Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009)

The “Universal Soldier” franchise is a rare thing indeed – a series where the straight-to-video sequels are vastly superior to the cinema-released original (let’s forget the two made-for-TV ones in the late 90s, and also 1999’s “The Return”, which is ignored by this movie anyway despite being sort of alright). John Hyams, who got his start with an MMA documentary called “The Smashing Machine”, and whose Dad Peter worked with Jean-Claude Van Damme several times, was chosen to direct.

From the very beginning, you know you’re in the hands of a group of people who saw an opportunity to make a calling card for the rest of the film world, not just turn a quick buck or put “something” on the screen. While I’m surprised we don’t see more people like Hyams, I’m glad he did his thing here (even if the career it mostly led to is one sequel to this, and then directing episodes of “Z-Nation”). That beginning is a kidnapping, shootout and a chase through the cold-looking streets of the Ukraine – well, Sofia, Bulgaria, where all these movies are made, but it’s less egregious than pretending it’s LA – where a balaclava’ed group of soldiers grab two teenagers and fight off hundreds of cops to get to a helicopter and escape. It’s well shot! And exciting! And it looks real! Apart from the main soldier taking multiple bullets and not even being slowed down, that is!

That guy is NGU, the new generation of UniSol, created by Dr Robert Colin (Kerry Shale, who in appearance and career reminds one of a slightly low-rent Wallace Shawn). NGU is played by Andrei Arlovski, current (as of mid 2017) UFC fighter; he’s a perfect choice, having a great look, not being required to act, but being required to kick a ton of ass. When he comes back from this mission, they even bother to give us an explanation of how they create the UniSols! It only took them 17 years! It’s to do with messing with the pituitary gland, altering DNA, tons of super-vitamins, along with a healthy dose of brainwashing, and it sort of makes sense – that they bothered at all is to be commended. Colin worked for the USA but absconded with the only working UniSol and is now selling his services to the highest bidder.

So, it’s a group of Ukrainian terrorists wanting the President to release a whole load of their friends; to this end, they’ve wired up Chernobyl to blow again, and are holding the President’s children hostage in an authentically dilapidated-looking industrial building of some sort. The US want their technology back, and to prevent environmental catastrophe, so they send in the few remaining first-generation UniSols they have left. It does not work out well for them.

There’s a lot of plot in this movie, which I don’t just want to recap because that would be dull. JCVD is there, and he’s in a special program to rehabilitate UniSols, led by Doctor Sandra Flemming (Emily Joyce, best known to British audiences as the co-star of sitcom “My Hero”). He’s the best of the lot, of course (I do love a good “ultimate badass” speech), but how will he cope with being asked to go back into the field? Well, asked is a strong word. Abducted in the middle of the night, strapped to a table and injected with UniSol drugs, is a better term for it. I’ve not even mentioned the guy who’s sort of the hero of the piece! Mike Pyle, also a UFC fighter, plays soldier Capt Kevin Burke, and he’s tasked with a bit of sneaky recon and potential rescue, hopefully avoiding NGU and any of the terrorists. But then there’s what happens when a group of bad guys in a movie actually get what they want, something that happens so rarely to be worth mentioning on its own, and just who’s inside that mysterious covered crate that Dr Colin is keeping as “insurance”. Okay, it’s Dolph Lundgren, who’s on the cover of the DVD. But it’s a good reveal.

I feel like I’m skating over stuff, but there’s a heck of a lot of it to cover, which is absolutely delightful for a movie such as this, where you can normally sum up every aspect of the plot on half a beer coaster. If anything, it’s perhaps over-stuffed, where Pyle (despite being a totally good actor, he’s done basically nothing other than this) is in it perhaps even a little less than JCVD, whose credit is an “and…” at the end of the opening credits.

I love what they’ve done with the UniSols in this. NGU doesn’t malfunction – that’s the job of our favourite psychopath (who, yes, was ground up in a mulcher at the end of the first movie, but he’s been cloned here or something) – but he represents the legions of faceless soldiers who get sent to die in far-off places by governments who don’t care about them. The party line is that they’d rather use the dead to fight their battles, but you know they’ll turn them on civilians as soon as they have to. They can also be seen as cast-offs, designed for the Cold War but utterly useless in the drone-dominated war zone of today; perhaps the only reason a Ukrainian terrorist can afford them.

