Universal Soldier 2: Brothers In Arms (1998)

Knowing nothing about this, it becomes extremely obvious that it’s nothing more than a pilot for a proposed “Universal Soldier” TV series. The only two reasonably sized stars (who appear for more than five seconds) get killed off, but everyone else survives; there’s a “here’s what the plot of the series will be” bit of business at the end; and the main villain ends the movie completely unknown to our heroes, ready to launch many attacks on them throughout the course of a season’s worth of sexy adventures.

I’m not mentioning this to brag about how I was right – this and part 3, “Unfinished Business”, were intended to start a “Universal Soldier” TV series for Showtime – but to tell you what you ought to expect if you’re thinking of watching all the “Universal Soldier” movies in order. “Pilots that crashed” is one of our least popular, least worthwhile features here at the ISCFC, and this an unwelcome addition to that merry band.

To ease us into the UniSol world, we get the final few minutes of the original movie, reshot with new actors. Taking over the part of Luc Deveraux is Matt Battaglia, who’s one of those TV “that guy” actors – he’s briefly been in “Twin Peaks”, “JAG”, “Silk Stalkings” and more recently “True Detective” and “Hawaii Five-O”. He takes JCVD’s performance from part 1, goes “what that needed was less ability to be a human being” and really runs with it; once again, he’s effectively a passenger in the movie that’s named after him. Investigative reporter Veronica is recast with Chandra West, who’s excellent , and the new head of the UniSol program, which appears to have been semi-privatised in the intervening five minutes between the end of the first movie and beginning of this one, is a fellow named Otto Mazur. This is Gary Busey, post severe brain injury but pre becoming a sad laughing stock – he seems to be trying here, although it’s a curious performance.

Plot thread number one is that Luc has an “immediate recall to base” chip in his head, which his former employers use to get him to leave his home and go straight back to Chicago, where they’re based. Why they never used this in the first movie, where it’d have stopped pretty much all the problems that occurred from the several UniSols going off-reservation, is never mentioned (it’s different to the tracking chip which he removes during part 1).

One of the several plot threads is that Luc has a brother, who went off to war in 1960 or so (remember Luc is a Vietnam war vet who was kept on ice for 20 years), but in a coincidence so stupid and large I couldn’t even be bothered to be annoyed by it, was also taken after his death to be part of the UniSol program. Although whatever procedure it is didn’t take on him, so rather than just dump his body somewhere, they pay for nearly 40 years of cryogenic suspension – suspension so good that five seconds after his case is smashed, he’s quipping and kicking ass. I have absolutely no idea why this happens. His brother, Eric, is played by Jeff Wincott, one of the stars of 80s / 90s straight-to-video action, and far too good to be in trash like this – the scene where he’s educating Luc to be human is pretty funny.

The plot involves selling the UniSols to a Chinese terrorist group, led by the Filipino-American actor Von Flores, but not really as they just kill them and steal the diamonds they were going to use to buy them. That’s a tactic that’s only going to work once, I reckon, as other bad-guy groups will struggle to trust you in future…but what do I know? I was about to try and hide the identity of the main villain who’s manipulating all this, but the IMDB page reveals who it is immediately, so I won’t bother.

It’s the director of the CIA, played by Burt Reynolds. This movie goes above and beyond the usual “A-lister hired for a day” tricks, showing him from behind while an impersonator does his voice – they actually say at one point he’s using a voice scrambler for security reasons! Congratulations for one of the sleaziest tricks I’ve ever seen! His entire time on screen is maybe five seconds, as he pans into shot and makes some reference to his plans not being done yet.

For a movie called “Universal Soldier”, you’d really hope there’d be more action in it. Aside from the opening recap, nothing much really happens til the halfway point, and the fights are pretty small beer when they do occur. We still have no explanation what it is that makes the UniSols so strong – they don’t appear to be cybernetic, even though they have black box recorders implanted in their bodies, but it can’t be drugs as Luc suffers no withdrawal symptoms from being away from base for however long it was.

I think it’s lazy, though, and not just for the reasons I mentioned above. Jean-Claude Van Damme tends to be cast as a Louisiana boy if he’s an American in a movie, thanks to his accent. This is what happened in part 1, but by the beginning of part 2, they just drop this idea and specifically site the Deveraux family farm in Wyoming (even though the entire thing was filmed in Canada). It’s little things like this that show the big things were probably done in a similar slapdash manner. Director Jeff Woolnough and writer Peter Lenkov are both long-time TV guys, still working today, but this looks like it was not a passion project for anyone involved. Just do like JCVD wants you to do and ignore these two made-for-TV instalments completely.

Rating: thumbs down

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The Longest Yard (1974)

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Directed by: Robert Aldrich

Before I begin, here is in my humble opinion is the Top Ten Sports Movies of All Time (a list badly skewed by favourite films from my childhood).

