The birth, death and regeneration of the Universal Soldier movies

Feature Wil Jones 22 Aug 2014 - 06:10

Universal Soldier began in 1992 before suffering from some tawdry sequels. Then John Hyams revived the franchise in spectacular fashion...

The Universal Soldier films are a strange case of life imitating art. Much like how series protagonist Luc Deveraux is killed in action then resurrected into something post-human, Universal was a pretty standard 90s action film which crashed and burned when it came to sequels, but became something unique and beautiful when it was reanimated for the straight to DVD market.

It’s a hushed secret among genre fans, but Universal Solder 3 and 4 (or possibly 5 and 6, it’s complicated) are some of the most remarkable action sci-fi films of the 21st century so far. Yes, really. I actually watched the series backwards when I first saw them, after being blown away by Universal Solder Day Of Reckoning and deciding to work my way back, and Roland Emmerich’s perfectly acceptable 1992 blockbuster is actually rather disappointing compared to what was to come.

BIRTH

1992’s Universal Soldier has started to become somewhat forgotten – it’s fallen out of the canon of classic 80s and 90s action movies, and Dolph Lundgren’s character doesn’t crack jokes about in it The Expendables. The truth is it doesn’t quite have the spark of say, Predator, or Speed, or even Demolition Man. The premise is fun enough. During the Vietnam war, Private Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme), discovers his Sergeant (Dolph Lundgren) has gone mad with power and is killing innocent civilians. Deveraux tries to stop him, and both of them are killed in the ensuing fight. Twenty-five years later, the two of them are brought back to life with their memories wiped, as part of a secret government programme of making super soldiers out of deceased GIs. Deveraux then starts to remember his old life, and goes on the run.

While the characters aren’t cyborgs per se, it’s part of the cycle of robot movies that followed RoboCop and The Terminator – Deveraux’s character arc of reclaiming his humanity is basically the same as Alex Murphy’s. The problem is the film just doesn’t really go anywhere – Deveraux goes on the run with a boilerplate sassy female journalist sidekick (Ally Walker), gets chased for a bit, and then, nothing really. The action is solid enough – lots of early 90s explosions and stuff – but nothing truly memorable.

The strongest points are actually Van Damme and Lundgren’s performances. Van Damme deadpans surprising well, playing it as an ruthless but naïve warrior. He nails a lot of the fish-out-of-water comedy scenes, like discovering that food tastes nice again, or not realising that he shouldn’t just strip off in public – they’re silly, but Van Damme plays them totally straight and the jokes work. Lundgren is even better, switching from an emotionless drone to regaining his old evil persona half way through the movie, hamming it up as a madman who wears his victims' ears on a necklace. 

The first Universal Soldier was a success, but not a massive hit or anything. Thinking about it, it was about the highest profile work either of the leads ever did. While a few JCVD film have a similar scale (Timecop, Street Fighter, maybe Hard Target), even in his mid-90s heyday Van Damme’s bread and butter was still bog-standard martial arts flicks like Nowhere To Run and Maximum Risk. Lundgren never really made it past supporting roles in big mainstream films (or the lead in B-level action flicks), and after Ivan Drago it’s  his most recognisable role. But the film didn’t set the box office on fire, opening to second to the Tom Hanks-Geena Davis baseball comedy A League Of Their Own, and it probably signalled that neither one of them become iconic stars on the level of Schwarzenegger or Stallone.  

It did better overseas (possibly because of its two European stars), and the original ending was changed to have Deveraux survive, so the possibility of a sequel was not unlikely. However, any potential further adventures of the UniSols were dealt a blow when producers Carolco imploded in 1995, after the failures of both Showgirls and Cutthroat Island.

DEATH

Somehow, the Universal Soldier rights ended up with Canadian production company Skyvision Entertainment, who knocked out two made-for-cable movies: 1998’s  Universal Soldier II: Brothers In Arms and 1999’s Universal Soldier III: Unfinished Business. There was a surprising number of TV adaptations of classic action films in the mid- to late-90s – Highlander was the most successful, but there were also off-model versions of RoboCop, Total Recall and Timecop littering cable channels at the time – and it looks like the two TV movies were intended as a pilot for a series that never came.

