Review 1,000!!! Timecop (1994)

Thank you, dear reader, for sticking with me through 1,000 reviews. I presume none of you have been foolish enough to read them all, but if I’ve provided some entertainment or given some recommendations while indulging in something I’d happily do for my own amusement (watch and think about old movies) then I’m satisfied.

I write this as the Oscar nominations have just been announced, and I had something of a revelation while looking at the list. Apart from “Get Out”, which is a work of genius, I don’t really have much interest in the sort of thing which gets nominated for Oscars, gets whatever serious column inches remain, and so on. While I’m sure they’re…fine? (apart from “Darkest Hour”, Churchill was a monster and any historical movie which does not say that isn’t worth engaging with), they’re just not for me. Or, one would assume, you – hypothetical reader of a thousand reviews of slasher movies, SyFy Channel originals, kung fu classics and baffling so-bad-they’re-good-uns.

I’ve tried to bring my personal political views (socialist, feminist, anti-war) to bear on most of the reviews I’ve written. It’s fine, I think, to enjoy works of entertainment while not subscribing to their occasionally neanderthal views, and in fact having an honest critical relationship with them – cast your mind back to the movies of Jackie Chan, which are disgusting in their treatment of women while at the same time being fun action-packed romps. Or, any movie from the 80s and their treatment of non-whites and non-straights. I try and fight for a world where we won’t even think of making stuff like the ISCFC reviews, ever again.

Which is a strange introduction to review 1000, a movie I’m certain I’ve seen before but didn’t remember anything about. Jean-Claude Van Damme is on my mind at the moment, with his superb (if unfortunately cancelled) show “Jean-Claude Van Johnson” currently on Netflix, and I recently showed “JCVD” to my wife. She was legitimately amazed, as was I (again), and it was a real disappointment he didn’t keep moving down that path into meatier roles in bigger-budget movies. Still, the mainstream’s loss is our gain…and that doesn’t really apply here as “Timecop” was made long before all that, while he was still in the middle of his first flush of almost-A-list fame.

There’s a really decent cold open, which also immediately lets us know it was filmed in Canada, with local talent. It’s 1863, and a solitary stranger holds up a Confederate transport carrying gold; when they refuse to hand over the money, he pulls out a future-pistol and kills em all. The stranger? Callum Keith Rennie (“Twitch City”, “Due South”, and the greatest one-season guest star of all time in “Californication”); and the soldier? Ian Allinson, whose credit list is every bit as long and varied. But we never see either of them again, as we’re taken to the present, where we see Senator McComb (Ron Silver, a superb villain) almost visibly get aroused when asked to be on a committee overseeing the Time Enforcement Commission, created to police the newly invented crime-opportunity that is time travel.

JCVD is Walker, happily married to Melissa (Mia Sara), and she’s murdered by a posse of people with the most ludicrous mullets imaginable, just as he’s ready to start his new job as a TEC Agent. Flash forward to 2004! I know you kind-of have to make the future fairly close to the present when you’re dealing with the same actors, but I can’t believe they expected us all to be driving round in weird white plastic car-looking things, firing sci-fi guns, in only ten years. Anyway, we get a flavour of the world of stories you could tell with this premise as Agent Walker goes back to the Depression to stop a guy from the future making a killing on the Stock Exchange.

The story starts quickly and flows really well from there, I think – as Senator McComb is very obviously the villain from the very beginning, but it’s all about trying to work out what his plan is and how he’s trying to do it. All the while, JCVD is fighting off assassination attempts in both present and past, trying to keep the world together.

There is, of course, no attempt made to deal with the mound of paradoxes inherent in time travel. First and foremost, the TEC has no interest, seemingly, when agents come back from the past and something has very obviously changed – or perhaps they did once but someone went back and changed it? Argh! But yes, an agency that dealt with time travel would care, a little bit, about what happened to their returning agents. They have a device that registers “time ripples”, and that’s good enough for them and me.

What’s perhaps most interesting to our 2018 eyes is how closely this movie predicted the rise of Donald Trump. While Senator McComb is a relatively normal human, and not a bag of garbage like the thing currently sat in the White House, he’s aware that the person with the most money to spend always wins elections, and is solely interested in power for its own sake, with no sense of what he wants to do when he gets there. One line goes “I just need money, not the truth” and it could almost have emerged from the mouth of 45.

