Universal Soldier may be the only series whose DTV sequels are its best work

With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.

The Universal Soldier films have come to occupy a strange place in the landscape of sci-fi action franchises. It’s not simply that the series managed to survive the bankruptcy of its parent company and a pair of made-for-pay-cable sequels before being reborn. No, what makes Universal Soldier special is the remarkable fact that its two most recent, direct-to-DVD sequels are, far and away, the best installments of the series. This isn’t a strange thing in and of itself—the world of direct-to-video sequels has been recognized for several years now as a home for the most interesting new action stars and directors—but it is unusual in that Universal Soldier began as a major blockbuster tentpole for a Hollywood studio.

The movies’ premise is ludicrously simple (emphasis on ludicrous): The United States has figured out a way of reanimating the dead. Rather than some virus or transmittable disease, here it’s an expensive process (one that’s never explained, unsurprisingly), attainable only by military contractors. The government thus plans to implement these “Unisols” as a replacement for regular soldiers; they don’t die when shot, because the dying has already been done. They do, however, require maintenance and regular cooling, as the procedure somehow results in overheating problems. (You’d think internal air-conditioning would be a priority for the scientists.) Whereas the first installment features one of these unkillable men going rogue, the plot of most of the sequels hinges on some nefarious scientist and/or his financial backers using the Unisols for nefarious purposes.

The initial movie was conceived as a special-effects-heavy showcase for Jean-Claude Van Damme, then one of the biggest action stars on the planet. And with good reason: He’d already proven his action bona fides as a black belt in karate and full-contact fighting champion whose breakout film Bloodsport foregrounded his impressive physicality (and not inconsiderable physique). Despite the modest success of the first Universal Soldier, a franchise didn’t seem likely. Even a casual fan of the original would likely be hard-pressed to remember much of the mythology—it’s no Terminator (a series to which the movie was often, and unfavorably, compared).

So, when parent company Carolco went bust after the notorious disaster of Cutthroat Island, the rights to the property were sold off. As a result, the next two entries bearing the Universal Soldier name were a pair of on-the-cheap films produced for The Movie Channel and intended to serve as a backdoor pilot for a series. Whether for reasons of cost or the fundamentally shitty quality of these movies, that series never happened. Instead—and weirdly—in the same year as the made-for-TV third movie, a new big-budget theatrical installment was mounted and released, and it flopped spectacularly. Finally, a decade later, a new Universal Soldier film appeared. It went straight to DVD, as did its successor.

Unlike the majority of action spectacles, in which the most money buys you the best stunt choreography and the greatest visual bang, Universal Soldier is a testament to the emergence of the low-budget actioner as superior to its Hollywood equivalent. On almost every level, the 21st century iterations of the Universal Soldier series are more exciting, more inventive, and more essential than their theatrical forebears. The strengths of the new direct-to-video action renaissance—namely, a focus on physicality and movement above all else—are on full display in Universal Soldier: Regeneration and Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning, with the latter even transcending the efficiency and industriousness of the first DTV installment to achieve a kind of genuine brilliance.

The original kicks things off with a flashback to Vietnam, 1969: American Special Forces Private Luc Deveraux (Van Damme) discovers that his Sergeant, Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren), has snapped, executing innocent villagers and soldiers and fashioning himself a necklace of ears. To prevent Scott from murdering a young boy and girl the crazed sergeant has taken hostage, Deveraux fights his superior officer, both of them shooting each other to death in the most vicious case of beefcake-on-beefcake violence in that entire war. Cut to: The present day, where both soldiers have been brought back to life as part of the Universal Soldier project (hence their generic moniker “Unisols,” although each one is tagged with a number—Deveraux is “GR-44,” Scott is “GR-13,” and so on). However, Deveraux’s pulse-deprived grunt almost immediately begins having flashbacks, and recognizes Scott’s stoic mug. (If you’re wondering whether GR-13 starts remembering things, too, you are one step ahead of the script.)

Sure enough, soon Deveraux has gone AWOL, helping a female journalist escape after she stumbles onto the top-secret Unisol program. Meanwhile, Scott slowly goes bonkers, stomping heads and eventually rebelling against his military and scientist bosses. He takes control of the other Unisols and heads out to take down Deveraux for his supposed treason. Cue an on-the-run action film, complete with hotel-room shoot-outs, high-speed car chases, and the obligatory Van Damme butt shot (during multiple scenes where the character gets naked to “cool down,” usually in a tub of ice). The standard action tricks are enhanced by the fun of having genetically enhanced dead guys as the characters, meaning Van Damme’s GR-44 can pound his head through hotel walls to get to the next room, and Lundgren’s GR-13 can fly hilariously through windshields without missing a beat.