Despite none of the original cast returning, Brothers In Arms continued directly from the first film. Derveraux was now played by former NFL player Matt Battaglia. It’s the second time he’d followed in the footsteps of Van Damme – he played a fireman who Pheobe dated in a 1997 episode of Friends, following on from JCVD appearing on the show as himself and going on a date with Monica the year before. Backing him up were acting titans Gary Busey and Burt Reynolds. The films are cheap, flat and as uninspired as you would expect from a made-for-cable spin off, but the second one does imply that Bill Clinton is a secret UniSol. 

The same year that Unfinished Business came out, the series also returned to the big screen with Universal Soldier The Return (I couldn’t find any airdates for it, but The Return came out in July, so it’s possible Unfinished Business was actually broadcast after it). Van Damme returned as Deveraux, but none of the other original cast or characters appear. The Return ignores the events of the TV films, but then again it also appears to ignore the first Universal Soldier as well.

It’s the most baffling sequel since Highlander II: The Quickening. In the first film, Deveraux is man who's been turned into a machine and is battling to claw back his humanity. He is stoic, silent and unworldly. In The Return he's a goofball single-parent. Deveraux was one of Van Damme’s most interesting parts – it’s one of few times he’s actually been a character, as opposed to just JCVD, but this time he’s a kickerboxer or in the foreign legion or a Timecop or whatever.

Deveraux in The Return is Van Damme, talking normally and cracking jokes. He’s barely even Van Damme - the character is just a cypher and a cheesy smile. The first one ends with Deveraux having escaped the programme and trying to put a life back together. In this one he’s just working for them again, all cheery.

The plot revolves around the UniSol program being shut down due to budget cuts. (They didn’t shut it down when it was responsible for the deaths of dozens of civilians, but you do when you run out of cash?) Its HAL-like central computer isn’t happy about it, so it takes control of the soldiers and turns them against the military. Instead of Lundgren, we get the great Michael Jai White (Black Dynamite) as the voice, and later body of the evil computer, and former WCW wrestler Goldberg as a henchman UniSol.

It's an average enough Van Damme movie, somewhat ruined by the decision to set all the fight scenes to some largely terrible metal songs, which destroys the flow of the action. Van Damme versus White is pretty good, though, and there’s a hilarious bit where Dervaux’s daughter uses Goldberg as a sled to get down some stairs, but all in all it’s a largely terrible movie. It feels straight-to-video, and flopped both critically and commercially.

Much like Luc Deveraux,  following its failure, the Universal Soldier series would spend the next decade seemingly dead, but actually just laying dormant until a brilliant scientist would resurrect it and turn it into something new and wonderful.

REBIRTH

That scientist’s name was John Hyams. He’s the son of veteran director and Den Of Geek favourite Peter Hyams, who has some really interesting films on his CV, including 2010, the sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, the unique buddy film Running Scared, and the clever TV satire Stay Tuned. Hyams Senior also worked with Van Damme twice on Timecop and Sudden Death.

The idea of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren coming back for a Universal Soldier sequel in 2009 seemed like a cruel joke. Like making fun of how far their careers had fallen. Like when Mickey Rourke returned to make Another 9½ Weeks when his career was on the skids. But somehow Hyams created something wonderful.

"I thought, 'If I can make the best direct-to-video movie anyone's seen, then maybe that will get more notice than if I make a so-so theatrically released movie,'" Hyams told Village Voice. Choosing to enter the stigmatised world of direct-to-video led to his agent dropping him as soon as he took the gig, but it paid off in the long run.

Regeneration hits you from its startling opening scene. It begins with a slow and methodical tracking shot, following the son and daughter of the Ukrainian Prime Minister through a museum. The scene suddenly cuts as they exit the building, and their car is hit by an armoured SUV. The thunderous cut is amplified by an extra flipping around seven foot in the air when he is hit by the first car (according to the commentary, the stuntman blew out his knee doing it) and it shocks the movie instantly into life. The Prime Minister’s children are kidnapped as the resulting chase is shot from mostly inside the armoured car, creating a real sense of claustrophobia and confusion. Hyams manages to pull off the rapid shaky editing and camerawork without making it unintelligible, like most hacks do when they try to rip off The Bourne Supremacy.

The kids have been kidnapped by rebels who are held up in the remains of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, and threatening to blow them up along with the radioactive material if the Ukrainian government doesn’t release a load of political prisoners. Oh, and they’ve got a their own super-powerful next generation UniSol backing them up, played by Belarusian MMA fighter Andrei ‘The Pit Bull’ Arlovski (in an early info dump we find out there was a second UniSol programme that experimented with cloning, but more on that later). The US military get involved and send their remaining Mark I UniSols, but they are quickly (and beautifully) dispatched by Arlovski. They turn to the final UniSol, Luc Deveraux, now back to being Jean-Claude Van Damme.

