With A History Of Violence, Tom Breihan picks the most important action movie of every year, starting with the genre’s birth and moving right up to whatever Vin Diesel’s doing this very minute.

Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009)

In the 2008 Belgian movie JCVD, Jean-Claude Van Damme played a washed-up, deluded former action movie icon named Jean-Claude Van Damme. The Van Damme we see in the movie is a shell of his former self, a depressive husk recovering from various addictions and divorces, losing out all the best straight-to-video roles to Steven Seagal. In the course of the movie, he gets trapped in a post-office hostage situation, and all of his captors are fans of his work. In the movie’s centerpiece scene, Van Damme floats above the movie’s set, turns directly to the camera, and delivers a painfully sincere six-minute monologue that seems to emanate from the depths of his soul: “I still ask myself today: What have you done on this earth? Nothing. I’ve done nothing.” He cries. It’s intense.

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JCVD marked one of the first Van Damme movies that could be seen on actual theater screens in years. Ever since 1998’s French Legion movie Legionnaire, he’d been consigned, or consigned himself, to the straight-to-video ghetto. Through most of the ’90s, he’d been an iconic B-movie star, a brand unto himself. But he made too many bad decisions, got hooked on too many drugs, and burned too many bridges, and his movies weren’t making money the way they had been. But then JCVD happened, and the people who’d forgotten about Van Damme were suddenly paying attention. He had critical acclaim, something he’d never had. His face, lined and wizened, was still handsome, but it was more interesting than when he was a young kickboxing mannequin. It looked like Van Damme was in line for some sort of triumphant career resurrection. Instead, the next movie he made was a straight-to-DVD Universal Soldier sequel. But fortunately for us, it was a really great straight-to-DVD Universal Soldier sequel.

A few years before 2009’s Universal Soldier: Regeneration, the idea of a really great straight-to-DVD anything would’ve been laughable. Straight-to-DVD was what happened to the movies that didn’t turn out well enough to warrant theatrical releases. It was the graveyard where guys like Christian Slater or Eric Roberts went when nobody would cast them in theatrical movies anymore. The indie studio Asylum, in its pre-Sharknado days, came up with the mockbuster model, in which it’d make movies that looked and sounded like shittier versions of studio blockbusters (Transmorphers, for instance), presumably banking on the idea that people would rent their movies by mistake and not realize it until they got home from Blockbuster. (I interviewed the studio heads once, and they insisted that they weren’t trying to fake anybody out, but come on.) The point is: Straight-to-DVD movies weren’t anything that demanded anyone’s attention.

That started to change in the late ’00s, when a few action movies came along and reinvented the form. The change probably started in 2006, when the Israeli director Isaac Florentine, a guy who’d gotten his start directing Power Rangers and who’d helmed a bunch of straight-to-DVD movies, made Undisputed II: Last Man Standing, a straight-to-DVD sequel to a 2002 Walter Hill prison-boxing movie that was never a particularly big deal in the first place. Undisputed II had none of the stars of the first Undisputed, and it had only one of its characters. Ving Rhames’ imprisoned boxing champion—now played by Michael Jai White, the guy who had played Spawn in Spawn—goes to Russia to film a commercial and gets thrown into prison by corrupt mobsters so he can fight their prison-boxing MMA champ. Scott Adkins, a British martial artist who nobody had heard of, played the MMA champ. This was a total zero-budget B-movie, with no expectations attached. And against all odds, it turned out to be an action classic, full of brutal, balletic, and intricately choreographed fight scenes. It made straight-to-DVD stars out of both White and Adkins, and it provided some of the satisfying neck-snap action that big-budget Hollywood movies just were not making at that time. More movies like it would follow.

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2009 was the year that straight-to-DVD action movies really became something. That’s the year White starred in both Black Dynamite, an affectionate and genuinely hilarious blaxploitation parody that he co-wrote, and Blood And Bone, a tough and poetic underground-fighting movie that’s among the best of its kind. Adkins starred in Florentine’s Ninja, a fun and effective take on the ’80s ninja movies that were mostly dead at that point. (Ninja is a better movie than the also-pretty-good theatrical movie Ninja Assassin, which came out the same year and which featured Korean pop star Rain and a whole lot of CGI blood-spurts.) And Adkins also got in one great fight scene in The Tournament, in which Robert Carlyle and Ving Rhames played competitors in a game where the world’s greatest hitmen tried to kill each other for evil rich guys’ amusement. But Universal Soldier: Regeneration was the best of all those movies, and it was good enough to leave its theatrical predecessor in the dust.

