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

Android Cop (2014)

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This is a classic Asylum mockbuster. Their rules:
1. Find out when the big blockbuster sci-fi and action movies are going to be released
2. Think of a name which is close enough to remind everyone of that film, but not too close that you get sued (unless it’s a legend or public domain character)
3. Hire one or two B-list stars
4. Rip the plot off other, previously released, sci-fi and action movies
5. Make your film quickly enough to be released around the time of the blockbuster
6. Keep your fingers crossed that the blockbuster is a hit, and you can sweep up 0.01% of their profits

Michael Jai White is Hammond, a cop in 2037 Los Angeles. Large sections of the city are walled-off, apparently due to radioactive meltdowns, and the only people who go there are the unfortunate folk with radiation poisoning, criminals and cops. While Hammond and pals are in a bind, they call in backup and get this guy:

Trailbiking goes extreme in the future

Trailbiking goes extreme in the future

Of course, they become partners, and are sent into the forbidden zone, or whatever the hell it’s called, to rescue the Mayor’s daughter, who’s actually in a hospital bed in a coma but “inhabits” an android body. There’s police double-crossing, questions of LA real estate, a secret plan to take out every crime boss in the forbidden zone which is just a red herring, and (of course) major twists and turns.

While they’re after some of that sweet “Robocop” money, the thing this most resembles is an extended episode of TV show “Almost Human”. A human cop and his “wacky” android cop sidekick, in the future, try to save the day…there’s a taste of “Avatar” in there too, with people controlling, well, avatars. Throw in a bit of “Escape From New York”, then some of whatever movie it is where people can’t shoot for shit, and you’ve got yourself an Asylum feature.

Before I get on to whether the film was any good or not, I want to vent about a personal bugbear. Androids in films, almost without exception, make that annoying servo-motor sound whenever they walk, turn their heads or do pretty much anything. Firstly, movies, WE GET IT! We aren’t going to forget halfway through that the guy who can throw people through walls is more than human. Secondly, wouldn’t they have invented something silent by “the future”? Also, there are two androids in this film who don’t know they’re androids, and they can move without making an annoying noise constantly, so what’s up with that? Is it an affectation?

For a mockbuster, this film is alright. It’s good to see a film with a primarily black cast where it’s just not an issue – as well as Michael Jai White, Kadeem Hardison is the obviously-a-baddie cop, and Charles S Dutton is the Mayor (with a heavily accented Hispanic daughter). They’re steady hands, even if the rest of the acting isn’t up to much. Special effects are absolutely fine, they’ve found some suitably broken-up scenery, and it looks like it cost more than it probably did.

It’s just a bit pointless. Like I said, watch any two episodes of “Almost Human” and you’ll have a better time than with this film. The stakes are fairly low, the cheapness of the film shows through in the almost complete absence of supporting characters (and the police station is pretty much one room) and the Asylum format of knocking em out, never mind the quality tends to result in flatness like this. So, in other words, the perfect mockbuster. Very slightly entertaining and entirely forgettable.

Rating: thumbs down

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