As a childhood fan of Roland Emmerich's original and Van Damme films in general, I can't deny the twinge of guilty anticipation I felt upon first hearing about this upcoming release. More often than not however, updates and sequels created outside the era of their predecessors tend to miss the mark or, perhaps more likely, just fail to carry the same weighty influence on your adult mind as they did during adolescence. That said, on this occasion I was actually pleasantly surprised.
For those uninitiated, Universal Soldier?s premise is that of recently deceased US troops being medically resuscitated using an ingenious procedure, that in the process makes them more physically capable and combat efficient, as well as conveniently programmable. This is explained in a verbose and scientifically flimsy manner that it?s best you don?t scrutinise too closely.
This time around, political hostages are taken by some obscure Eastern European faction demanding independence from Russia. Utilising a ?next generation? of Universal Soldier acquired from the quintessential mad scientist, who recently defected from the American research project. They also manage to occupy the reactors of Chernobyl, threatening to detonate them and release a cloud of radioactive fallout if their demands are not met. After a joint operation by two of the world?s leading superpowers spectacularly fails to resolve the situation, it?s all on ?The Muscles From Brussels? to single-handedly save the day. Compelling stuff, no?
Originally, the plot focused primarily on two of the first soldiers to be initiated into the ?UniSol? programme, Pvt. Luc Deveraux and Sgt. Andrew Scott, played by Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren respectively. The rivalry between these two men, before and after their ?death?, was the driving force behind the initial films plot. Unfortunately, with the exception of a few minor allusions, this entry could very much be a standalone film due to its refusal to acknowledge this established timeline. The weathered title characters vaguely but never fully recognise eachother, which is put down to memory loss, a cop-out made even more disappointing by Lundgren?s deceptively small amount of screen time. During which time all he really gets to do is mumble some barely comprehensible lines and rip-off a certain infamous scene from ?Blade Runner? involving Rutger Hauer.
On the upside, the face of a younger generation is represented well by Andrei Arlovski. I can?t say I follow the UFC or mixed martial arts, but I?m told he?s a well known name within such circles, and I can certainly see why. You are presented with this hugely imposing villain, dwarfing everyone he shares the screen with. He gives off this relentless, unstoppable kind of aura reminiscent of ?The Terminator?, in that much like that film a part of me wished the protagonists to keep evading rather than confront him. Also like that film and the notorious actor-turned-politician that portrayed its eponymous character, Andrei?s role is mercifully free of dialogue. I suspect this was done for more reasons than simply keeping the antagonist emotionlessly grim.
But all-in-all, this straight forward, straight-to-video throwback to the heyday of the "Action Hero" years of the 80's and 90's seems to achieve everything it set out to. Operating on a sparse budget which it utilises to admirable effect, the main draw of violent gunfights, explosions and choreographed martial arts scenes isn't lost to the niggles of the modern eye's demand to be dazzled by expensive CGI, or hindered by the need for a sophisticated plot and emotive performances. Typical of this subgenre, character development is paper-thin; you won't be empathising much with these characters or their situation anyway. But if like me you picked this up because nostalgia got the better of you, you will undoubtedly know what to expect from the get-go. If not, as far as brainless action films go, you could certainly do a lot worse.