JCVD and Lundgren both have great faces for action like this – there’s the real sense that they’ve done some hard living and fighting before getting to this point, and they’re roles that wouldn’t work (and, indeed, didn’t) when they had younger men playing them. The pain of what their lives are like are written into every scene, and it’s a top-3 all time performance for both of them. Dolph even gets a gibberish speech near the end to match his speech from part 1, which is a nice touch. This is a movie made by people who spent time thinking about what their world would be like, but still made sure it was packed with really good fight scenes and gun battles and exciting stunts. For part 5 of the franchise to be comfortably better than part 1 is an extreme rarity…in fact, I can’t think of any others.

Hopefully you’ve already decided to go and watch this. It’s much much better than any fifth part of a series about zombie soldiers has any right to be.

Rating: thumbs up

Universal Soldier: The Return (1999)

JCVD is back! After dominating the 1990s straight-to-video (and occasionally cinema) low-budget action market, making an appearance on “Friends” – he was pretty funny, if you’ve not seen it – and weathering the storm of multiple lawsuits based on his behaviour on set, he was tempted back to the “Universal Soldier” franchise, to that point in his career the highest-budget movie he’d ever been involved with.

I should have taken my own 2012 advice and ignored the two made-for-TV sequels, as they were miserable and boring (with the slight exception of Jeff Wincott’s appearance in both) and felt like watching double episodes of a particularly boring TV series. It seems that director Mic Rodgers (a stuntman making his sole directorial appearance) and writers William Malone and John Fasano (who’ve both directed cool B-movies – “House on Haunted Hill” and “Black Roses”, respectively) agreed with me, because this is packed with action and incident from beginning to end.

Luc Devereaux is, it turns out, not a UniSol any more, having had the process reversed by Dr Dylan Cotner (the great Xander Berkeley); but he’s still involved with the program in some unspecified capacity, taking part in wargames to train the new generation of zombie soldiers, getting involved in budget meetings with the visiting General (the equally great Daniel Von Bargen) and being the only member of staff allowed to bring his daughter to work. This is to show how nice and benevolent the super-computer, SETH, they’ve designed is – when you listen to SETH act as teacher to his daughter, you might be all “hey, that’s Michael Jai White’s voice, I presume he’ll pop up to kick ass at some point”, and you’d be right.

Bill Goldberg, at the time one of the two or three most famous wrestlers in the world, is Romeo, the biggest and evilest of the UniSols; Heidi Schanz, who looks like a soccer-mom Traci Lords, is Erin the news reporter (this was probably due to the original news reporter from part 1, Ally Walker, being unavailable to reprise her role and the producers just re-using the plotline); and Brent Hinkley, the creepy-looking “That Guy” actor, is Squid, a hacker / former staffer on the program who was kicked out for being too weird even for a program whose sole purpose is to take dead soldiers and turn them into zombie killing machines.

This was, amazingly, made the same year as “The Matrix” – while that movie looked forward and still feels modern today, this looks backwards, to a certain Space Odyssey and its malfunctioning super-computer HAL, but is really just a typical 90s ass-kicking B-movie wearing a fancy jacket. On learning that the program is going to be shut down due to budget cuts / ethical concerns, SETH immediately goes crazy, removing the inhibitor chip (called “Matrix”, coincidentally enough) from all the UniSols, creating a bunch of new ones from the staff of the base, and preparing…it’s never really made super-clear, but there’s some world domination in there, one would think. Squid is required to hack the kill-switch code which will trigger automatically in 8 hours, because of course Devereaux is the only person who has it, requiring him to be kept alive. The text-interface between SETH and Squid is hilariously basic, just words appearing on a blank screen, but there’s also SETH’s voice, I guess in case people didn’t feel like reading?

The army swings into action, and there’s a fantastic scene where four UniSols march out of the base towards the assembled troops and just mow them down, their zombie nature and experimental armour (which contains a built-in fire extinguisher, we discover later) keeping them relatively safe. It’s a lovely example of just how powerful these guys are in a movie series which has been very coy about showing the UniSols do much of anything.

UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: THE RETURN. (l to r): Jean-Claude Van Damme & Heidi Schantz. 1999.