The original Universal Soldier, from 1992, was not a great movie, though it’s still the best movie that blockbuster hack Roland Emmerich has ever made. It’s a fun-enough mid-budget Terminator bite about a team of dead soldiers whose bodies are reanimated for a sort of experimental Frankenstein super-soldier program. Some spark of their humanity remains, so they go haywire. Van Damme, while fighting to recover his memories, goes up against Dolph Lundgren, his psychotic Vietnam commanding officer, who wears a necklace of human ears and goes on a mostly directionless killing spree. There’s an irritating reporter sidekick and a lot of jokes that don’t land. There were sequels: two 1998 made-for-TV movies that didn’t star Van Damme or Lundgren and one 1999 theatrical effort in which Van Damme fought both Michael Jai White and the WCW wrestler Bill Goldberg. Nobody liked the sequels. But then, years after the original, we got the truly great Universal Soldier movie that nobody would’ve even thought to hope for.

Universal Soldier: Regeneration is a straight-to-DVD movie in every way. There’s no obvious CGI. There are no recognizable actors other than Van Damme, Lundgren, and Andrei “The Pitbull” Arlovski, a former UFC heavyweight champ who had never acted before. Van Damme and Lundgren aren’t even in the movie that much—maybe because it made sense for the plot, or maybe because the budget only allowed for a certain number of days on set. (Van Damme shows up 17 minutes into the movie, but he doesn’t join the central plotline for about an hour. Lundgren only shows up when it’s almost over.) Director John Hyams filmed the movie in Bulgaria, and it’s got a depressive blue-gray tint that a lot of straight-to-DVD movies have. But none of this occurs to you when you’re watching it because the movie itself is such a relentless machine.

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The movie opens with an intense, brutal Bourne-style car chase—a team of masked paramilitary types kidnapping two teenagers and speeding them through the streets of what I guess is supposed to be Kiev. There are lots of crashes and explosions and shootings before the opening credits are even over. As it turns out, the teenagers are the kids of Ukraine’s prime minister, and a rogue general is holding them hostage so that their father will grant the independence of someplace called Pasalon, which does not seem to exist in real life. They’ve also taken over the remains of Chernobyl, and they will blow it up and release a toxic nuclear cloud if their demands are not met. As muscle, they have new versions of that first movie’s reanimated soldier-corpses. The American troops, and the first-generation UniSols (as the movie calls them) get destroyed when they attempt to attack. So Van Damme, who’s been working with a psychiatrist and struggling to recover any trace of his memory, is called back into action.

This is a total dumb-as-fuck action-movie plot, but Hyams treats it with grim seriousness, never pausing for jokes or how-absurd-is-this disbelief-highlighting. Hyams had never directed a movie before Universal Soldier: Regeneration; he’d only worked in TV and documentaries. But Hyams’ father was Peter Hyams, a veteran journeyman director who’d made movies like Outland, Running Scared, Stay Tuned, and End Of Days. The elder Hyams had also directed Van Damme in Timecop and Sudden Death, two of the better movies from his mid-’90s run, and he stepped in as cinematographer on Universal Soldier: Regeneration. And the younger Hyams turned out to be great at crafting tense, visceral scenes that recalled The Terminator and the first two Alien movies.

Universal Soldier: Regeneration knows what it’s doing. It’s a movie with a certain tone. The Eastern European locations look bleak and apocalyptic, as if by design. The score is all electronic drones and clanks and whirrs. Arlovski, a lantern-jawed Belarusian hulk, turns out to be perfectly cast; all he has to do is loom and glower and soullessly annihilate whoever he’s fighting. And Van Damme gives a thoughtful, damaged performance as someone who only knows violence, allowing Hyams to play around with the idea that chaos can’t be contained when it’s started. Through most of the movie, he seems lost. And then, when he goes into action, he suddenly turns into a human missile. Van Damme threw himself into the movie emotionally, but he also put work in physically, as in the movie’s great extended-tracking-shot set piece.

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When Lundgren shows up, he’s just as broken, though he’s firmly on the evil side. He’s a lost clone of his old self, and he fights Van Damme while asking Van Damme while they’re fighting. For someone who’s barely in the movie, Lundgren gets a hell of an impression, and his death scene, which follows a great fight with Van Damme, is one for the ages.

Like JCVD before it, Universal Soldier: Regeneration would fail to lead Van Damme to any sort of career renaissance. After that, he made a bunch more straight-to-DVD movies, some good and some bad. He did the splits on two trucks in a Volvo commercial that went viral. He voiced a character in two Kung Fu Panda movies, and he briefly returned to the big screen as the villain in The Expendables 2. He played the trainer in a Kickboxer reboot that I’ve been meaning to watch. He’s now set to play some version of himself in Jean-Claude Van Johnson, a self-aware Amazon comedy series. It might be good. The pilot was okay. I don’t know.