We don’t see Van Damme until 15 minutes into the film. After the other UniSols are killed, it’s revealed he’s undergoing rehabilitation in Switzerland. We then cut directly to a close-up of Van Damme’s face, looking directly into the camera. No background, no context. Van Damme looks withered and haggard. He no longer has the cheesy, annoying grin of The Return. Instead, he now has an incredible, interesting face. He looks like he has been through hell. And in a lot of ways he has. 

Watching the Universal Soldier films in order presents an interesting Van Damme biography. In 1992 he is a naïve youngster, (relatively) new to America and especially Hollywood, much like the freshly reanimated Deveraux who doesn’t understand the modern world. By 1999, by all accounts, he was an insufferable brat. The fame got to him, he developed a massive cocaine habit and he was off having flings with Kylie Minogue. The Luc Deveraux of The Return is intensely annoying, with a face you just want to punch. Van Damme abandons everything that makes the character interesting just so he can mug to the camera. 

But by 2009 he’d been through hell and survived. “I was fucked up, man,” he admitted to The Guardian on the press tour for The Expendables 2. He was diagnosed as bipolar, was suicidal and tore through four marriages. He demanded the same money that Jim Carrey was getting in the late 90s, so Hollywood cast him out.

"I was on the blacklist. That was it,” he continued in the same interview.

But he got off the coke, kept working and survived. He was stuck in the DTV ghetto, but he started to make some more interesting films. 2007’s Until Death was his take on Bad Lieutenant, in which he stretched his acting by playing a heroin-addicted cop. A year later he starred as himself in the brutally-honest JCVD.

The face that stares back at us in Regeneration is not just that of tortured Vietnam vet experimented on by the US government, but also a cautionary tale of Hollywood excess (when Dolph Lundgren’s character reappears as apart of the cloning subplot, staring vacantly in suspended animation, it has a similar effect). The Deveraux of Regeneration could easily be a stand in for the Van Damme of 2009.

Hyams’ filmmaking is miles ahead of anything you’d normally expect in a straight-to-DVD action film. The cinematography around the Chernobyl site is wonderful. It’s highly saturated, almost sepia toned inside the plant, with rusty, dark red hues amongst the shadows. Outdoors, a similar effect is used but with icy blues instead of the reds, capturing the chilly feel of the post-Soviet abandoned countryside. Just as much care is taken with sound design – there’s a dark, electronic score and lots ambient buzzing complementing the lack of humanity in the UniSol and the cold metal of Chernobyl. 

Of course, the action is expertly handled as well. Hyams shoots everything with a steady clarity, making everything simple to follow yet still thrilling. Prior to Regeneration, Hyams' most notable work was the documentary The Smashing Machine about MMA star Mark Kerr, and he manages to capture the visceral violence of mixed martial arts even in a preposterous film about cloned supersoldiers. In particular he highlights the ‘ground and pound’ style popular in UFC in the choreography.

After taking down their opponents, the UniSols – Arlovski in particular – will constantly hit their opponent with the same, repetitive blow over and over again, with the camera lingering motionless for a just a beat or two longer than is comfortable. It really makes the UniSols feel like inhuman machines, with no thought of style let along compassion. When Van Damme and Lundgren finally face each other they literally destroy the set, tumbling through walls and destroying support pillars as the two lumbering beasts throw themselves at each other. 

The standout action sequence comes when a rejuvenated Van Damme storms the surrounding buildings of Chernobyl, taking out waves and waves of rebels. Hyams follows him with a steady tracking shot, only cutting for close ups of his strikes’ impact. He keeps the camera at about shoulder height throughout, giving it a sense of calm detachment, mimicking Deveraux’s calm throughout the chaos. He is also beautifully framed in the centre of the screen, with the perspective lines of the corridors nearly always directed toward him.

One of the most interesting things about Regeneration is how it almost lacks a protagonist. Van Damme and Lundgren are obviously the biggest names in the cast, but both of them actually have an ‘and’ or ‘with’ credit. Lundgren’s role is essentially just an extended third-act cameo, but while Van Damme is the hero of the piece, he (intentionally) doesn’t do much until the last half hour. He’s mostly restricted to the containment unit on the military base, brooding silently. We know he's going to explode eventually, and part of the fun is waiting for that to happen, but he doesn’t drive the action until then.