The fights are excellent, JCVD does the splits (twice), the ending is pleasant and satisfying if a little odd (wouldn’t someone have made a note of the day he was due back from his last assignment and prepared more of a reception for him? Like, “here’s all the stuff you missed in the last decade, thanks for saving us even if we don’t really understand what went on” or something like that.

Did you know this was based on a comic, and the people who wrote the comic also had a hand in the script? Well, I presume JCVD also influenced a few things, as he never struck me as a man who was shy about putting his view forward. Seriously, how did he ever become a star, given how many people he pissed off on the way up? Oh, and direction was classier than normal for a JCVD movie of the era, being handled by Peter Hyams (“2010”, “Running Scared”, and “The Star Chamber”, among many others).

It’s a lot of fun, and that’s really what we’re interested in, I hope. There’s a superb villain, a modicum of chemistry between the two leads, interesting subplots, and not a single thing to trouble you 24 hours after watching it. Okay, there’s a rather gratuitous and unnecessary full-frontal shot of a porn actress (presumably) slapped in halfway through, but chop that three seconds out and you can even pretend it doesn’t exploit its female cast!

Thank you, again, for reading along with me. Please make time in your lives to do something you enjoy, even if the level of creativity just extends to mocking old movies. I love you, dear reader. Let’s do another thousand.

Rating: thumbs up

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Kickboxer: Retaliation (2018)

After a franchise resurrecting movie which didn’t have the action, the humour or the technical chops to be enjoyable enough, we have a sequel which, despite a lower budget, fewer stars and a writer/director I’d never heard of, manages to be vastly more entertaining. All those little things that fell flat in “Kickboxer: Vengeance” work exactly as they’re supposed to here.

The theme of this movie is, if you’re really good at martial arts, you can predict the future. Well, there’s other stuff to it, but you’ll definitely turn it off with that impression. Kurt Sloane (Alan Moussi) and his wife Liu (Sara Malakul Lane) are on a train going through the mountains, and their dance number is interrupted by a bunch of bad hombres who want to kidnap her and kill him. A few well-places kicks and a fight on top of a train later, and…it was all a dream! But, despite him never meeting these people before, a whole bunch of them turn up as the villain’s goons in the last third, and Kurt has that “where do I know you from?” face.

Kurt’s a UFC (or whatever off-brand cage-based fighting league they’re saying it is) fighter now, living his best life and making mincemeat out of his opponents. After getting kidnapped by a couple of fake cops one night, he finds himself in Thailand, in front of the fellow we presume is part 1’s unseen Mr Big, Thomas Moore (Christopher Lambert, who should have fired his agent around 1990, and now looks like the reanimated zombie version of himself). It’s a matter of honour that Kurt should give him a chance for a rematch, and is even prepared to pay him a million dollars for another fight to the death. If not, well, they’re fully prepared to throw him in a Thai jail for the murder of Tong Po in “Vengeance”…despite, one would imagine, that all having been cleaned up a while ago, what with his wife being a cop at the time and them not exactly leaving Thailand in a hurry.

But, you may not have seen “Vengeance”? So let’s not poke too many holes in the continuity, as continuity snobs are the worst – yes, I’m definitely one myself, but I’d go to Continuity Snobs Anonymous if I could.

Anyway, he gets thrown in jail, and the first thing he does is fight his way through the place in a brilliant fight scene which is all done in one continuous take. I mean, it’s not really, as you can see the cuts, and it’s a very long way from the frenetic pace of the modern classic of this mini-genre, Tony Jaa kicking an entire hotel’s ass in “The Protector”; but they’re trying! It’s easily better than any individual scene in “Vengeance”.

So, he hangs out in prison, not breaking as Mr Moore throws everything he can at Kurt to get him to submit, including regular whippings. Eventually, Kurt discovers a little gang of friends inside the jail, including his old trainer Master Durand – a welcome return for Jean-Claude Van Damme – who was blinded after the events of part 1 for his role in the murder of Tong Po; a footballer, played by real-life Brazilian footie legend and far-right lunatic Ronaldinho; and Briggs, a boxer, played by Mike Tyson. The scene where Kurt meets Briggs is hilarious, because you can imagine the negotiations that went on behind the scenes to get Tyson to appear – even though Kurt is supposedly one of the world’s best martial artists, the 51 year old Tyson has to win the fight and do cool stuff like punch straight through walls and so on. There are also a boatload of appearances from UFC guys like Wanderlei Silva and Shogun Rua playing pretty much themselves.

