Jean-Claude Van Damme + Dolph Lundgren + a Universal Soldier sequel = 'nuff said. That's right. The 1990s sci-fi franchise is back with its two original European stars. Van Damme and Lundgren co-headline Universal Soldier: Regeneration, the latest installment about troops resurrected as killer cyborgs called UniSols. It should be on DVD and Blu-ray shelves by the time you read this. Surprisingly, Universal Soldier: Regeneration is not the cheesefest I thought it would be. Rather, it's good entertainment, largely because of two main ingredients: Van Damme and Lundgren.
Since the turn of the millennium, the “Muscles from Brussels" and Sweden's most famous karateka have made a number of low-budget DVDs. Rather than go the way of Clint Eastwood, the aging action icon who transformed himself into an Oscar-winning director, Van Damme and Lundgren have marched in the boot prints of Sylvester Stallone, who's received mixed reviews for making unnecessary Rambo and Rocky sequels.
The good news: Universal Soldiers: Regeneration isn't a shameless cash cow or an exploitative excuse to relive past glories. It's an organic extension of the Universal Soldier mythos and a reality check for its stars—particularly Van Damme, whose aging status is incorporated into the script. His Luc Deveraux character is now decommissioned, blurred by amnesia and stricken by post-traumatic stress disorder.
He's unexpectedly thrown back into service when a next-generation UniSol (played by Ultimate Fighting Championship veteran Andrei Arlovski) is manipulated by Chechen terrorists to kidnap the Russian president's children and threaten a second nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. Worse yet, a terrorist scientist clones Luc's arch nemesis, Sgt. Andrew Scott (Lundgren).
While Universal Soldier: Regeneration gunplay is rather rudimentary—with director John Hyams and his cinematographer/father Peter Hyams (director of Van Damme's Timecop and Sudden Death) imitating the jarring style from the Bourne movies—the hand-to-hand fight scenes are worth watching. Stunt coordinators Charlie Picerni and Borislav Iliev craft a vicious set piece for Van Damme and Lundgren's standoff. Gone are the impractical helicopter kicks and flashy fisticuffs. Instead, the two old-school UniSols plow into each other like grizzly bears, smashing through windows and walls. The choreography isn't innovative, but its visceral nature harkens to the grand brutality of 1980s action movies.
The most pleasant surprise is Arlovski, who has top billing, believe it or not. The “Pit Bull's" talents—kickboxing, Brazilian jiu-jitsu and wrestling—give the franchise a fresh take without going overboard with the mixed-martial arts techniques.
Fortunately, there's virtually no mention of the events that took place in 1999's repugnant Universal Solider: The Return or in the Van Damme-less, noncanonical sequels Universal Solider II and Universal Solider III. That's a wise move, considering that Universal Soldier: Regeneration is far better than those atrocious middle chapters.
I would have rated Universal Soldier: Regeneration higher, but the second act drags, mostly because the screenplay never focuses on any one character. Arlovski has a lot of scenes, but he's not the main character. Van Damme should have been the emotional core of the story, but his character development is stunted. And Lundgren gives a strong performance, but his work amounts to only a handful of scenes.
Still, Universal Soldier: Regeneration quenches my nostalgic blood lust for 1990s action and violence.
(Patrick Vuong is a freelance journalist, screenwriter and martial artist based in Orange County, California.)