1. Rocky IV
My favourite of the Rocky Franchise, which sees the sad demise of Apollo Creed and the machine like Dolph Lungren appearing as a formidable seemingly indestructible foe, like the prototype Klitschko brother.
2. D2: The Mighty Ducks
Somehow the peewee hockey team get given the chance by Coach Bombay to represent their Country in the Junior Goodwill Games. In a World Cup grudge match the Ducks come up against the mighty sporting world power of … Iceland.
3. Moneyball
An unbelievably gripping film about statistics in baseball.
4. The Longest Yard (1974)
See below
5. Senna
A wonderful documentary which shows that the now tedious Formula One was once thrilling.
6. Million Dollar Baby
Great performances, heartbreaking ending. Eastwood shines in his twilight years.
7. Remember The Titans
An underrated Denzel Washington flick.
8. Ladybugs
Rodney Dangerfield dropping endless one liners as the coach of a girls’ football (soccer) team who ropes in a ringer to play for the team… a boy.
9. Dogtown and Z-Boys
Helped me to understand why skateboarding matters.
10. The Fighter
A great biopic about Irish Micky Ward, I can’t wait for the sequel which will cover the Ward vs. Gatti wars.

Number four on that list is ‘The Longest Yard’ starring Burt Reynolds. Reynolds is perhaps best known as one of Hollywood’s worst decision makers, turning down roles as James Bond and Han Solo. It is fitting that he plays a washed up NFL quarterback named Paul Crewe who makes a host of poor decisions including match fixing, which killed his career, and driving under the influence of alcohol, a major boob which got him incarcerated, tarnishing his reputation.

‘The Longest Yard’ provided the blueprint for all team sports movies to come, the underdog story, the bunch of misfits who come together against all odds and defeat the well drilled team who are stronger, more skilful and better organized than they are aka The Bad Guys. The underdogs get by on grit and inspiration, never giving up until the bitter end.

In the case of ‘The Longest Yard’ it’s guards versus cons. Paul Crewe reluctantly takes charge of a team made up of prisoners to play the semi-pro guards team who are looking for an easy tune up before the new season starts. Crewe is an anti-hero; he physically assaults his girlfriend, before drunkenly driving his sports car over a pier. He then further drowns his sorrows in a bar, and attacks the two policemen who come to arrest him. He is an asshole.

He shouldn’t therefore be likeable, but for some reason as soon as the prison guards shave off Reynold’s moustache a wave of sympathy washes over me. It’s one of those iconic sad cinematic moments which brought me to the brink of tears. Perhaps I’m one of those men who are easily moved by the removal of facial hair.

One of the things you notice about any film made in the seventies is that men were men; there are no male models and carefully sculpted gym bodies; the folically challenged Ed Lauter for example would never be cast as Captain Wilhelm Krauer, or if he did he would have been given a hair piece. Krauer is a great sports movie villain, the bully, the insecure henchman who follows every order of the Prison warden Rudolph Hazen; he is on Crewe’s case from the get go, beating and berating him.

What makes ‘The Longest Yard’ is the film’s supporting cast. The Artful Dodger role of Caretaker, played charismatically by James Hampton, the veteran ball player who has somehow wandered off track Nate Scarborough (Michael Conrad), freaks like the giant Samson (Richard ‘Jaws’ Kiel) and the psychotic karate expert Connie Shokner (Robert Tessier), reprised by Jason Statham in the Vinnie Jones version ‘Mean Machine’. Honourable mentions must also go to the curiously attractive Miss Toot played by Bernadette Peters and the slimy, creepy prison rat Unger (Charles Tyner).

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The film tackles the issue of race in an up front fashion. Crewe gets chained to an old black guy called Granville when the prisoners are out digging in the sweltering heat. When approached to play for the prison team most of the black prisoners don’t want anything to do with the game, but Granville chooses to play because of his love of the game, a game which has broken down racial boundaries in America. When Granville is victimized by two guards in the library, several black prisoners decide to join the team.

The big game itself is wonderfully entertaining, as the prison team are backed by a singing group of transvestites who model themselves on The Supremes, and some very manly looking cheerleaders. The guard’s most dangerous player is Bogdanski, played by Green Bay Packers linebacker Ray Nitschke. The teams go at it hammer and tongs, and after the first half only two points separate them. The second half is incredibly tense as Warden Hazen makes a deal with Crewe to throw the game. I’m not going to say what happens next, but you can probably guess.

‘The Longest Yard’ is one of my favourite sports films because it is pure escapism, and captures the feeling a sports fan gets when they are witnessing something truly out of the ordinary. A feeling you get after watching an FA Cup giant killing, the improbably occurrence, the miracle plays; although sometimes this feeling doesn’t translate from real live sports events to the silver screen, ‘The Longest Yard’ managed to get it right.

– RJW
8/10

The Longest Yard on IMDB