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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

JCVD-A-THON: Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009)

I don’t think many people cared about the “Universal Soldier” franchise before 2009. The original was occasionally recalled fondly as an above-average Van Damme vehicle and a fairly entertaining popcorn flick. Nobody gave a shit about any of the previous sequels. That all changed with “Universal Soldier: Regeneration.” Following “JCVD” and “The Expendables,” Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren were the most relevant they had been in years. The son of previous Van Damme collaborator, Peter Hyam, director John Hyam had made his name with documentaries about MMA. Hyam would bring that same intensity and urgency to this film. Despite being a direct-to-video fourth sequel to a barely remembered nineties movie, “Universal Soldier: Regeneration” quickly gained fans.

Ignoring all prior “UniSol” sequels, “Regeneration” brings the misbegotten franchise into the modern day. The children of the Russian Prime Minister are kidnapped by an even more deadly, new model of Universal Soldier. Procured by a rogue scientist, the NextGen UniSol is working with Ukrainian terrorists, whose base of operation is inside the ruins of Chernobyl. The U.S. army tries to retrieve the children but the super soldier makes quick work of all of them. With few other options, Luc Deveraux is recruited. However, Deveraux has a serious case of PTSD and, with the help of a therapist, has slowly been reentering normal society. Will the formerly great UniSol be able to stand up to the new model, especially when an old enemy also enters the fray?

Minutes after beginning, “Regeneration” leads with extremely brutal, bloody action. The opening scene is devoted to the girl being abducted by the bad guys. The bullets hit extremely hard, blood spurting from every wound, splattering on glass and chrome. Vehicles crash, the metal twisting and the tires shrieking. After that mission, the NGU’s broken arms and scourged skin are treated in a cold, scientific manner. When Luc Deveraux is finally unleashed in the film’s final act, Van Damme cleaves through a small army with a knife. The arterial spray flies freely and, while the stab wounds are occasionally lingered on, the focus is on brutal and bloody efficiency. The hardest hits are reserved for the man-on-man melees. Van Damme and Dolph’s duel has the two titans tossed through windows, shelves, walls and tables. After diving thirty feet out a building, the fight concludes with a metal pipe through the forehead and a shotgun to the brain. Deveraux’s final fight with the NGU is no less vicious, as it features an even higher fall, harsher kicks and punches, and an explosion making mince meat of a grown man. It’s awesome.

The action scenes just aren’t intense in content. Hyam’s direction is kinetic but smooth. The car chase, for example, has a fabulous sense of motion. The camera rolls along with the vehicles, as bullets shatter the glass and the cars smash into each other. Despite all the chaos going on, Hyam’s hand remains steady. The action scenes are characterized by slickly edited, longish shots. Such as when Van Damme runs into battle, blowing away bad guys and effortlessly dodging explosions. A sequence that practically feels like a horror movie is devoted to the NGU stalking the other soldiers, cornering them and dispatching them with a retractable wrist-blade. Even a smaller moment, such as when Mike Pyle’s hero sneaks into Chernobyl and quietly disarms some enemies, has a fluidness to the action. “Universal Soldier: Regeneration” is not just hard hitting but is cleanly and stylishly directed.

The previous “Universal Soldier” movies were not exactly the type of movies to feature smart, insightful subtext. The original had the thinnest wisp of a point about the military establishment making normal people into inhuman killing machines. “Regeneration” runs with this, taking the theme much further. When Devereux is first introduced, he’s the spitting image of a shell-shocked soldier. He’s quiet, withdrawn, on medication, yet still prone to violent outbursts. When the government decides it needs him, they break into his home and drag him off. Luc is dropped onto a treadmill, pumped full of drugs, tossed into training, and back on the battlefield in hours. They don’t care about his well-being. The movie’s final image makes this point even more abundantly clear. The war machine rolls on, using up good men. In the world of “Universal Soldier,” even death can’t keep the government from exploiting its soldiers.

“Regeneration” is a strong film but it has one serious flaw. The story is seemingly without a primary protagonist. Van Damme’s Devereux is obviously the hero we want to root for but he’s on the sidelines until nearly the end of the movie. Andrei Arlovski, a MMA fighter of some renown who is credited as “The Pitbull,” plays the NGU and gets top-billing. Arlovski is physically intimidating and does well in the part but the villain intentionally has no personality. Which leaves Mike Pyle, another professional fighter, as Captain Kevin Burke. Burke is the most morally ethical of the characters, leads the various failed military charges, and helps save the hostages. Despite that, he exits the film well before the end and, truthfully, only has a handful of scenes to himself. Without a solid lead character for the audience to focus on, “Regeneration” ends up sometimes feeling like nothing but a series of (beautifully orchestrated) action scenes.

It almost feels like the film was written with Pyle as the main hero and Arlovski as the primary villain, the producers assuming Van Damme and Lundgren wouldn’t return. I have no proof of this but I suspect that Jean-Claude and Dolph’s insertion into the movie was the result of a quickie rewrite. Whatever the reason, the film is better because of their participation. The tired, worn-out quality on Van Damme’s face adds another sad dimension to Deveraux. By the film’s end, he is sadly resigned to his role in life. A nice touch is Van Damme closing his eyes during a brief moment of quiet, as if he’s a warrior monk centering himself before striking again. Arlovski is a pretty great villain but Dolph brings some perverse fun to the film. As in the original, Andrew Scott is unhinged from the moment he appears. Before crushing the mad scientist’s head with his bare hands, Dolph turns a previous line of dialogue against him. The casual way he decides to murder a pair of children is equally chilling and morbidly funny. These action stars may be pushing retirement age but “Universal Soldier: Regeneration” makes it clear that they can still kick some serious ass.

“Universal Soldier: Regeneration” may not have the sturdiest script but, as far as break-neck action goes, it delivers in spades. It’s not a dumb movie either, with some real ideas on its mind. The film is another proud addition to the line of alt-action flicks, providing hard-hitting alternatives to the CGI-filled spectacles of Hollywood, that also includes “The Raid” and the films of Isaac Florentine. And who would’ve expected that from the fifth film in a series most people probably don’t even remember? [8/10]

[THE VAN DAMMAGE: 3 outta 5]
[] An Entire Fight, Sans Shirt
[X] Close-Up Screaming
[] Dancing
[X] Jump-Kicks A Guy, Through Something
[X] Performs Either a Split or a Spinning Roundhouse Kick

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