As well as learning to box, he gets some wisdom from Durand. Now he’s blind (sort of a reference to his other beloved 80s franchise “Bloodsport”), his other senses are heightened, which results in him being able to “see” where a blow will land before it’s even thrown (not sure what sense this is, but whatever, it’s not played seriously anyway). Both these new skills are shown to us in that favourite of all scenes, the training montage! I love a training montage! Oh, and he can even “see” fights he’s not involved in due to sensing the air, or something. I have no idea, but it’s wonderful.

The guy he’s got to fight is Mongkut, played by none other than Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, former World’s Strongest Man contestant and currently The Mountain on “Game Of Thrones”. He’s genetically engineered like Dolph Lundgren in “Rocky 4”, for much the same purpose, even though you might wonder why a 6’8”, 400 lb beast of a man needs any more chemical help to beat up the 6’0”, 200 lb Kurt. The bit during the final fight, when Mongkut’s hipster trainer / technician just openly shoots him up with high-grade pharmaceuticals at ringside, is a hoot.

There are a few logic holes that, weirdly, just add to the camp charm of this gem of a movie. Even though Kurt is presumably a relatively famous martial artist back in the States, no-one seems to give a damn about getting him out of the jail where he was illegally kidnapped and taken to…apart from his wife, thank heavens. His American promoter doesn’t send over a group of tough dudes to bust him out, or anything! There’s also the way that in this almost entirely Thailand-set movie, none of the people we meet (apart from background extras and so on) is Thai. Hero and villain are both white Westerners, the villain’s boss is French, the main people in the jail are a black American, a Belgian and a Brazilian, the fight MC apparently has Asian, Hispanic, French and Native American ancestry….you’re about twenty people deep in the cast list before you get to anyone who’s actually from the country they’re traipsing through, and that person has the huge role of “Female Valet No.1”. One last bit of racial business – the chanting of “White Warrior” by the crowd during the final fight was problematic in “Vengeance” (although perhaps I’m missing something in translation) but its return here makes literally no sense as both competitors are white.

But please put any notion I didn’t enjoy this far from your mind. I loved it, and I think you will too. First up, the fights are very well shot, with the epic final confrontation even telling some of the story, and the action is fun and exciting. Kudos to director Dimitri Logothetis, who, if he’s known at all, is as a producer, not a writer / director (although he’s done all three). I imagine there’s an interesting story behind it all, or perhaps he just came into some money and bought into the relaunching franchise. Who knows? But he’s a great match for the material.

The script is over the top in all sorts of subtle ways, and it appears Moussi learned a lot about acting in the intervening years, as he’s able to deliver its ludicrous premise much better than he did before. I do like how some of the reviews of this complain about the silliness, as if a movie about an underground fight league where people are regularly murdered by a giant steroid freak should be serious business. Come on! What some people seem desperate to forget about the golden age of martial arts movies is that they were, by and large, silly as hell. That’s fine, of course, and you can still have tight action and good performances in a camp movie (which I believe “Retaliation” achieves).

Okay, before I leave you, I want to talk Bad Guy Economics, one of my favourite subjects. Moore puts his giant up against Kurt, and works hard to ensure Mongkut wins – including injecting him with steroids at ringside. Now, given Moore is in charge of the betting, who the hell is betting against the monster, especially after the first round when Kurt is virtually dead and Mongkut is entirely unharmed? No matter how short the odds, everyone would have been betting one way, so he’s definitely going to lose money, right? He really ought to be either telling Mongkut to go easy on him for a while, or to finish things off quickly, because the longer it goes on the worse his payday gets. Or, he should want Kurt to pull off the upset!

Rating: thumbs up

Hard Target 2 (2016)

A mere 23 years later, with none of the original cast or crew returning, Universal decided to give us a sequel to the Jean-Claude Van Damme gem “Hard Target”, one of the dozens and dozens of cinematic riffs on 1926 short story “The Most Dangerous Game”. I suppose the name recognition of the original being directed by John Woo was just enough to get them to not just make an entirely new film. Or someone offered them a job lot of doves and they had that thing where a lightbulb appears above their heads?

Anyway, replacing JCVD is the guy who he must have been grooming as his replacement, as they appeared in a heck of a lot of movies together, Scott Adkins. Adkins is superb, although he doesn’t have that unusual charisma, he’s JCVD’s equal as a screen fighter and clearly superior as an actor. We’ve covered him in “Eliminators”, the last “Universal Soldier” instalment, and “Ninja”, and will review more of his movies soon. Well, when we’ve completed all the other half-done review series, probably.

