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