I guess at one point the entire movie was set inside the base, “Die Hard” style, but they expanded things due to more budget or something, giving us an extremely unnecessary scene in a strip club (where Devereaux and Erin go in order to use their internet and do some hacking – the justification of that being a likely place to have the internet is pretty funny). Erin gets hit on by one of the strippers and only acts slightly repulsed, one of the few signs this isn’t a much older movie; Devereaux kicks some ass and ogles some boobs, the usual.

“The only way is to blow them up…and hope the pieces don’t keep fighting us”. In its way, a brilliant line, and although precious few UniSols get blown up, there’s still a ton of good stuff going on as Devereaux fights his way through the base to get to his daughter, who’s obviously been kidnapped. SETH figures out a way to miniaturise his brain and transplant it into super-soldier corpse Michael Jai White, and even though the final fight belongs to Goldberg (presumably some contractual thing, as it makes no sense whatsoever) White shows why he was an action superstar in the making – we’ll be covering his “Blood and Bone” and the “Undisputed” series soon. I’ll say one thing for Van Damme – he’s pretty good at picking his opponents. I’m basing this on him hiring his childhood friend Michel Qissi as the villain for the “Kickboxer” movies, so I guess he has a hand in casting; he understands that he only looks good if the guy fighting him looks good too. This series alone has had him scrapping with Dolph Lundren, White, and (in the last movie) Scott Adkins, who’s one of the best action-movie stars of recent years.

So, it’s packed with good actors, good action and plenty of incident. I feel like the script could have done with a few more run-throughs, but I realise this is a Van Damme movie and he’d have probably demanded the silly changes anyway. It feels old-fashioned, but that’s not always a bad thing – it’s just a very solid, if stupid, action movie.

It was actually released to cinemas, surprising for a series which just the year before had been a failed TV pilot; but it was an absolute disaster, barely recouping a quarter of its budget. I feel like, if you’re going to have a scene where your super-computer villain programs a hand flipping you off to appear on a screen, you ought to stick to the budget level and straight-to-video outlets you’re more comfortable with.

Rating: thumbs in the middle

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

Universal Soldier (1992)

Do anything long enough, and there’s a chance you’ll become the thing you despised when you started. In an early review, I mentioned the two STV sequels to “Universal Soldier”, and that I’d never seen them – anyway, life was too short to watch such movies. And here we are, five years later, and I’m about to watch the series from the beginning, including the STV sequels. Ah well, I’d have only wasted the time anyway.

The super-soldier genre is pretty durable, I guess because if you want to make a movie starring a “proper” fighter, having them a robot is a simple solution to the lack of acting ability thing. We’ve covered plenty of them, from “TC-2000” to “Digital Man” to the “Nemesis” movies; but there are so many more out there. “Universal Soldier” can be seen as an early stage towards the Cannon-isation of cinema, where even the big companies are making trashy B-movie style product?

During the first scene, set during the Vietnam war, you can feel free to ponder what Army would employ the Swedish Dolph Lundgren and the Belgian Jean-Claude Van Damme (although they pretend that Van Damme is American, from Cajun country). Luc Devereaux (JCVD) is a moral fellow, but Andrew Scott (Lundgren) has gone full Kurtz, slaughtering innocent people and making a necklace out of the ears he hacked off them. They come to blows, obviously, and in the ensuing mega-fracas kill each other.

A curious beginning for the two stars, but the guys cleaning up the slaughter put them on ice because, apparently, they’re good candidates for the UniSol program (there’s a lovely moment as we see their faces, being zipped up into body bags, as their names pop up on screen for the beginning of the credits). Propelling forward to the present day, a group of emotionless but super-powerful soldiers, including GR-44 (JCVD) and GR-13 (Lundgren), are being sent in to take Hoover Dam back from a group of terrorists.

It’s at this point you remember that this isn’t your average trashy B-movie, but a real genuine Roland Emmerich blow-out. Two years after making this, we’d get “Stargate”, then “Independence Day”, and a steady stream of big-budget disaster movies. Okay, he probably doesn’t put this on his highlight reel, but it’s very much of his style – very slick, lots of explosions, nothing too complicated in terms of character motivation.