Adkins is MMA star Wes “The Jailor” Baylor (I was irritated a little straight off the bat, as it’s “jailer”, but I guess it’s to match his surname, even though it’s stupid), and as we first meet him he’s about to have a fight with Jonny Sutherland, who he appears to be hated enemies with. Later on, we learn that the two of them are best friends who are only fighting because the money is so good, but there’s no love lost between the two in the ring, as Jonny fights dirty and Wes really seems to dislike his wife. I kept expecting some sort of explanation as to why the two of them had fallen out, but no. Maybe left on the cutting room floor? (It is quite long, unacceptably so for an action B-movie like this).

Okay, at this point, halfway through the fight, if you’ve watched any movies before, you’ll be able to tell exactly where the plot is going. Wes will kill his friend and leave the world of MMA behind, and then a few months later, living in some dingy hovel somewhere, he’ll be offered the chance to be the prey in a human-hunting expedition led by some rich assholes. That all this happens and I’m relating this to you after watching it might make you think I’m making it up, but it’s not exactly my finest moment of future-prediction. He actually doesn’t leave fighting behind, just moving to Thailand and kicking ass in a variety of colourful yet low-rent locales; before he fights at a wealthy person’s party on a rooftop terrace and is noticed by Aldrich (Robert Knepper).

Ah, Robert Knepper. For when you want an even sleazier version of Lance Henriksen, he’s your man. He’s an extremely busy actor, and as well as the stuff that pays the rent (big TV roles, character work in A-list movies) he also loves doing cheesy stuff like this, chewing scenery in a variety of villainous roles. Thank you, Robert, for elevating a bad guy like Aldrich. His business model is bribing a general in the Myanmar army to let him use a patch of the jungle there as his hunting ground, and apparently tricking the occasional Western idiot into thinking he’s going there for a million dollar payday in a real fight.

Wes is thus tricked, and is forced to run with a colourful group of hunters in hot pursuit. As well as Aldrich and his sidekick Madden (the great Temuera Morrison), there’s Sofia, the daughter of a super-rich oil tycoon (Rhona Mitra, who was once within a hair’s breadth of proper movie fame but is now stuck in stuff like this), Esparto the bullfighter, a redneck father and son, and a video-game designer.

From then on, until the last five minutes, it becomes a people-walking-through-the-jungle movie, which we here at the ISCFC have reviewed many of. So many. Wes escapes, occasionally kills someone (although he seems legitimately upset at having to do it) and his pursuers get angrier and angrier. He meets a beautiful local in the wilderness, who’s trying to save her village, so gets involved in her story, which gives us the opportunity to have one of those scenes where the beautiful local woman tends to the hero’s wounds. No romance in this one, though.

Because it’s a sequel to a John Woo film, they make an effort to make it look like one. There’s doves all over the shop, and the slow-mo arrow thing he used in the original makes a reappearance. The gun that the villain uses at the end is the same as the gun Lance Henriksen used; and the boat chase that Woo planned but never used (because JCVD wanted a horseback chase) is used here too. So, while director Roel Reine (the WWE wrestling-movie house guy) is no Woo, he at least uses the building blocks reasonably well.

There’s some odd little bits of humour here and there, like Wes being about to hit an elephant which has smacked him one, getting told off by his new lady friend, and saying “he threw the first punch!” Aldrich has some cracking one-liners too – nothing too much, but like a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.

You know how these things are going to go. There is nothing new under the sun, and that’s doubly true for Most Dangerous Game-inspired B-movies. But the stars are fun, the action is decent, and although it mostly ditches the wealthy-hunting-the-poor text of part 1 (the two rednecks don’t seem particularly rich, just assholes) and therefore doesn’t quite have the engine to power the action, it’s still perfectly fine.

There’s something I want to get into, though, and that’s the scene that plays along with the credits, after the ending has the bad guys all dead and the good guys happy. There’s no drama left, no possibility of a twist or anything, so watching Wes go about a day of travelling through Thailand is quite curious. He gets on a bus, eats a little, walks around, enters a house…and that’s it! It feels like a filler scene that was cut, with good reason, but someone somewhere insisted it was included. It’s one of the most curious choices in modern cinema (I say this without fear of hyperbole) and leaves you sort of puzzled and annoyed when you just want to be satisfied with a good slab of action cinema.

Rating: thumbs up

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)

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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.

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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.

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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.