, struck most fans as ridiculous--all the more so when it was confirmed that he would be appearing instead in another Universal Soldier sequel.  According to some reports, he was doing "Universal Soldier 3" only under legal duress, but if that was minor consolation as regards his character, it also seemed to dash any chances of the film, or Van Damme's comeback, turning out well.

Well, I'm still looking forward to The Expendables, but in the meantime, I have seen Universal Soldier: Regeneration, which was not able to carry Van Damme back into theaters.  I can tell you it was not what I expected, and I am probably one of the very few people who has seen every other Universal Soldier movie--both Van Damme theatrical releases and the two direct-to-video non-canon productions (not to mention Soldier, starring Kurt Russell).

The original 1992 Universal Soldier was Van Damme's Vietnam picture--his First Blood, or even his Platoon--maybe crossed in earnest with RoboCop.  Coming after Lionheart and Double Impact, it was a surprisingly bleak story, featuring a Van Damme without his usual virile charm, as confused lost soul Luc Deveraux, brought back from the dead to serve as a perfect killing machine.  Ultimately still pretty schlocky and generic, it was no masterpiece, yet somehow it spawned two non-theatrical 1998 sequels that continued the story directly but with none of the original cast.  Not only that, but Van Damme himself returned in 1999 for the sequel that nobody asked for.  Universal Soldier: The Return, altogether one of the most gratuitous (but enjoyably so) movies I've ever seen, wisely ignored the direct-to-video sequels, but it also mostly ignored the original film, abandoning both continuity and sense in the process.

After an even longer hiatus, this year's Universal Soldier: Regeneration brings Van Damme back for a third go as Luc Deveraux and, better still, reunites him with original film nemesis Dolph Lundgren, who was able to make time for both Regeneration and The Expendables.  Given what I'd heard about how this third movie came to be, I expected some cheap and exploitative production desperate to cash in on the diminishing stock of the title and stars.  That was exactly what The Return was, so I could only hope that Regeneration would be as much fun.

"Fun" is not a word I would use to describe Universal Soldier: Regeneration, but neither is it depressing in the manner of In Hell (2003) or Until Death (2007)--sad swipes at action movie tropes, with sub-theatrical production values and budgets sopped up by an unmotivated lead actor.  Regeneration is a real movie, deliberately cold, and the most legitimately quality production Van Damme has ever starred in.  Not at all what I expected.

Seriously, after watching Regeneration, I can believe that Van Damme passed on The Expendables for artistic reasons.  Whereas The Expendables looks to be a throwback--a last hurrah for Stallone the action hero, who wants to go out with the same sort of ultraviolent live-action cartoon that made his legend--Universal Soldier: Regeneration, despite being a sequel to one such film, is not content to evoke the experiences of two decades ago.  This is a startlingly competent, sometimes even avant-garde work that fuses some bloody-good action with a less drunken tone and more modern cinematic technique.  The desaturated palette and impressively long takes paint an unnervingly vital picture, and the sound is even more minimalist, with a musical score often absent, making for some starkly sober action sequences that are light on pyrotechnics and high on brutality, as when an expressionless Van Damme goes to work with just a knife against an army of terrorists.  Set in the abandoned Chernobyl plant and opening with a gut-wrenching kidnapping and chase sequence, the storyline is heavier in tone and less campy sci-fi, but the movie remains fast-paced and consistently exciting.

Van Damme and Lundgren are the only "stars" in the film, and neither receives as much screen time as one might expect, but they appear when needed, and the sparing use of their skills makes them seem that much more special when they are unleashed.  1999's The Return having been removed from continuity, Van Damme's Deveraux is right back to his 1992 self--stranded and cold on the surface, but with simmering yearnings beneath.  The older Van Damme furthermore sells the character's weariness and resists any temptation to overact beyond that.  Lundgren is surprisingly less intelligible than Van Damme, yet his performance seems appropriate, as a man who has perhaps seen the other side and come back not quite whole.  Their characters' anticipated rematch lives up to any fan fiction fantasies, and it also exceeds most any slugfest you'll find in theaters.

Universal Soldier: Regeneration is not a great movie, but it is unlike any action flick I've seen.  Although it was shocking at first, I can now say that it's refreshing.  It's something new and different, not generic, and leaves a stronger impression as a result.  I don't know if it takes the genre forward, but it at least makes it feel alive again, where other films are so content to leave it stagnant with formulaic rehashes and unimaginative direction.  Suddenly an affirmation, rather than a contradiction, of JCVD's newfound artistic integrity, it makes me just a little ashamed that all I wanted was another Timecop.  I'm not sure if The Expendables is going to do it for me after this.

1 comment:

Czardoz said...

Even after the opening credits had rolled, confirming the title and Van Damme's participation, I found myself asking out loud, "Is this the right movie?"