Throw in Veronica, a reporter who definitely doesn’t play by the rules (Ally Walker, best known for lots of TV work down the years), to give GR-44 someone to save and break his programming for, and you’ve got yourself a movie. The two of them go on the run, and the rest of the UniSols are tasked with bringing him back. They’re a curious team – the story is all about him trying to remember who he is and go home; but she has to do most of the acting while having zero arc of her own.

It’s Dolph who’s the superstar of proceedings, though. In action-movie terms, he’s a great actor and as his programming starts to fail, too, and his psychopathic self comes to the fore, he has a great time. There’s a speech in a supermarket which is basically gibberish but he gives it his all! He’s like the worst of both worlds – all the ignoring innocent life of a poorly programmed robot, and all the cruelty of a poorly programmed human being.

There are some great scenes, like the supermarket, and there’s a cracker inside a diner too, and the scene where the cops are revealed at the bus station is one of those lovely bits of business that your average low-budget movie just wouldn’t bother to do. So, it’s rarely boring, and the plot cracks along. There’s also plenty of “That Guy” spotting, with Ralf Moeller and Tom “Tiny” Lister as other UniSols, Robert Trebor (“Hercules: The Legendary Journeys”) as a motel owner / comic relief, and Michael Jai White in a tiny scene near the beginning – I only noticed him in the credits.

But there’s a problem, and it’s a logic one, which may not be apparent on first viewng (you’ll be checking out the explosions and manly fighting). The supersoldiers break their programming pretty much immediately, and there’s like ten of them (although if you go by their serial numbers, even more than that). Maybe try one out first, stress-test him, see how that goes? But as soon as their first mission is done, JCVD is out the door at the first sight of a pretty face, and Dolph isn’t far behind. They seem to have no problem remembering their past lives too, so it’s a bit on the confusing side. Plus, they need to be kept on ice when they’re not on a mission, or they malfunction; and it doesn’t appear like they have metal skin or any ability to soak up damage (they are pretty strong, though).

It’s a bit daft, but it’s fun to look at. In the grand tradition of sequels to big-budget genre movies, though, all the sequels are dirt cheap and I presume we’ll not have the best time watching them. Well, up to “Regeneration” and “Day Of Reckoning”, which we loved.

Rating: thumbs up

No Retreat, No Surrender (1986)

noretreatnosurrenderusf

This is an almost certainly deliberately misleading poster. If you could look at that, and tell me correctly what the film’s actually about, I’m afraid I’d be accusing you of being a witch (or just cheating). Seriously, glance up, then come up with your best three guesses what “No Retreat, No Surrender” is about.

If you said “it’s sort of like The Karate Kid, only with a Russian in place of the blonde kid at the end, the Mafia in place of Cobra Kai, and the ghost of Bruce Lee in place of Mr. Miyagi” then give yourself a shiny prize. I’d have perhaps liked it more (or just avoided it altogether) if I’d known what it actually was, but there’s some strange delights to be had anyway.

The mafia want some guy’s dojo in Los Angeles, but he’s not interested in giving it up, so JCVD (The Russian) kicks his ass and permanently injures his leg. Then, the trainer and his son move to Seattle in a segment that feels like it was edited wrong, and the son (Jason) makes a new friend (RJ, played by a chap with the unfortunate name JW Fails). Jason, a Bruce Lee obsessive, goes to visit his grave, which is in Seattle, and the movie uses Lee’s real actual grave to film at.

Jason goes to train with the local dojo, but they’re all assholes so he retreats to his garage, where eventually the spirit of Bruce Lee emerges from a poster and trains him in jeet kune do. In a parallel storyline, rather implausibly, the mafia show up wanting to take over Seattle’s dojo as well, and it all comes down to a big team vs. team fight in a local high school gym, which Jason isn’t really supposed to be involved in.

600full-no-retreat-no-surrender-screenshotjpg

JCVD had some problems on this. He twice knocked out the guy he was fighting at the end, for real, and injured Jason’s dad while filming their scene. If you’ve read our “Cyborg” review, you’ll know about the court case that was filed against him for stabbing someone in the eye – well, the two guys he injured in this movie appeared as character witnesses against him in that trial. Given this was his first role of any significance, I’m sort of surprised he became such a big star.

