Friday, February 19, 2010

The Universal Soldier Series 1992-2009: The Evolution of Van Damme

It is fascinating to see how our action heroes of the 1980s/early 1990s have evolved in the past ten years. After a period of time in which they were seemingly cast aside as jokes, the last decade has seen a re-emergence of these stars in ways which acknowledge both their aging and place in cinema history. Arnold Schwarzenegger left behind film after the relative high of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) to head into politics, securing his iconic status as the premier action star; Sylvester Stallone rebuilt himself between the excellent Rocky Balboa (2006) and awful (though financially successful) Rambo (2008) into the symbol of a era long gone, and with The Expendables this year is set to take the natural course of being the elder statesman of the genre. Dolph Lundgren never quite broke through into the leading man role, but always came across as the hardest working man in action films, almost a character actor who would come in and raise the value of a film through his performance, even if the film is a piece of crap. Steven Seagal, after his success of the early 1990s has increasingly confounded audiences as they try and figure out if he is deliberately parodying the action star behaviour and projects of yesteryear, or if he is completely out of his mind. Either way, he seems to happily march to his own tune.

Then, there is Jean-Claude Van Damme.

In some ways, you have to feel sorry for the man. Despite his success in the early 1990s as a second tier action star, playing the lead in goofy but amusing films, he never seemed to quite find his niche like the others did. Oh yes, he made some decent films and is internationally known, but his career has often seemed aimless. His attempts to carve himself an identity as a filmmaker as well as an actor in the Stallone mould came to a crashing halt with the 1996 failure The Quest. Nor did science fiction action films prove a good fit, never finding the film to put him into the big leagues like Schwarzenegger, as much fun as films like the idiotic Time Cop (1994) are. Street Fighter (1994) is best remembered as a camp classic, a far cry from the major franchise the video game developers and studio had hoped, and Van Damme’s more “serious” efforts, such as Legionnaire (1998) mostly underlined his weaknesses as an actor. Factor in his personal problems which plagued him in the late 1990s, and he was practically doomed to direct to video productions and joke status.

Yet, in the past five years, Van Damme has managed to perhaps undergo the most startling transformation of all the action stars. While Stallone’s current position was a natural development, especially with the absence of action rival Schwarzenegger, and Seagal seems happy to fight it out with Chuck Norris for who is the bigger internet punch line, Van Damme has managed to salvage himself by outright attacking his own image as action hero. Yes, he still stars in action films, but these days, his characters are not nice heroic men, loveable cons who do the right thing in the end, or over the top super heroic individuals. Instead, Van Damme presents himself and his characters as damaged failures, if not outright victims.

You will find no greater example of Van Damme’s evolution than by tracing his history over the course of the Universal Soldier series of films, the only real franchise he has been involved with that has gone anywhere. Over the course of seventeen years, this somewhat inventive Terminator/Robocop knock off has come to embody the career of Van Damme more than anything else he has ever done, mirroring his highs, lows, and rebirth since JCVD (2008) put him back on the map. Each film is shockingly different from one another, embodying different attitudes and approaches to the same material, guided by different filmmakers, and utilizing Van Damme in different ways. Thus, we look at the Universal Soldier trilogy to trace this progression.

(NOTE: Yes, I am aware that there are two made for cable films that came between the first two Van Damme films, but seeing as how Van Damme is not in them, and that I have never seen them, I will not be including them in this review.)

The original Universal Solider is a film that is oddly entertaining and enjoyable despite being little more than a rehash of ideas and concepts from other films. It is also one of the last few action films to truly draw upon Vietnam as a source for much of its imagery and, in this case, for its actual story.

The film begins in the Vietnam War as two American soldiers, Luc Devereaux (Van Damme) and his Sergeant, Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren) kill each other after Devereaux tries to stop a seemingly insane Scott from murdering civilians. Twenty plus years later, Drevereaux and Scott appear again, seemingly without having aged, this time as Desert Storm style soldiers. They have been “resurrected” as UniSols, soldiers who are supposedly dead, lacking both memory and free will, as part of a program to save soldiers' lives by utilizing the dead in combat rather than the living. Davereaux’s memory however seems to be returning, and he makes an escape with a reporter (Ally Walker) looking to expose the program. Soon, the other UniSols are on their trail, including Scott whose memory is also starting to make a comeback, along with his insanity.

