I grew up watching the original Universal Soldier. I bought it in a bookstore, as a DVD, for $10, I think. I remember watching it and liking it. It wasn't the greatest movie I'd ever seen, and my impressions were ultimately uneven, but the experience was overall, relatively positive—especially when you consider that I also bought Cyborg, another Jean-Claude Van Damme film, and found myself thoroughly regretting my purchase; that film was flat-out bad. Just terrible. It is unfortunate that a guy like Van Damme clearly has the skill, but often winds up in films that don't showcase his abilities at all. Cyborg didn't, was a post-apocalyptic film that felt closer to Roller Blade than The Road Warrior. There's of course a main baddie who dislikes Van Damme for no apparent reason and the two men eventually meet in an inevitable, final battle, fighting half-naked. I don't have an issue with this—Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris did it just fine on a cheap sound stage in the low-budget but totally awesome, Lee-directed film, Return of the Dragon—but the camera stayed on them and they kicked each other's asses. In Cyborg, this wasn't the case, the fight being poorly-lit, poorly shot, and poorly choreographed. With someone like Van Damme, he can do whatever you tell him, but if the man's instructions are shit, it can hamper the final product, onscreen.
This brings me to quite possibly the greatest action movie I've never heard of, Universal Soldier: Regeneration. There isn't much plot. I even demonstrated this by watching the movie without subtitles, simply reading the non-English speakers' faces like a silent film, and with the help of musical cues and montages, I basically got the gist. 'Tis not a complex film, but it takes a basic idea—a hostage situation with bombs—and executes it well, incorporating some gritty post-human, 3rd-world, sci-fi ideas and visuals. In a nutshell, this movie basically combines Terminator 2, Metro: 2023, Pacific Rim, Metal Gear Solid, Blade Runner, Hard Boiled, Pacific Rim, the Outer Limits, Children of Men and District 9 into a short, sweet, satisfying movie that I would happily watch again directly after the first viewing. It's that good. There's simply nothing to gripe about—unless you hate genre films, I suppose.
So, what to love? Well, Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren are in the film, though their screen time is relatively consigned to the second half of the movie. The first half grabs you with a very exciting and clever chase scene, where after, you learn that the survivor of the hellish gunfight isn't immune to bullets; he "survives" the fight, but when his shirt is removed, he is riddled with bullet holes. The scene makes you wonder if he's just the beneficiary of a cheap Hollywood script, but he's not. The scene doesn't draw too much attention to the wounds except him getting shot in the arm, and when the true extent of his injuries is revealed, I couldn't help but smile. This film subverted the usual issues I have with shootouts, where characters either are never hit, or always land their shots.
The character's invulnerability is explained: he is basically a Frankenstein's monster, and his maker goes so far as to saw off his arm and put on a new one. It's a little gross, but sets the tone for the film. The fights are frequent, violent and realistic, with the martial arts less flashy and more "I'm going to murder you like a soldier would." The guns shoot real blanks (no digital daises, here). The explosions and battles look convincing and generally take place in a huge "set." I put that in quotes because the abandoned nuclear power plant actually looks like... an abandoned nuclear power plant. I don't know if the film makers got permission to shoot in Russia, or not, but the locations are very convincing. They are also gritty and dark and bleak. And huge: the super-soldiers will run around, often in the middle-ground or background, running up stairs and leaping off ledges onto guys running in the foreground while the track runs alongside them. And these guys leap pretty far and it doesn't look digital or fake. In some cases it might be a stunt guy but it's real and it looks great. No wires, either.
The hostage situation involves a battalion of soldiers as support while four "White Tower" super-soldiers go in to try and disable "the Asset." The Asset is the guy you meet during the initial kidnapping scene, and he doesn't fuck around. He's big and fast, and scrambles around the plant with terrific ease, essentially patrolling it, his objective to protect the bombs, which are scheduled to go off if the terrorists' demands aren't met. That's all he does, and he does it well. He defeats the super-soldiers with relative ease. Their introductions explain how "superior" they are but the Mad Scientist character of the movie has made the Asset into a bigger, stronger, more powerful model and he takes the four apart with relative ease. Three go down right away but the fourth tangles with the Asset and they fight, man-to-man, showcasing the movie's first fight, and it's great. It's well shot, well lit (for an abandoned power plant) and well choreographed. The choreography in this movie is superb and simply brutal. This is demonstrated by the Asset's penchant for a wrist dagger that he demonstrates on the fourth super solider, and on many unfortunates, after ward. Knife scenes are generally tense, but I felt a sense of pity for the Asset's fodder as I waited for him to grow bored "playing" with them before whipping out his tool-of-choice and dispatching them in reliably brutal fashion. Great stuff. Not as flashy as the Predator's retractable knife-gauntlet but just as effective.