Leaving JCVD aside, I imagine this must have had some huge problems in filming. None of it feels like it fits together – there’s a load of neighbourhood hijinks with Jason and RJ versus the local ruffians…but then they’re all part of the local dojo and we’re supposed to cheer them on at the end when they fight the mafia guys? The family has a mother who’s not seen on screen til 1:05, and then only gets one brief scene before the movie forgets her again. The whole romance subplot seems tacked on too, as if they knew they needed to humanise the weirdo who was being trained by a ghost. According to the writer, he would do major rewrites every night, which helps to explain how it all feels a little disjointed.

All this is even more surprising when you know who the director is – Corey Yuen, who was a friend and contemporary of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao from childhood; his first movie as director was “Ninja In The Dragon’s Den”, which I loved, and he’s done “Dragons Forever”, “The Transporter”, “DOA – Dead Or Alive” and six movies with Jet Li. This was his first movie in the USA, and perhaps that caused issues, because it does not feel like the work of an expert like him – as an example, it has maybe the longest boom-in-shot sequence in movie history.

noretreatnosurrender

What’s weirdest, though, is how much the fighting sucks. There’s no tactics on display, just show-off martial arts like big roundhouses and suchlike that just wouldn’t work in an organised bout. If there’s two things I’m grateful towards UFC for, it’s for forever destroying the mystical air surrounding Eastern martial arts, and for showing what actually works in a fight. This looked silly at the time, I presume, but looks incredibly silly now.

Unless you’re a JCVD obsessive, just watch “The Karate Kid” instead. Or a better JCVD movie (there are a lot of them). This is pretty much just a mess. Although it does appeal to me, having four sequels, none of which have anything to do with this, and the last two not even being part of the series, just having their names changed after filming was completed.

Rating: thumbs down

PS – both main characters retreat and surrender several times.

Double Impact (1991)

A70-1832

I think this is how the pitch meeting went.

JCVD: I have an idea for a new action movie, where I play twins.
Producer: Okay! How are you going to tell them apart?
JCVD: Well, one of them has terrible dress sense, and the other is a violently misogynist homophobe!
Producer: Here’s a blank cheque!

JCVD plays Chad and Alex, twins separated in infancy, thanks to their father being double-crossed by his business partners in building a tunnel from Hong Kong to the mainland. Chad is taken to an orphanage, eventually becoming a low-level smuggler, and Alex is kept by Frank, his Dad’s old head of security and taken round the world, eventually settling somewhere in the USA, probably, where they run a combined aerobics / karate school. Luckily, both brothers have identical accents and are equally badass at martial arts. Wait, what? Ah, never mind, let’s get to the good stuff.

Chad, in his line of work, gets to meet his Dad’s old friends, who are now into big-league drug running. But Frank turns up with Alex, the two brothers rescue each other a few times, and they decide to work together to take down the drug operation and get back their rights to the tunnel and all the money it earns.

double_impact4

Writer / director Sheldon Lettich had worked with JCVD before, on “Bloodsport”, and that formed a friendship that went on til at least 2006 (Lettich hasn’t really worked since then). This is their second film as director and star, after “Lionheart”,which sounds pretty awesome too, and that relationship helps JCVD, whose strengths are played to throughout. I worry about making too much of this, but he can act! Kind of! We have visual cues to which brother we’re watching at all times, but he does make an effort. He’s also credited as a co-writer.

The fights are really well staged too. When the two brothers fight each other, the angles are all done well and there’s no real moment where one guy is in an unnatural position because it’s JCVD’s stunt double. The firefights aren’t quite so strong, as no-one seems to be able to shoot worth a damn unless it’s plot-relevant, but none of it is bad.

We’ve got strong fights, a director who knows the best way to use his star, great locations (it looks like Hong Kong just closed off streets for them whenever they asked) and a really strong plot. Yes, really strong – their attempts to take down the criminal enterprise are handled well, with Alex’s girlfriend Danielle on the inside working for the evil land development company providing tension. It’s a real action thriller film rather than just a bunch of fights strung together.