The actual premise for Universal Soldier could have been used to make a fascinating study of war and the manner in which soldiers are dehumanized by not only their experiences, but by their own leaders whom reduce them to little more than bags of flesh. However, this is an early 1990s action film by Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, the duo behind the better known films Independence Day (1996) and the wretched American version of Godzilla (1998). While their best film together is arguably Stargate (1994), Universal Soldier is by far their second best effort. It is a collection of action clich├ęs, but is a cut above thanks to the interesting premise, slick direction, memorable action sequences, and most notably, a completely over the top performance by Dolph Lundgren, who is clearly having a blast in the film with his psychopathic character. The film also reminds us that Jerry Orbach did do things other than Law & Order during the 1990s, appearing here in the role of a caring scientist.

The film suffers from typical action film flaws, such as plot holes (if the program is illegal and risks jail time for all involved, why is it that the general in charge allows the UniSols to be used in very public operations bound to attract attention?), cheesy dialogue, and predictability, but the film never fails to deliver on the B-movie expectations that the title and presence of its two stars invites. For a Saturday afternoon film to kick back to, you could do far worse.

Where does Van Damme fit into all this? Well, he has the Arnold role: the cold, robotic hero that occasionally shows signs of emotion. Really, the film requires nothing other than Van Damme’s kickboxing skills, while letting better actors around him carry the weight of the scenes he is in, better actors mainly being Ally Walker as Veronica Roberts, aka the Lois Lane role, and Lundgren. It is hard looking back to evaluate if the lack of material for Van Damme to play is either a blessing or a curse: has Van Damme always been a capable actor, or has that been a recent development? No answers are to be found in this film. Universal Soldier only serves to highlight Van Damme as being a substitute Arnold, rather than as a star in his own right.

When it is all said and done, Universal Soldier is a fun B-movie, with just enough memorable elements to allow it to overcome its predictability and make it a re-watchable in the right environment. The same however, cannot be said of Universal Soldier – The Return, the awful 1999 sequel.

By the late 1990s, Van Damme was at the worst point of his career. After several box office disappointments, including the failed vanity project The Quest (1996) and wannabe epic Legionnaire (1998), Van Damme needed a hit. The result was the old fashioned idea of a sequel to a hit film, and Universal Soldier – The Return was the end result. It would be the last theatrical film for Van Damme till JCVD in 2008.

To begin to understand where the film goes so horribly wrong, one needs to start with the poor excuse for a story: Luc is now working with the heads of the UniSol project to improve the soldiers, when the project is shut down. Why it wasn’t immediately shut down after the events of the first film, I have no idea, but let’s go with it for now. The artificial intelligence computer SETH, which operates the UniSols, doesn’t want to be shut down, and begins a massive take over of the UniSol base using the new UniSols and giving itself a body (Michael Jai White). SETH however will self delete without a code that will shut down this function, and the only person who knows the code is, of course, Luc. Throw in Luc’s daughter as a plot point, and you have Universal Soldier – The Return.

The first major problem with the film is that in no way, shape or form is it consistent with the original Universal Soldier. As simplistic as that film is, it at least has a sense of structure, a consistent science fiction mythology, even if the science is bad science, and some character development as Luc recovers some of his lost humanity by the film’s conclusion. Right off the bat with Universal Soldier – The Return, you will be asking a series of unanswered questions that point to just how poorly thought out the film is.

First, why is Luc working as part of the UniSol program? This is a program that stripped him of his humanity and used his body as a punching bag for over twenty years. You would think that anyone who had been through that would have a few problems with having the same thing happening to others. Beyond that, how is it that Luc even capable of helping the program? Even assuming he has a scientific background, the man missed twenty years of scientific developments and had memory issues. How did he have time to catch up, have a family, and work for the program?

Then there are the Universal Soldiers themselves. The whole point of the program was to strip dead soldiers of their personality and make them little more than programmable killers. Yet here they are with distinct personalities and making jokes. The original concept wasn’t brilliant, but at least made some sense. If this fundamental story point is not even understood, you can imagine just how well the rest of the film fares.

Of course, nothing in this film has any point at all. The film just jumps from scene to scene without a reason or goal. Characters aren’t even stock types, as even stock types would have some sense of purpose in the narrative. The characters in this film just show up to take brutal beatings and/or die. William Malone and John Fasano have easily turned in one of the worse scripts I have ever seen produced with this film, clearly having not bothered to make an effort at having a cohesive narrative, or even giving the viewer something to invest in.

