Part of the fun of watching a film like this, deep into a series when they’ve abandoned the numbering convention, is trying to figure out how many of these damn films they’ve made. Was there one or two in the middle before Jean-Claude Van Damme was brought back into the fold? Did they make one after that one set in the abandoned factory, but before this?
Anyway, turns out this is the sixth film in the series, and the fourth starring JCVD. But don’t worry, those of you who’ve yet to be subjected to a minute of this particular cinematic strain, to say there’s little in the way of continuity between them is to imply that there’s any continuity between them, and there’s not. Aside from JCVD’s name being the same in the films he’s appeared in, the rest of the series might as well not exist. I think Dolph Lundgren has died three times in previous “Universal Soldier” films now.
I presume I won a bet with my wife (although I don’t remember doing so), as she voluntarily joined me. I think, rather than going through the intricacies of this film’s plot, I’ll just tell you the films they ripped off to make it – it starts off with a bit of “Memento”, then strays into “Total Recall” territory, briefly moseys through “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” before you giving you, both barrels to the face, a big dose of “Apocalypse Now” at the end. Plus lots of fighting! (although not as much as you were probably expecting).
The star of this film is British actor / martial artist Scott Adkins, and he sees his wife and kids slaughtered before his eyes by Luc Devereaux (JCVD’s character’s name throughout the series). Revenge is in order, and as our hero works his way through the assembled bad guys (including a turn by former UFC champion Andrei Arlovski, who does his entire substantial part in the film without uttering a single word of dialogue), he comes to realise he’s a little more than normal himself, and there’s a reason he’s being drawn to JCVD, Dolph and the rest of the Universal Soldier group…
I know giving it any level of analysis is treating it better than it deserves, but there’s probably a good story about the ways this film series has portrayed the Universal Soldiers. In the first film, they were a bright, gleaming, futuristic gang of mercenaries with no free will at all; then I didn’t see the two films without my man Jean Claude in them, because life is too short; then the two newer films have turned them gradually from the baddies of yore to some sort of freedom fighter types, people who operate outside the system. This new film is fascinating in a way because it changes things again, to them being some sort of shadowy group bent on taking over the government.
Anyway, after it ended, I was pleasantly surprised, and that worried me. Have my standards dropped so low that Universal Soldier 6 is going to get a good review? Well, they’ve probably dropped a bit, otherwise my brain would have committed suicide halfway through the second viewing of “After Last Season”, but there’s actual real stuff to praise about this film. Firstly, the plot is decent, and engaging. Okay, there’s bits where you go “oh, come ON”, but not too many. Secondly, the fights looked good. Director Peter Hyams seems to have got his start with the MMA documentary “The Smashing Machine”, and his love for the sport is obvious in his casting choices. The fights look like they hurt, in the most part, and were filmed well.
I think it was Mark Kermode who said that if the current system pretty much guarantees that every major blockbuster will eventually make back its money, and will most often make a profit, that leads to the question “why don’t they just try and make good films?” I think the people who were behind this heard that call. They figured that their low-budget Universal Soldier movie was going to make its money back anyway, so decided to do something interesting with it – give it a plot that holds the attention for more than a few seconds, and make it good.
Now, before you art-house types rush off to get the movie on VOD, bear in mind it’s not the highest-budget film of all time, and there’s plenty of wood in the acting ranks. But Jean Claude Van Damme is superb in it, even if he is doing an impression of Colonel Kurtz – makes me sad that he didn’t use the cultural cache he had after “JCVD” and make films that were a bit meatier.
So, enthusiastic thumbs up from me. Fans of the series will love it, non-fans of the series…will probably not bother jumping on at part 6, but those who do will hopefully get a kick out of it too.