Double-Impact-2

The rest of the cast is loaded with good people. Bolo Yeung is the main henchman, and is great as always, but though he was around when they were infants, he appears to have not aged a day in 25 years. At least give him a bit of grey hair, you guys! Plus, fans of horror cinema might be interested in a very brief cameo from Julie Strain as a martial arts student, from around the same time she was a Penthouse Pet, right at the very beginning of her career.

But as I mentioned above, there’s some serious problems. Alex calls Chad “faggot” on multiple occasions, and when Chad has to rush off to save Danielle without Alex, he gets drunk, waits for them to get back then hits her, pretty hard. Does he apologise or show any growth before she rushes back into his arms at the end? No, he just saves the day and, as we know, women are prizes to awarded for competence, not people with their own thoughts, feelings or agency.

Provided you’re prepared to talk to any impressionable viewers of this about the occasionally rotten attitudes, you’ll really enjoy this. It looks great, moves along quickly, has loads of action and also shows you just how insanely packed with people Hong Kong was at the time – it’s always fun to see how much access film crews used to be able to get to stuff before landowners realised they could charge them for everything they did.

Rating: thumbs up

Bloodsport (1988)

bloodsport-van-damme

Frank Dux is a lucky man. In an era like today, when fact-checking is almost instant, his rather wild life story would have been pulled apart in seconds; yet, growing up when he did, he was able to become a successful martial arts trainer, friend of celebs and bestselling author.

To quickly break it down – he almost certainly never fought in the kumite (the secret underground fighting tournament), as the address he gave for the organisation was his own home. The trophy he claims to have won was just bought at a local trophy store, as a reporter found the receipt. He almost certainly never trained with the famous ninjitsu master he claimed. His prior military service can’t be verified. Add that to the list of kumite records (a tournament there’s no evidence for the existence of outside Dux’s book) displayed at the end of the film that Dux apparently still holds, and you’ve got an impressive amount of lying.

But who cares? Jean Claude Van Damme is kicking ass! There’s a moderately confusing first ten minutes where he jumps forward and backward in time (the only clue is the hair), a jumble of scenes where he breaks into Master Tanaka’s house, gets his ass kicked by Tanaka’s son then becomes friends with him, gets trained by Tanaka himself, joins the army then comes back to see the dying Tanaka before heading off to Hong Kong for the kumite. This whole bit feels really weirdly edited – Tanaka’s son dies off screen, for reasons never stated, and did Tanaka win the kumite himself as a young man?

Bloodsport720p04763222-30-19

The film is basically one big fighting competition with a few little scenes dotted around. Forest Whitaker, already a pretty famous actor by this point, must have fancied a few weeks holiday in the Far East, as he plays one of the two CIA agents tasked with taking Dux home – the only reason being is he’s so amazingly awesome a soldier, they can’t afford him dying in this tournament. Bit flimsy, eh? Then there’s a sexy reporter who wants to get the scoop on the kumite; the great Donald Gibb (“Ogre” from the Revenge of the Nerds movies) as another American competitor; a lot of funny little turns from “locals”, and Bolo Yeung, well-known to anyone who’s seen a martial arts movie, as Chong Li, the no.1 fighter in the kumite.

For most of the first 30 minutes, my wife was insisting we’d seen this before, fairly recently, but the problem was it’s just really similar to a lot of other movies. The montage! The insanely strong villain! The wacky best friend! The love interest! This film does manage to separate itself from the pack by having a healthy dose of racism in it – among a few other references, primarily it’s the chief black fighter doing an impression of a monkey (I guess he’s trying to do monkey style kung fu, but it looks nothing like that). Add a little sprinkling of sexism in there – the reporter is absolutely useless – and you’ve got yourself a 1980s martial arts movie.

bloodsport_ray_jackson

This all sounds like I hated it, and nothing could be further from the truth. It’s so much fun! JCVD is having the time of his life, most notably in a scene where he evades the CIA agents in a chase through Hong Kong. He’s ripped in this movie like he never was before or since, too, and the camera loves him. The fighting is fun, the styles of the characters does tell sort of a story (when they can be bothered) and the ending is nice and satisfying. I did wonder why Chong Li, a man who’s killed several people in the kumite and cheated in the end, was so popular, but thinking that much about this awesome display of ass-kicking is a fool’s errand.