The rest of the production is as much a failure as the script, with production values that bypass straight to video films and head straight to syndicated Canadian television. Director Mic Rodgers, in his one and only directorial effort, deserves most of the blame. He has crafted a total mess of a film, unable to stage even the most basic of scenes, let alone moments of real drama. Rodgers shows no ability to handle actors, as every performer seems to be on a different page, some playing the film straight while others operate as if they are in an action film parody. Even the action scenes, which one would hope Rodgers would be able to have some ability to direct, are complete messes.

When it comes to acting, Michael Jai White and Xander Berkeley are far better actors than this film deserves, yet they are stuck floundering here, trying to find anything to work with, either from the script, their director, or their fellow actors. Unfortunately, they are mostly stuck working with either wrestling stars like Bill Goldberg, who has no acting ability, or former cheerleader Kiana Tom, who is a total non-entity on screen. I honestly have no idea what Rodger’s was thinking when he cast this film, if he even had that much involvement in the casting anyway. The presence of every "actor" here smacks of cross promotion opportunism rather than a serious effort at finding real actors.

Why was Rodgers' placed in charge of this film anyway? While his credits do contain some second unit directing, Rodgers’ primary credits are working in the stunts department, notably as Mel Gibson’s stunt double. As important as the stunt department is, it is hardly the place in which one develops a sense of cinematic storytelling, making his selection as a director on the film a highly dubious choice. So who selected Rodgers for the job? While I cannot find any definitive answer, the most likely culprits would be the producers, which include Craig Baumgarten and Allen Shapiro, both of whom produced all three films in the series, and none other than Jean Claude Van Damme himself, making him in large part responsible for this debacle.

In fact, the failures in directing oddly mirror those of Van Damme’s directorial effort The Quest. While I certainly cannot say this is the case, I wouldn’t be surprised if Mic Rodgers was a ghost director on the film, with Van Damme really calling the shots, not unlike Stallone’s supposed arraignment with director George P. Cosmatos on the films Rambo: First Blood Part 2 and Cobra. Even if this wasn’t the case, the whole effort exists solely as a career salvage project for Van Damme, making him the real driving force behind the project.

Given Van Damme’s previous efforts before this film, it is easy to see just how involved Van Damme was in the creative process, tailoring the film to his supposed image as an actor. While Luc was not much of a character in the first film, the Luc of this film has been reinvented to be nothing more than Van Damme himself, or rather, what Van Damme tried to portray himself as being during the late 1990s: a take charge average joe who is likeable, fairly personable, and only wants to take care of his family. Like the film as a whole, this image that Van Damme portrayes is hollow. As an overall persona for Van Damme in general, it clashed with the Van Damme known as a drug abuser; as an actual performance, it is awful. Van Damme lacks the skill of even the most basic actors to truly become a character and eliminate their personal lives from the mind of the viewer. Van Damme simply comes off as desperate in the film, trying hard to get the audience to like him and thus pay to see his films.

In fact, desperation is really all Universal Soldier – The Return is about. It is a testament to the desperation of one man, filled with bad choices that embrace the worst of the action genre. So what were the odds a third film would be any different?

Enter Universal Soldier – Regeneration.

More than anything else, one film kept coming back to my mind while watching Universal Soldier – Regeneration: Sam Fuller’s White Dog (1982). That film, which I reviewed here, examines the ways in which a society attempts to deal with its hateful elements, particularly racist hate that is taught to the young and impressionable. Can one deprogram hate, and if so, how? Universal Soldier – Regeneration similarly examines how soldiers are dehumanized by forces beyond their control, focusing on how training and programming that goes in making a solider war ready, and how such training and experiences seperate a soldier from the rest of the world. While nowhere near as powerful or important as White Dog is, Universal Soldier – Regeneration shows a greater sense of focus and ambition than has been shown in the previous films, aiming to be more than a simple action film without becoming pretentious.

The premise for the film is simple, and ignores the last film: a group of terrorists capture the children of the Russian Prime Minister, and set up a stronghold in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, threatening to detonate a bomb if their comrades are not released within three days. In the possession of the terrorists is a next generation UniSol (Andrei Arlovski), which is faster and more dangerous than his predecessors. When the US forces try to step in, they are quickly defeated by the UniSol, which even slaughters four old model UniSols brought in to assist. As a backup plan, Luc, who is undergoing treatment to undo the training and psychological scaring done to him by the program in Switzerland, is beaten and dragged in to be programmed to fight again should the need arise.

