Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Universal Soldier: The Return

By Russell Smith

AUGUST 30, 1999: 

D: Mic Rogers; with Jean-Claude Van Damme, Heidi Schanz, Michael Jai White, Kiana Tom, Karis Bryant. (R, 82 min.)

For those of you who've been wondering who asked for a sequel to the meatheaded 1992 blastorama, Universal Soldier, the results of my informal market research are in: It's your next-door neighbor, Gunnar. You know, that big, scary Henry Rollins lookalike who enjoys stripping down to camouflage-print gym shorts and pumping iron in his garage while blasting Rammstein at volumes audible within a 10-block radius. With director Rogers delivering even more lead-pumping, head-butting, building-detonating fury than Roland Emmerich's original and wasting even less creative energy on narrative logic and character development, you can bet Gunnar and his tattooed pals are already all over this one like bull mastiffs on bloody steak. They certainly couldn't care less that the most inventive scene here is one that somehow manages to combine naked strippers, kickboxing, guns, motorcycles, and computer hacking. Nor does it matter that Van Damme's already-rudimentary acting and English-language skills seem to be deteriorating with each successive picture. Or that the lame, mindless dialogue makes Wing Commander seem Cukoresque by comparison. Traditional movie standards don't apply here because this isn't a movie in any conventional sense. A closer analogy would be PC-based first-person shooter games like Diablo and Quake, which it resembles right down to the physical settings. (Most of the action takes place inside dark, claustrophobic industrial spaces to the accompaniment of barking, bludgeoning death-metal music.) It's significant that very few of the key characters are even human beings. Jean-Claude's main antagonist is a HAL 9000-like military computer who's leading a rebellion of remote-controlled cyborg killing machines played by an assortment of professional wrestlers and bodybuilders. For the targeted audience, this will all be fine and dandy. I could add a few peevish observations about the perpetuation of brain-dead Hollywood traditions in which villainous computers think aloud (both vocally and in onscreen readouts), and display furious streams of nonsense characters to signify that they're losing their silicon marbles, but why belabor the obvious? No one who's planning on seeing this film would care about that stuff, and vice versa. Gunnar, this one's for you, big fella. Enjoy. But remember to check your TEC-9s at the door.


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