It’s not a very good film, but also not without its charms, particularly Lundgren’s smirking and unhinged performance as a man-machine who gradually remembers he’s a psychopath. He’s got a number of so-bad-they’re-good taglines in the film, including a preemptive shout-out to Adam Scott’s luckless Party Down actor, during the penultimate fight scene: “Are we having fun yet?” The actor clearly is, relishing the opportunity to chew scenery and deliver macho dialogue. The movie was future-blockbuster-helmer Roland Emmerich’s first Hollywood film, and despite not yet having mastered the bigger-is-better aesthetic he would come to wield so easily, his sure-footed staging of action sequences is firmly established, even if the pacing is glacially slow by modern standards. (Four years later, he upped the tempo considerably in Independence Day.)

The most ridiculous, and by extension most fun, set piece in the movie comes when Deveraux and journalist Veronica Roberts (Ally Walker) stop at a Southern diner, and she disappears long enough for the reanimated man to discover he really, really likes eating food. (In another highly scientific bit of plot, Deveraux can remember complicated language and memories, but has to be reminded how to eat.) When the proprietor discovers he can’t pay, the fight begins, and it’s a matter of seconds before a patron is thrown into the jukebox, and a rollicking ’50s ditty starts playing, providing the perfect goofball accompaniment to the sight of Van Damme taking bites of scrambled eggs in between knocking out truckers.

To the extent it works, it’s because the movie takes advantage of Van Damme’s then-minimal acting talents the same way Terminator took advantage of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s—namely, by working around the lack thereof. Casting him as an emotional blank of a man, periodically haunted by memories, was the perfect amount of challenge for the “muscles from Brussels.” Whereas Lundgren had figured out how to move beyond the chiseled-jaw stoicism most action stars begin with as their only tool, Van Damme was still struggling with English as a second language. (The movie actually calls out the strange “French” accent of this supposedly all-American boy, finally explaining it as the result of a Bayou upbringing.) After Scott is killed in the climactic struggle (ripped apart by a thresher, no less), the door seemed open to further adventures.

And then disaster struck, in the form of the next two films.

Universal Soldier II: Brothers In Arms and Universal Soldier III: Unfinished Business are simply dreadful films, the cheapest of the made-for-pay-cable cheapies, clearly meant to be knocked out as quickly and efficiently as possible. That extends from the bargain-basement direction to the inexplicable music choices to the wooden acting that would give actual reanimated soldiers devoid of personalities a bad name. The films are a woeful attempt at continuing the story, picking up almost from the moment the first movie ends. Van Damme has been replaced by Matt Battaglia, a fine actor who has gone on to have a solid career (he was in the most recent True Detective season) but who is uniformly terrible here, to the point where it’s unclear if his stiffness is the result of a character choice or simply his manner of performance.

The first movie introduces Luc’s heretofore unknown brother named Eric, as Veronica and Eric (also a Unisol, natch) have to save Luc from the clutches of the Unisol program, monitored by a security operations head played by Gary Busey. It tries to expand the mythology, mostly poorly, while the exceedingly rare action sequences are shot with less finesse than an episode of Home Improvement. (It’s a bad sign when the only genuine action sequence doesn’t happen until the last 15 minutes of your action movie.) Luc going off reservation again, in almost the same manner as the first film, does allow Busey a chance to sputter, “This isn’t supposed to happen twice!” But mostly, the film isn’t even bad in an enjoyable way. It’s just exhausting.

Until a shocking stinger, that is. Throughout the film, both Busey and the lead scientist have communicated with a mysterious voice on the other end of a phone, someone only seen in shadow. I had assumed it was because the Unisol program needed a rich benefactor, but the story had nothing to be gained from another villain. But in the last seconds, when you hear this unknown man give the order to restart the Universal Soldier program, the camera pulls back, first to reveal the nameplate of “C.I.A. Deputy Director,” and then pulling up to reveal the mystery man as none other than Burt. Fucking. Reynolds.

Which leads straight into Unfinished Business, another garbage film notable primarily for having Burt Reynolds wandering around cheaply built sets, delivering ham-fisted bad-guy dialogue with an accent that’s supposed to be Irish, but sounds like your drunk friend imitating the Lucky Charms leprechaun. This time out, Reynolds and his Unisols are hatching a plan to steal billions from a reparations payment Germany is making to victims of the Holocaust. (Yes, that is actually the storyline.) It starts with Luc and Veronica foiling a hostage situation at the Cyber Wealth Summit (“The world’s foremost gathering of the cyber community”), which is about as late ’90s tech-clueless as you can get. From there, things get weirder, although at least this time they remember to liberally sprinkle some action throughout the film, despite the borderline-deranged use of slow-motion. It’s like someone studied John Woo, and then tried to apply his aesthetic to random scenes, independent of context or relevance.