But Van Damme has gotten to make one more great movie after Regeneration. Four years after Regeneration, he teamed up once again with Hyams, Lundgren, and Arlovski for Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning, a straight-to-DVD sequel that has precious little to do with either the original movie or with Regeneration. Instead, it’s a Lynchian Twilight Zone head-fuck of a movie. Van Damme plays the leader of a shadowy cult of reanimated soldiers, and in the truly upsetting opening scene, he murders Scott Adkins’ entire family. The rest of the movie has some great, kinetic action—a fight scene in a sporting-goods store between Adkins and Arlovski is one of this decade’s best—but it’s more interested in ideas about reality and identity. It’s a great, weird movie. It might be better than Regeneration. It might, in fact, be the best straight-to-DVD action movie ever made. And the fact that there’s any competition for that title should tell you that times have changed.

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Other notable 2009 action movies: Gareth Evans, a Welsh documentarian living in Indonesia, would go on to make his masterpiece a few years later, but his 2009 movie Merantau gets runner-up honors here. Merantau is a simple movie about a country-bumpkin martial-arts phenom who goes to the city, gets mixed up with bad people, and has to fight his way out. In that, it’s part of a long tradition that includes things like Way Of The Dragon and Ong-Bak. But Merantau is the feature debut of Iko Uwais, a martial artist Evans met when Evans was filming a documentary, and his brutally fast fighting style, silat, looked amazing onscreen. The elevator fight between Uwais and Yayan Ruhian, his future co-star in Evans’ The Raid: Redemption, was a small masterpiece and a hint of what would come.

Other great movies continued to come in from different places around the world. Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s bizarre Viking film Valhalla Rising turns into surreal psychedelia, but its early scenes of slave-pit gladiator fights are gripping and gut-churning. Hong Kong master Johnnie To brought in the wizened French pop star Johnny Hallyday to play the lead in a gorgeous existential gangster shoot-’em-up called Vengeance. Donnie Yen played the lead in Bodyguards And Assassins, a period epic that pays off its first half of byzantine plotting with a second half of wall-to-wall fights. And the nutso Luc Besson-produced French parkour party District B13 found an almost-as-fun sequel in District B13: Ultimatum.

In America, the best action movies of 2009 were the aforementioned straight-to-DVD joints: Black Dynamite, Blood And Bone, Ninja, The Tournament. Most of the big-budget Hollywood action movies were incoherent would-be blockbusters like McG’s heartbreakingly shitty Terminator Salvation, Stephen Sommers’ spongy G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra, or Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, which weirdly reimagined the literary detective as a bare-knuckle brawler played by Robert Downey Jr. Some of these movies had cool action scenes. Action-cinema great James Cameron made the widely derided, very popular Avatar, which isn’t really an action movie but which does feature a few scenes that remind you that this guy made Aliens. South African director Neill Blomkamp gave us the surprise-blockbuster sci-fi parable District 9, which also isn’t an action movie but which also features some truly gnarly scenes. And Zack Snyder’s Watchmen had none of the narrative grace of the graphic novel on which it was based, but it at least had some very good fight scenes.

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Of the blockbusters, the most satisfying by far was Fast & Furious, the fourth movie in a franchise that had been all but left for dead. Director Justin Lin rounded up and reunited the original movie’s four leads (all of whom had left the series), introduced future Wonder Woman Gal Gadot, and developed the sunny, affectionate, absurd tone that would turn that series into the best big-budget franchise we’ve got going.

There were some good low-budget American theatrical movies, too. Channing Tatum acquitted himself well in the lyrical underground-fighting movie Fighting, which could at least hang with the straight-to-DVD underground-fighting movies that were thriving at the time. Veteran popcorn absurdist Renny Harlin made the WWE Films vehicle 12 Rounds, in which John Cena has to complete the tasks set forth by an obsessed terrorist mastermind, played by Aidan Gillen after he played Tommy Carcetti on The Wire but before he played Littlefinger on Game Of Thrones. And then there was Crank 2: High Voltage, which pushed the already-ridiculous original into the realm of pure abstraction. I prefer my Jason Statham movies to not be extended jokes about Jason Statham movies, but a lot of people seem to like it.

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Next time: The raw-as-fuck blockbuster The Man From Nowhere proves that absolutely nobody makes action movies like South Korea.