Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Columbia-TriStar, widescreen 1.85:1/16x9, standard 1.33:1, languages: English DD 5.1 [CC] & Dolby Surround, subtitles: English, double side-single layer, 28 chapters, rated R, 83 min., $24.95, street date 12/28/99.
Directed by Mic Rogers. Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, Michael Jai White, Heidi Schanz, Bill Goldberg, Xander Berkeley, Justin Lazard.
Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme), the heroic former Universal Soldier, is about to be thrown into action once again. When Seth (Michael Jai White), the supercomputer controlled ultra-warrior, decides to take revenge and destroy its creators, only Luc can stop it. All hell breaks loose as Luc battles Seth and a deadly team of perfect soldiers in a struggle that pits man against machine and good against evil.
I don't know about you, but I can't get enough of Jean-Claude Van Damme! Oh wait - that's not true - I actually don't much like the guy. Whoops!
By my reckoning, Van Damme has made two decent movies in his career: Hard Target and Timecop. The former owed most of its success to the directorial presence of John Woo, whereas the latter worked because of a good premise and a fair amount of quality action. In other words, the movies succeeded despite, not because of, their star.
Based on his work in Universal Soldier: The Return, I dare say that Van Damme has not grown one iota as an actor since the start of his career. Oh, he can still kickbox with the best of them, but he displays absolutely no talent for acting, and he doesn't make for much of a charismatic presence either. Even at his worst, Schwarzenegger had that going for him.
As indicated by the film's title, US:TR is a sequel to 1992's semi-hit Universal Soldier. Why a sequel now? You got me. To be frank, I don't think many people clamored for it, and after a seven year break, it can't capitalize on whatever success the first one enjoyed.
Actually, a quick visit to IMDB revealed that US:TR is not the first project based on Universal Soldier. Apparently two TV movies were the first sequels to that film; these appeared in 1998 and 1999. (Though it's unclear if these were really TV movies or were straight-to-video projects.) This fact makes it even odder that a new theatrical sequel should appear.
Well, for whatever reason, it's here. I saw the first film during its theatrical run mainly because it received some decent reviews. However, I didn't think much of it; just another Terminator/Robocop wannabe. I guess it wasn't terrible, but it wasn't terribly memorable either.
US:TR follows firmly in that film's footsteps. This isn't a bad movie, but it's not a very good one. Maybe I'm just feeling a little generous because I watched US:TR immediately after a screening of genuine atrocity Simon Sez; it's not hard for a film to look good in comparison with Dennis Rodman's epic.
Anyway, US:TR was a completely mediocre little action movie. It dispenses almost completely with plot or with any remote form of character development. In essence, it just starts with action and never deviates from that path.
Thankfully, the action is pretty good. As I mentioned, Van Damme couldn't act his way out of the proverbial paper bag, but he can still perform action routines competently. Michael Jai White seems a little unmenacing in his role as Seth, the "Super Universal Soldier" but he nonetheless handles it competently, and wrestler Bill Goldberg is occasionally a little fun as another soldier. There's nothing too exciting here, but since the movie only runs for 83 minutes, that was enough to get me through to the end.
The blatant way in which the movie flaunts its inspirations - or, more appropriately, the manner in which it rips off better films - seems awfully shameless, though. Seth is a "HAL" wannabe, and the film's climax steals from T2 in the most obvious manner. The Robocop connection remains less obvious, since it's simply inherent in the soldiers themselves, but it's there. One cute note: a small Star Trek reference - yes, a reference, not a rip-off - appears toward the end of the film; keep your eye out for it!
Ultimately, I didn't dislike US:TR, but I didn't really like it either. The movie kept me mildly entertained for its brief running time, and that's about it. It's not something I expect I'll ever want to revisit.
Universal Soldier: The Return appears in both its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and in a fullscreen edition on this double-sided, single-layered DVD; the widescreen version has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Like the movie itself, this picture looks pretty good but is nothing spectacular.
Sharpness appears consistently strong throughout the movie, though it suffers to a degree due to some anamorphic downconversion artifacts; these resulted in occasional jagged edges and moire effects. The print used seemed reasonably clean and fresh; I noticed no marks, spots, scratches, hairs or speckles, though many low-light scenes looked slightly grainy. I expect that problem was due more to film stock than to the transfer, but it's an issue nonetheless.
US:TR features very little in the way of colors; the movie takes place at night and usually restricts itself to very bland settings. What hues we see look fine, however; I certainly didn't note any problems related to color. Black levels generally seemed adequate though they sometimes looked a little washed-out; this was a very slight effect, but it occurred. Shadow detail appeared strong, though the vague lightness of the blacks made it seem a little less than great. Overall, US:TR looked fine, with only a few small flaws that interfered with the presentation.
US:TR offers a pretty good Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. The soundstage seems nicely defined and broad, though sounds occasionally seem overly localized; effects didn't pan as well as I would have liked. Still, the audio field provided a nicely immersive experience, with all five channels effectively transmitting effects and music.
The quality of the audio is consistently strong. Dialogue is clear and reasonably natural and always intelligible; though much of it must have been dubbed, it generally lacks the artificial tone that process usually confers. Music seemed somewhat subdued but showed nice dynamic range and appeared well-reproduced. Effects were pretty vivid and realistic and they added to the film's impact. All in all, US:TR offered a good auditory experience.
While the US:TR DVD looks like it provides some substantial supplements - the cover shouts "contains 3 exclusive featurettes!" - there really is little of interest here. The first featurette focusses on the career of Van Damme - sort of. It offers a recap of some of his films; through some incredible coincidence, all of the movies mentioned are also available from Columbia-Tristar (CTS)! It's a pretty dull piece. It shows a lot of film clips, plus some interviews with J-C and a few shots from movie sets. Van Damme has always been a bad interview subject - he seems to describe every film as being unbelievably great - and his comments offer little of interest. The program runs for about 12 minutes.
Next up is a featurette that focusses on Michael Jai White. Since I guess he doesn't appear in any other CTS films, his piece is devoted to a description of the workout regimen he went through for the role. This is more interesting than the Van Damme program, but not much more. At least it only lasts four minutes. The show does offer many loving close-ups of White's buffed shirtless body; that didn't do anything for me, but if it floats your proverbial boat, it's there.
The final featurette runs for four minutes and 45 seconds and allegedly describes the actual making of US:TR. However, this is yet another of those dull promotional puff pieces that simply serve to advertise the movie. No thanks.
Some more direct marketing appears in the form of six trailers, all for Van Damme movies sold by CTS: US:TR, Double Team, Desert Heat, Knock Off, Maximum Risk, and Nowhere to Run. Talent files for Van Damme, White, Goldberg and director Mic Rodgers are also included; as typical of CTS DVDs, these are all severely lacking in information and border on uselessness. Finally, the DVD's booklet offers some mildly interesting production notes. Like I said, this package gives the appearance of a nice complement of extras, but nothing of value can be found.
Universal Soldier: The Return isn't a terrible movie, and the DVD is fairly decent. However, it's not something I can recommend. There are many, many better action films out there, and there are many, many better DVDs. In such a great, big wide world, this one isn't even worth a rental.
Current as of 1/12/2000
Official Site--Contains cast and crew information, sypnosis, trailer, and a game.
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