Universal Soldier: The Return

Universal Soldier: The Return

Christopher Marlowe chose to portray the rise and fall of Tamburlaine, the scourge of God, in two parts. William Shakespeare needed a sequel to capture the life of Henry IV, as did Goethe with Faust. Now exercising the artist's option to reprise a character when one installment just won't do is Jean-Claude Van Damme, who returns as the Vietnam-casualty-turned-cyber-soldier first seen in Universal Soldier, the 1992 Dean Devlin/Roland Emmerich film that happened to be a tad better than most Terminator knock-offs. (For the record, this is the fourth Universal Soldier movie if you count two cable sequels, but why would you?) Apparently converted back from his cyborg form to become purely human, a development that makes about as much sense as anything else here, Van Damme now serves as an advisor to a new version of the Universal Soldier program, training the revived corpses of dead soldiers in the military arts. When the program is canceled, the supercomputer S.E.T.H.—a sort of low-grade H.A.L. that, in a moment indicative of the care and craftsmanship invested in the film, misspells the word "anomaly"—begins to run amok. With the aid of blue-haired cyberpunk Brent Hinkley, S.E.T.H. eventually takes the form of Spawn star Michael Jai White and commands his minions, who include famed wrestler Bill Goldberg, to kill, kill, kill. Van Damme repeatedly conveys his disapproval of this plan. Not only does The Return display only the most tenuous of connections to its predecessor, but a graying-at-the-temples Van Damme seems unwilling to exert himself. Neither flaw should necessarily prevent the film from serving as trashy fun in the right hands—though a bad movie, Tsui Hark's Van Damme/Dennis Rodman vehicle Double Team has its lunatic charms—but veteran stunt coordinator and first-time director Mic Rodgers doesn't possess those hands, dispensing the fights and explosions with the style and aplomb of a soda machine. Goldberg, on the other hand, enthusiastically grunts and curses his way through his big-screen debut, displaying all the skills needed to remain a WCW superstar for years to come.

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