The first thing that will likely surprise viewers of Universal Soldier – Regeneration is that the film is an ensemble piece rather than a one man show, focusing most of its running time on the behind the scenes decision making process involving generals, politicians and scientists, all of whom have their own agendas and personal interests in the outcome of the situation. Caught in between are the various soldiers who are used and abused, carrying out a mission whose various sides they do not know or understand. The result is a film that is atypical of the action genre as it is not driven by plot, spectacle or demonstrations of the physical powers of a lead hero. While certainly full of memorable action sequences, in fact, the best the series has had, the film is actually more of a study of the treatment of soldiers and their place in battle. The film carefully subverts the usual expectations of such films by actually sidelining the character who would typically be the hero of the film into a secondary role, namely Luc.

Luc in this film isn’t the figure who supposedly reclaimed his humanity at the end of the first film, or the average joe hero of the second film. In this film, Van Damme’s role is that of a victim. His experiences in life have crippled him emotionally and mentally, to the point that he can no longer even remember what day it is. Luc knows one thing and one thing only: how to kill. In a scene very reminiscent of White Dog, Luc is brought out into public for a meal as part of his treatment, and then suddenly snaps, nearly killing a man for no reason. Luc is smart enough to understand something is wrong with him, but he has no ability to make heads or tails of his situation, relying on those around him to help him live what little existence he has. The supposed reclamation of his humanity in the first film has turned out to be a negative, as it has cast him into a personal hell where he belongs nowhere in the world: not human enough for regular life, too human to be a brainless killer.

Once Luc is brought into the main story, it isn’t in a heroic fashion: Luc is gassed, beaten and dragged to Russia by US forces, yet rather than putting up a fight when he awakes, he appears as a lost child, more or less accepting what he is being told and agreeing to be used as a UniSol again. At no point does Luc even really seem to know or comprehend who he is fighting or why, nor does he seem to care. He is a broken man who can at best expect to be treated like a dog by those around him. He acts because that is the way he was trained, no more, no less. Van Damme gives what is easily one of his best performances in his career here, finally finding a real identity in the action genre, an identity which is arguably more interesting than any of his fellow stars, becoming the action hero in existential crisis. With any luck, Van Damme will continue to develop this persona.

While the film does contain memorable action sequences, including an impressive chase sequence to start off the film, all the action in the film has an undercurrent of horror. These are not the over the top antics of the original film, but a more realistic combat style that merely presents the violence rather than necessarily glamorizing it. When people die, they suffer: blows to the body are brutal and cause immense damage. For the first time in the series, the treatment of soldiers as little more than meat is actually a focal point. Yes, these themes, ideas and concepts have been done before and better in other films, but the filmmakers are clearly trying their best to make a film that is more thoughtful than a film like this has any expectation to be.

Just who is the filmmaker behind this effort? John Hyams, a first time director and son of Peter Hyams, a filmmaker who produced a number of underrated and memorable films throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and who acts as the cinematographer on this film. In his first ever effort, John Hyams shows immense skill as a craftsman, focusing on telling the story of the film rather than crafting the story around action sequences. There isn’t a wasted moment in this film, with each scene building upon the last, deftly bouncing back and forth between the various ongoing stories. He successfully develops a dour tone to the film, and never gives into the temptation to insert inappropriate humour. Moreover, Hyams makes his limited budget work for him. Unlike the slick, over produced sets that might usually feature in films such as this, the stark sets add a level of authenticity to the whole of the film.

Credit must also go to screenwriter Victor Ostrovsky, for which this is his first credit. Ostrovsky has brought a greater sense of logic to the series, grounding everything in more recognizable military procedure and expanding on what the programming a UniSol involves, evoking some of the more questionable tactics of recent military history. When it comes to the characters, the film is built upon small moments rather than overblown speeches and epic heroics, allowing even the smallest characters to get little scenes of their own to flesh them out. It isn't all brilliant, but it works and manages to make sense, unlike the last film.

Hands down, Universal Soldier – Regeneration is the best film of the series. Those expecting a typical action film will likely be disappointed, but for everyone else, you might as well skip the other films and watch this one directly. Yet I cannot help but recommending the viewing of all three films for those interested in the evolution of the action genre, though they are likely already familiar with the films.

As for Jean Claude Van Damme, it will be interesting to see where his new writing and directorial project The Eagle Path will go. With any luck, Van Damme now understands his strengths and will play to them. However, with Van Damme again in control of the creative process, there is the slight risk of seeing him return to the vanity projects of the past. Let us hope he has learned his lesson.

No comments:

Post a Comment

What Is Your Cinematic Experience? Post Here!