THE BLACK SHEEP is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATH. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Dig in!
Universal Soldier: The Return (1999)
Directed by Mic Rogers
“Universal Soldier: The Return…sucks balls hard enough to draw you in, making it the perfect storm for some bourbon, BBQ, and plenty of good (unintended?) laughs.”
Dear Mr. Van Damme:
Hi. How's it going? Been a while since I've seen you. I noticed through the media onslaught that you've made a return to theaters after disappearing for a decade or so. Glad Stallone and the other AARP members gave you a call. It'll be nice to see you again, considering I haven't seen you since...Universal Soldier: the Return. Stay in touch.
Your pal – R
I figured today I would step forward and present to the world my fan club letter to JCVD. I don’t know if people still write fan letters, but at least it’d demonstrate my loyalty to him (joke) and my excitement in seeing him back in theaters (not a joke). Since I can remember, he's always been one of the dudes I grew up on, equal to Arnold, Sly, and Bruce, and always a step above Steven. JCVD is one of the last true action heroes before replaced by beefed up genuine actors. (Would anyone have ever thought Matt Damon would serve as the modern action hero example?)
Like all action stars, not all of Van Damme's movies were always great, but at least even the worst remained entertaining with solid action, good stunts, engaging stories, and some short dude performing the splits along with an obnoxious accent who always delivered one-liners with a smug grin. Regardless, with his long awaited return to the big screen with Expendables 2, it's time to revisit his last theater outing: Universal Soldier: The Return.
First, let’s make one thing perfectly clear. No one, and I mean 0.0003% of the world population, can claim that Universal Soldier: The Return is a well-made, first-class action release. It isn’t. It looks painfully low budget (despite a $45 million dollar budget. WTF did they spend the money on?!) and it remains major downgrade to the effectively dramatic 1992 original. That film had style, substance and depth. The Return has...a 90’s metal soundtrack. And Goldberg. And Black Dynamite aka Al Simmons aka Spawn. And, of course, JCVD, but no Dolph.
However, despite Universal Soldier: The Return’s surface level shit, it ends up as one of the few movies that plays cheap on so many levels and keeps the plot so amazingly dumb, that damn it, it ends up a stupefying, entertaining mess. That's tough to do. So many movies aim to be bad and end up feeling forced and contrived. Universal Soldier: The Return tries to be big. It tries to booming. But the direction sucks balls hard enough to draw you in, making it the perfect storm for some bourbon, BBQ, and plenty of good (unintended?) laughs.
The result is a late 90s time capsule. Dated music. Goldberg. Bad “futuristic” technology in S.E.T.H., an obvious rip-off from HAL, who overtakes the Universal Soldier military program and turns the warriors against their masters. Somehow, a computer geek (the perfect clichéd character with purple hair, bad manners, and extreme sports and heavy metal always cycling in the background) places the mind of S.E.T.H. into Michael Jai White’s body to unleash hell. White actually saves the movie in many respects, giving the villain role some depth to make up for Goldberg minimal charisma. Van Damme and White play quite well off each other. I’m surprised they never teamed up again.
Recommending good/bad films isn’t always an easy thing. One man’s trash is another man’s golden god, but some films should have a shared level of entertainment if the audience understands the journey they’re about to embark on. If you’ve prepared for a train wreck, then you can’t be thrown off the tracks. Instead, you’ll be able to hang on and enjoy the ride for what it is: Van Damme failing at being a proper leading man. I don’t know if it was bad direction or drugs or f*cked up egos, but after the hit Sudden Death, Van Damme never could recapture that glory...slowly drifting in Wal-Mart $5 premiere bends. With Universal Soldier: The Return, it's clear he knew this was his chance to recapture that fading glory. It shows. He does his damnedest to be that perfect lead actor: tough, smirking, cheesy, and romantic, he wanted to expand his ability on this one. Be an actor with depth. In some regards he succeeds, but he didn’t realize the quality of the product. He ends up just looking like an ass. Which in this case, I thank him for that. Perhaps I need to write another letter. Or maybe he's on Twitter...