Andrei Arlovski is actually first billed in the credits, but he’s the almost silent bad guy. Prior to Van Damme, Arlovski and Lundgren going at it in the final third, the action mostly consists of waves of soldiers being comically wiped out by the evil UniSol – no ‘good guy’ really lasts long enough for them to become our point of view. I don’t know if it’s intentional, but the UniSols are far more interesting than the regular humans. The idea that they might be the next stage in human evolution comes up more in the next instalment, but this feels like a precursor to that idea.

Eventually, a soldier, played by another MMA star Mike Pyle, goes in to rescue the Prime Minister’s son and daughter and becomes our de facto protagonist, but he’s just not as interesting as the other three.  It’s probably the film’s main flaw, but it’s actually very effective for a film about dehumanisation to forgo the concept of having a relatable human being at its core.

Regeneration did very well in the DTV market, even getting a theatrical release in a few territories, which meant Hyams could come back for part four. (Or is it part three, if they ignores The Return? But it’s also technically the sixth one. Never mind).  This time though, Hyams was on board from the start, instead of coming to a film with a story already in place. And if Regeneration is ultimately just a great, violent action movie with a few interesting ideas, Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning is something else entirely.

RECKONING

Day Of Reckoning shifts the focus from Luc Deveraux to new protagonist John, played by British martial artist Scott Adkins. You might recognise Adkins as Van Damme’s sidekick is The Expendables 2 or a small role in Zero Dark Thirty, but he’s really made a name for himself in a few incredible DTV martial arts films including the Undisputed sequels and Ninja: Shadow Of A Tear. He’s also the first protagonist of a Universal Soldier film that hasn’t had a guest shot in Friends.

The film has an even better opening than Regeneration. All shot from his POV, it starts with Adkins in bed with his wife. His young daughter wakes him up, saying she heard a monster in the house. He eventually agrees to go and investigate, and finds a group of masked men in his kitchen, who proceed to beat him senseless with a crowbar. The effect of having this beating shown all through Adkin’s eyes is truly nauseating, with blood trickling from the screen and painful ringing on the soundtrack – it’s as difficult to take as the fire extinguisher beating in Irreversible (and not the only time the film will tip its hat to Gaspar Noe). Eventually, the men drag his wife and daughter in front of him, and before shooting them in the face, the lead intruder pulls off his mask to reveal Van Damme’s Luc Deveraux, with a shaved head and even more haggard expression than Regeneration

Adkins awaken from his coma in a hospital where a FBI agent promptly informs him that Deveraux is the man who murdered his family, and that he has gone rogue. Adkins swears to get revenge, and find out why his family were killed. Which is totally not how the film plays out.

It’s kind of hard to explain the plot without spoiling it too much – it’s actually difficult to explain the plot full stop to be honest. Essentially, Van Damme has gone underground, becoming a sort of totemic cult leader to a militia of UniSols (including a new clone of Dolph Lundgren). He’s discovered how to give the UniSols back their freedom, but retain their superhuman powers. A cloned Andrei Arlovski is sent by the FBI to attack the militia, but turned by Lungren and sent after Adkins, who is slowly learning that there’s far more to his connection to Deveraux than meets the eye.

The plot is intentionally oblique. It’s not impossible to guess where things are going, but the film requires you to do a lot of work – the backstory of Van Damme’s UniSol cult is never touched upon, previously killed off characters return without explanation (they’re clones, but you have to work that out for yourself), and character motivation is often hard to decipher, especially in the first half of the film. But it’s all about creating a mood of paranoia. The film owes more to Philip K Dick than Roland Emmerich’s original.

Adkins’ character goes through something similar to the protagonists of Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep and We Can Remember This For You Wholesale (adapted for the screen as Blade Runner and Total Recall respectively) – he discovers that his memories, and therefore his identity, might not be reliable. If he is not who he believes he is, then is he really himself? And most importantly, even if the events did not happen, are the emotions he felt still real?

The ending is particularly striking in this sense. Without giving the game away, Adkins ultimately chooses the emotionally satisfying conclusion as opposed to the ‘good’ ending, regardless of its consequences. If the previous Universal Soldier films were about dehumanisation, Day Of Reckoning is about re-humanisation. Yet Adkins ultimately chooses to reject the enlightenment, picking the easier, or simpler, option. We get the ending that we ‘want’ based of the film’s opening scenes, but by the end we realise that might not necessarily be a good thing.