Rating: thumbs up

Cyborg (1989)

Cyborgposter

Those of you who love JCVD and his great run of early movies probably don’t even know why this one is sort-of forgotten, the one that you either think sucks, or just avoid whenever you’re in the mood for a movie. Luckily, you have me to help, and the reason you all hate this film is Albert Pyun.

Pyun has made at least two almost-tolerable movies (the first “Nemesis” and “Dollman”) but his list of true garbage is a mile long, starting with the “Nemesis” sequels and extending far in every direction. This is the first in a Cyborg trilogy from Pyun, but they aren’t the actual sequels – “Cyborg 2”, nothing to do with him, is Angelina Jolie’s first starring role, and there’s a 3 as well (Pyun’s two “sequels” are “Knights” and “Omega Doom”). I hope this confuses you and irritates you a little, because it will recreate the feeling of watching this movie. Pyun proves my thesis that most directors aren’t making films because they’re good at it, or have anything to say, they can just hustle well, or they’re friends with a rich person.

Hey, movie, when are you set?

cyborg

So, we’re in your standard post-apocalypse situation, with the addition of the “living death”, a virus which is never really shown happening to anyone. The remnants of the CDC want to stop it, so they send their best agent to go and get some important information from New York, but they convert her into a cyborg before she goes so she can store the information, or whatever. Anyway, her escort dies, an evil gang who want to control the vaccine are after her, so she has to go and get help from a “slinger”, like a bounty hunter or something (JCVD, character name Gibson Rickenbacker, is the only one we ever see).

But she doesn’t really get help from him, and that’s where the weirdness of this film starts. He keeps getting his ass kicked, so she sort of decides it would be easier to travel with the gang to Atlanta and the CDC then fight them there; JCVD then meets up with an entirely different woman, who ran away from the same gang in an earlier fight but is now prepared to risk her life to help, and spends most of the movie travelling with her. Plus, flashbacks to some time he helped a woman, fell in love with her and stopped the slinging lifestyle for a while.

The one thing JCVD is really good at is fighting. So, if you’re going to have him in a film with a lot of fighting in it, you might reasonably expect his parts to be decent. Aside from a few cool moments here and there, though, he fights like a punch-drunk old boxer, just standing there and taking blows from his opponent, occasionally dishing one out in return (like I said, he gets his ass kicked a lot in this movie). It’s really surprisingly boring, and there’s a lot of it.

FLASHBACK WIG

FLASHBACK WIG

Main baddie Fender Tremolo (I have no idea why most of the characters in this are named after guitars, and I can’t be bothered to check) has weird bright-coloured eyes, and reveals them a lot from behind sunglasses – however, after like the third time, I began to wonder why they kept expecting us to be surprised. Or maybe we might think his eyes changed colours? Ah, who cares? JCVD is literally nailed to a cross at one point, but because he’s quite clearly better than Jesus, manages to break it and get himself down. The exact same flashback footage is used twice within about 5 minutes, making me think the movie had lapped itself.

So it’s bad and boring and stupid, and really slow, is what I’m getting at. Two final, related examples of how strange this movie is – when JCVD has his big emotional moment at the end, it’s not with the cyborg woman, nor is it with the woman he’s spent most of the movie with, it’s with an entirely different third woman (the young girl from his flashbacks, all grown up and in the baddie’s gang). And talking of the titular female, you’d think a movie called “Cyborg” would have the actual cyborg be front-and-centre, right? Wrong. She’s fifth-billed and is barely in it, which would be like changing the title of “Candyman” to “The Woman Who Lives Down The Hall From The Heroine Movie”.

maxresdefault

Some of this film’s problems can actually be explained though. Cannon Films had lost a boatload of money on deals for “Masters of the Universe” and “Spider-Man” movies that had fallen through, so Pyun, who was going to direct both films simultaneously (!) knocked up a plot for “Cyborg” in a weekend, got “less than $500,000” and filmed it in 23 days. While great films have been made in less time and for less money, not many of them have been post-apocalyptic sci-fi movies; to add injury to insult, one of the actors lost an eye thanks to JCVD stabbing him with a prop knife accidentally, sued and won $485,000.

Sadly, “Cyborg” commits the unforgivable crime of being boring, and it really shouldn’t be. The “stupid” and “sort of pointless” crimes are just corollary.

Rating: thumbs down