On the plus side, the third film does feature Luc’s brother sacrificing himself by running away from Luc and Veronica before a bomb implanted in him by the scientists explodes, which is pretty funny. (Oh, incidentally, this is after the evil doctor makes a clone of Luc’s brother and accelerates his aging, from birth to maturity in a matter of days, and this clone somehow then acquires the dead brother’s memories. Seriously, it’s bananas.) At the end, Luc and Veronica foil the deputy director’s plan, at which point Reynolds flings himself from the top of a parking garage, only for the stinger of this film to reveal he’s been cloned and brought back to life. This holds out the tantalizing possibility that the Universal Soldier TV show, had it actually gone to series, would’ve ended every episode by brutally murdering Burt Reynolds in a different way, week to week.

In some ways, the existence of Universal Soldier: The Return is the most inexplicable of all these films. Released the same year as Unfinished Business, it took a languishing franchise and tried to once again splash it onto the big screen, as a comeback vehicle for Van Damme, who by then was starting to slip out of the top tier of Hollywood action stars thanks to the failure of duds like Double Team, Knock Off, and Legionnaire (the weird period piece starring Van Damme as a 1920s boxer). However, the attempted resurrection, of both the series and Van Damme’s Hollywood career, tanked hard, sending both star and property to the wilds of the direct-to-video realm, where Van Damme spent the next decade cranking out mostly lesser efforts until the surprise treat of JCVD.

The Return is a weird choice for the Hollywood resurrection of the series, mostly because it chooses to cast aside any continuity or coherence with what had come before, even in the first one. Despite being repeatedly identified as “one of the first” in the program, Luc now seems to no longer be a reanimated corpse, instead having somehow had a daughter whom he’s raising alone while training the next generation of Unisols—you know, the way you normally go work for a company that tried repeatedly to kill you. (Veronica, the presumable mother, has died, possibly of shame from being the world’s worst reporter.) This time, however, it’s not a single soldier that goes off the deep end, but rather the artificial intelligence program, S.E.T.H., which runs the Unisol facility, and goes a little bonkers when it learns the facility is losing its funding. Soon, a reverse Assault On Precinct 13 is taking place, as Luc must break into the building and shut down S.E.T.H., who tries to “evolve” by implanting its consciousness into a bioengineered body (Michael Jai White).

It’s not a very good film, but after the back-to-back tragedies of Brothers In Arms and Unfinished Business, it plays like Die Hard. There’s better action in the first two minutes of Universal Soldier: The Return than there is in the entirety of the previous two films. The pushy reporter Veronica has been replaced by a new, even pushier reporter (Heidi Schanz), written as so unlikeable that she stands around demanding a story while people are being murdered, sputtering, “I’m a reporter!” any time someone wisely suggests she remove herself from harm’s way. Much of the film is cartoonishly broad, but the fight scenes with White and Van Damme (along with wrestler Bill Goldberg, playing the snarling heavy) have some pop, simply because the actors are capable of such good stunt work, White in particular. (There’s a funny behind-the-scenes featurette with Van Damme where he comments, “I was in great shape, training on set… lots of kicking.”) Still, it works as a subpar Hollywood action film, the kind of thing that might hold your attention for 90 minutes during a hungover Sunday afternoon on the couch. But the next film was bound for DTV.

Enter John Hyams. The director (and son of Peter Hyams, a notable action director in his own right) had primarily been directing documentaries and TV episodes, but was looking for an opportunity to make something bold, in the tradition of his arty debut One Dog Day. As he told The Village Voice, “I thought, ‘If I can make the best direct-to-video movie anyone’s seen, then maybe that will get more notice than if I make a so-so theatrically released movie.’” Hyams was immediately dropped by his agent when he signed on to Universal Soldier: Regeneration and entered “the ghetto of direct-to-video,” as he calls it.

Hyams’ commitment to making a great DTV action film resulted in the unexpected windfall of a film series that became great once it left the stifling atmosphere of studio filmmaking. Universal Soldier: Regeneration isn’t just a good action film; it retroactively makes all the films in the series prior to it look like milquetoast preambles for the main event. This, despite Hyams entering the project relatively late in the game. The script and production was already in place, with both Van Damme and Lundgren not even the top-billed names in the credits (they receive “with” and “and” credits, presumably as a cost-saving measure). But Hyams’ background in making a documentary about MMA fighter Mark Kerr turned out to be a boon: One of the most notable aspects of the action is how the director embraces the all-systems-go ferocity of the MMA aesthetic, infusing even the outlandish Unisol ability to punch people through walls with a gritty realism.