Stylistically, the film is a complete departure from Regeneration. It looks and sounds extraordinary. Whereas Regeneration looked washed out and over-saturated, Day Of Reckoning is full of bright, pop-art colours and hallucinatory images. Early in the film. Andrei Arlovski tracks down the UniSols to a psychedelic brothel that owes more than a little to Gaspar Noe’s Enter The Void. While the UniSols indulge in all sorts of comically debauched acts with hookers, they are surrounded by blinding pink neon and a throbbing electronic score. 

Dolph Lundgren struts around manically, at this point looking more like a Tom Of Finland illustration come to life than a real person. When Arlovski confronts him, he injects him with a serum that unlocks him from his programming. The screen starts to flicker and eventually turn into a full-on strobe, and a barely visible Van Damme stares back through the light. Accompanied by screeching atonal audio, it’s hypnotic and genuinely painful to watch to at points.

The UniSol cult’s hidden base is just as visually startling. Hidden deep within the hot Louisiana swamps, it’s a claustrophobic hellhole, lit with hideous unnatural blue and purple lighting. It’s a swarming homoerotic mess of steroided-up muscle freaks and meatheads, with violence ready to explode at any moment. The shaven-headed Van Damme hovers around in black and white voodoo-like face paint, more enigma than man. Hyams had credited Apocalypse Now as an influence and it definitely has a Heart Of Darkness like craziness to it. 

The film has a dream-like feeling of David Lynch films. It’s most notable in the hallucinatory moments, but even the more restrained scenes, it has a hazy, disconcerting feel, like being unsure if you are asleep or awake. The locations all feel bland and generic, and have no sense of place – rather than being a negative, this only helps the film's sense of confusion. It’s the feeling of Anywheresville USA that makes Blue Velvet so disturbing.

While Adkins is very much the star, the spectre of Van Damme lingers across the film like a spectre. Current day JCVD has such a great face, and Hyams shoots him in shadows, bringing out all the lines and contours so that he just needs to stare intensely to capture the whole screen. It would be wonderful to see him have a late period resurgence as an odd-looking character actor.

Again, the film works as the next chapter in this weird biography of JCVD. In the world of Universal Soldier, the idea of Luc Deveraux has become also most more important than the man himself. real life, following on from the naïve kid, the coke head and the survivor, we are now onto Van Damme the icon. He can now appear in beer adverts and viral videos doing the splits. Everyone knows who Jean-Claude Van Damme is, even if they would never watch one of his films.

The biggest criticism of the film really is that it is somewhat derivative, and definitely wears its influences on its sleeve. The fact that a straight-to-video sequel to a 1992 Van Damme movie can be compared to the works of Lynch, Noe and Philip K Dick (with some Kubrick and Cronenberg in there as well) is a fantastic achievement, but what’s so interesting is how it melds all these things together into one crazy, visceral experience. It’s truly a one of a kind movie. Plus David Lynch never shot an action sequence like the ones in Day Of Reckoning. 

Scott Adkins is an incredible screen fighter, and there’s a bravura five minute action scene shot in one take (with a few digital cheats I’m sure), where he storms Van Damme’s base, taking out around 20 UniSols. The piece de resistance, however, is Adkins and Arlovski going at it halfway through the film. After a freeway chase, the two of them tumble into a sporting goods shop and start laying into each other with baseball bats, dumbbells and bowling balls. It’s both beautifully choreographed and wince-inducingly violent, making great use of the UniSols' enhanced strength, and the final impact is jaw-dropping (and too good to spoil here).

The Universal Soldier series is an unusual one. A competent, enjoyable yet forgettable blockbuster had its name dragged through the dirt due to some terrible sequels, yet somehow emerged as something utterly unique two decades later. People moan about the lack of originality in American cinema these days, with the over reliance on reboots and sequels. What’s really disappointing, though, is that nobody takes advantage of the freedom that a pre-sold name can give filmmakers.

John Hyams would never have got a film as audacious as Day Of Reckoning made, even on its meagre budget, without it having a recognisable title and two name stars. The combination of those meant that it was going to shift units on DVD whatever, no matter what the actual film was like. So he could almost make whatever he liked. It’s similar to what Phil Lord and Christopher Miller did with 21 Jump Street and The Lego Movie: they took a seemingly cynical property movies and made really interesting stories out of them.

This is why it’s so depressing every time a film like the new Carrie or Total Recall just lethargically goes through the motions. If Universal Soldier can become something wonderful, virtually anything can.

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