I've spent a lot of time describing the fights and shootouts because that's basically what this movie is. There is some downtime, but no much, and even the "calm" scenes contain fighting (Van Damme's character is an old super-soldier attempting rehabilitation, without much success). There is a plot, and it's serviceable, but the focus here are the impressive battles, brutal fights, and locations.
The four super-soldiers die, and then the Asset takes on the entire battalion, and it's all done practically and looks believable, being shot with minimal takes, with plenty of practical explosion effects and gun blanks, and lots of extras running around in what basically amounts to controlled chaos. It's not quite bullet ballet. It imitates a real battle (for the most part) and really looks the part. The Asset takes terrific punishment, but simply won't die, appears invulnerable. It doesn't feel cheap or implausible because everything is done practically and is so well-executed.
There is a single survivor who returns to the fray as recon, sneaking around like Snake Plisskin in Metal Gear Soldier and dispatching bad guys. He kills quite a few and eventually gets to the hostages. He's charismatic, and we are shown enough of him to establish a bond of sorts. Meanwhile, the Mad Scientist has a business dispute with her bomber terrorist friends, and hatches a plot to kill them. He's reasons aren't totally clear (he is a mad scientist) but it involves having a backup super-soldier that isn't bound to the same rules as the Asset, which is programmed to recognize microchips implanted in the terrorists' arms and not murder them (their idea, not his). The terrorists eventually get the President to give into their demands and are going to pack everything up; so the Mad Scientist sicks his backup on them. Meet Dolph Lundgren.
Dolph, like Van Damme, is a man of few words, and his character has the least screen time of any character in the film. But he is hulking and brutal... and strangely funny (Dolph, as an actor, excels at playing villains with deadpan humor). He kills the terrorists, but things go rapidly wrong and soon the Mad Scientist is dead, as well. Meanwhile, Van Damme is sent in to clean up, and the lone soldier I mentioned earlier is escorting the hostages out of the combat zone.
This movie is very realistic, having brutal knife fights, gun battles, and fisticuffs, but it also likes to use real needles when men in the film are being injected with whatever serum turns them into killing machines. It's nice touch. For example, when Van Damme is converted back into his old super-soldier self, he stands up, armors up, and the lab coat gentleman sticks him right in the neck with a needle—right in the neck, and he bleeds. Small details like this really ground the picture and make it feel very real despite the loving nods to classic sci-fi tropes.
The rest of the film is Van Damme's show. He runs in, kicking as much ass as the Asset did, against the battalion, laying waste to the terrorists in an extended combat sequence where Van Damme essentially runs the gauntlet, dispatching soldiers with guns, grenades, rifles, knives, and his bare hands. Here, Van Damme demonstrates that he's more than capable of the physical demands needed for the best kind of action hero, and displays terrific execution and stamina as the cameraman follows him around, while he shoots men, runs through doorways and hits the bulls-eye every time. This is bullet ballet, straight out of John Woo's Hard Boiled, but it has the grittiness of the extended war scenes in Children of Man, and William Friedkin's The Hunted. A lot of work went into these scenes and Van Damme is incredibly competent in them. He's rather stony-faced, but the plot explains that he's basically a killer-machine with rocket fuel coursing through his veins, and does so in Terminator fashion.
The Asset kills the lone soldier, though the guy puts up a decent fight before he dies; Van Damme and Lundgren tango, resulting in a fabulous fight where the two toss themselves through walls, like Arnold and Patrick did in T2. Van Damme wins, but Lundgren dies delivering laughs. The Asset and Van Damme fight, and Van Damme is able to "win" by handing the giant killer one of the explosives set to go off. The ploy works, blasting the seemingly-indestructible behemoth to smithereens, but alas, Van Damme is weakened from his chemically-induced fugue state and stumbles off, only to collapse in the snow. His fate remains unknown. The film ends with a classic sci-fi twist, revealing that the lone soldier is actually one of many super-soldiers; yet again, the film has tricked us in a satisfying way. It reminded me of Blade Runner, where Deckard thinks he is human, and thus weaker when pitted against Roy Batty.
This movie was made in 2009, well past Van Damme's heyday but I consider it probably his best film (and I love Hard Target, Kickboxer, and Bloodsport). This isn't saying much considering most of his films (all of them?) are guilty pleasures. This one is simply a great sci-fi action film in the tradition of the Terminator. It caters to many different flavors of these two genres, and delivers in spades for both. The acting is solid (for a film of this type) and the music harkens back to Brad Fidel or John Carpenter. The aging stars deliver and the new talent (the actors who play the Asset, and the lone soldier) do as well. This movie is a sleeper hit, but belonging to such a checkered and lesser-known, disputable franchise that was never masterful to begin with, that it's gone unviewed by most people. A shame, because this film delivers the goods on a level that few films do.