The story finds a rogue scientist renting out his Unisol technology to the highest bidder—in this case, a terrorist holding the children of the Russian president hostage in Chernobyl, with the threat of another nuclear detonation, should anyone interfere. And most of the film follows the efforts of ordinary soldiers (with the help of the U.S. government, naturally) trying to infiltrate the camp and defuse the situation. Van Damme is once again Deveraux, the reanimated shell of a man, now trying to relearn basic humanity under the tutelage of a doctor. But thanks to the discovery of the terrorists’ own Unisol, he is soon called out of retirement and pressed into service. Van Damme, whose face is weathered and craggy from the ensuing years, plays the character as a tightly wound bundle of muscle memory, and we spend the entire first two acts with him essentially strapped to a chair, until he’s released on his mission. It adds a gripping “when do we get to the fireworks factory” element to a film already blessed with inventive fight choreography and grimly evocative, sepia-toned cinematography.

Lundgren’s reanimated Andrew Scott is even more reduced, his appearance amounting to little more than a third-act cameo. But god, what a cameo it is. The actor has always been one of the best of his generation’s bulky action heroes, and his performance here adds shadings of nuance to a fairly one-note role. Even more noteworthy is the almost complete lack of a good guy to root for: Luc is a burned-out husk of a being, and the one soldier we’re given some extended screen time with (Mike Pyle, another MMA star) is killed halfway through, although the ending suggests the series is keeping the “cloning” idea introduced by the low-rent earlier installments. When the film ends, leaving almost everyone but Deveraux dead, it’s unclear just where the series could turn.

Luckily, this was merely Hyams’ warm-up act. Having proven he could deliver the action-movie goods (and turn a profit in the process), he was given the reins to the next film, and with that freedom, the director turned Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning into a must-see work of art. Combining the kinetic action of his previous film with an elliptical, mind-bending story delving into themes of identity and loss, Hyams managed to Trojan-horse an experimental art film into the world, wearing the veneer of a DTV actioner. The most overt influence here is Gaspar Noé, whose Enter The Void popularized some of the techniques Hyams employs here, from the visceral first-person perspective of the opener (maybe the best of use of the trick since John Carpenter’s Halloween) to the hallucinatory, strobe-like sequences in which Van Damme’s Deveraux appears on camera. His otherworldly manifestations play like some nightmarish ghoul disrupting the diegetic world of the movie, breaking the fourth wall into both our reality and that of the film’s.

Like many great sequels, the movie doesn’t require you to have seen any of the previous installments to appreciate it, though it doesn’t hurt. The story centers around a new character, John (the superb Scott Adkins), who wakes up after a long coma, having been injured during the aforementioned opening sequence in which Deveraux and an assemblage of masked men break into his home and kill his wife and child. Suffering from amnesia, John embarks on a journey to learn what happened and piece his life together, while tracking down Deveraux. Van Damme’s character, in this narrative, has disappeared from the world, becoming a Colonel Kurtz-like messiah to a veritable army of Unisols, all of whom he has “awoken” from their reanimated, computer-programmed mental states. The ambitious narrative delves into politics, memory, the ethics of science, and in the most meta touch, the structure of narrative and reality itself. The first 20 minutes are more art-horror than anything, and by the time the car chases and shoot-outs begin, the movie has already created as many indelible images as a David Lynch film.

The overarching sci-fi story of the Universal Soldier films is ultimately less interesting than the lesson the franchise holds for the potential of DTV movie-making. It’s the weird, arty double to the Fast And Furious series: Where those films were rescued from a moribund fate by Justin Lin and elevated to the form of popcorn art par excellence, this series began as lethargic science-fiction tentpole fare, before reinvigorating and reinventing the possibilities of what a direct-to-video action movie could be. Rather than a lazy late-career paycheck for former marquee names slumming it (paging Bruce Willis), John Hyams made passion projects that played to the strengths of their stars and fused new and old techniques to make what was once tired fresh and exciting. These are not “good for DTV” movies. They are great films, period.

Hyams is busy these days cranking out episodes of the similarly better-than-it-should-be Z Nation, the zombie series that escapes tedium by employing and applying Hyams and his tactics of gonzo cinema to the colorless world of a no-budget series run by mockbuster hacks The Asylum. Hyams should have been given the keys to the action-movie kingdom after his Universal Soldier films; it’s unknown to what extent his lack of a follow-up feature is his choice or the result of producers failing to capitalize on his talent. Should he continue to stick with helming epsiodes of Syfy’s killing-the-undead show, here’s hoping those who sign the checks realize that his handling of this film series tells them all they need to know about where to take season two: Make John Hyams showrunner, and let him off the leash. The results, as with Universal Soldier, would be compelling.

Final Ranking:

  • Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning
  • Universal Soldier: Regeneration
  • Universal Soldier
  • Universal Soldier: The Return
  • Universal Soldier III: Unfinished Business
  • Universal Soldier II: Brothers In Arms

Join the discussion...