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AUGUST 30, 1999: 

Universal Soldier: The Return

Here's irony: an aging action star tries to revive his sagging career by spawning a sequel to a flick about resurrected soldiers. The result is DOA. This time out, Jean Claude Van Damme is a compassionate family man -- his Unisol (brought-back-from-the-dead über-soldier) has become human and is now a single father -- the wife has, of course, passed on. He's also an adviser to the Army, which is building a new generation of Unisols. The genetically enhanced units are cyber-linked to a HAL-like (as in 2001) computer called SETH (Self Evolving Thought Helix). When SETH discovers that the military wants to pull the plug on the project, he powers up the Unisols and Van Damme gets his opportunity to play savior and kick some ass.

In the original 1992 actioner, the Muscles from Brussels had Dolph Lundgren's nefarious robo-mercenary to contend with, and there was reasonable intrigue to their atavistic game of cat-and-mouse. Here Van Damme is pitted against cardboard baddies in the form of pro wrestling's Goldberg as the Terminator-esque unit called Romeo and buffster Michael Jai White as the physical incarnation of SETH. ESPN fitness babe Kiana Tom is on hand, and so is Heidi Sanchez as the bland, pain-in-the-ass reporter turned love interest. There's too much soap opera and kinder-gentler mumbo-jumbo for the picture's own good, and when the bullets finally begin to rip, the pyrotechnics are cheesy and the action is muddled and boorish. The film clicks only when Van Damme and White square off in the "big" fight sequence. Besides that, the most enthralling thing about Universal Soldier 2 is the horrifying spectacle of Van Damme trying to intimate sensitivity.

-- Tom Meek

In Too Deep

Michael Rymer's film plays like a low-rent remake of Donnie Brasco, or a shallower version of Bill Duke's neglected 1992 classic Deep Cover. Jeff Cole (Omar Epps), a tough young cop who grew up in the projects, volunteers to go undercover to crack Cincinnati's burgeoning inner-city drug problem. After a couple of Mickey Mouse busts, his handler (Stanley Tucci) decides he's ready for the big time and sends him after God (L.L. Cool J), Ohio's brutal but beneficent crack king. Jeff worms his way into God's organization by capping a couple of his boys and slowly becomes more of a gangsta than a gangbuster.

The problem here is that the special relationship between Jeff and God is told rather than shown. God repeatedly talks about how he trusts Jeff, but Jeff never does anything to win that trust. Unlike Donnie Brasco, who befriends, supports, and protects an aging Mafioso, Jeff doesn't have much to offer the top-of-his-game God, except maybe a trip to the slammer. Nonetheless, the pumped-up, hip-hop Yoda L.L. Cool J makes a great villain, and the murky urban cinematography adds atmosphere. It's just the script's lack of logic that prevents In Too Deep from getting deep enough to convince.

-- Nicholas Patterson

A Dog of Flanders

Orphaned at birth and living with his poor but loving grandfather, young Nello (played by Jesse James, then Jeremy James Kissner) finds solace in his drawings and, as he pursues his dream of becoming a famous artist, discovers the true power of beauty and love. Sounds like the recipe for a timeless family film -- which this could have been had director Kevin Brodie not crammed it so full of cheese and sap that he squeezed out all the charm. Brodie's version, the fifth telling of this tale based on a book of the same name, tries to echo the days of simpler storytelling but ends up recycling the worst parts of the films of yesteryear. Churches glow when little boys fall asleep in them, action scenes take place in painfully slow motion (yes, voices suddenly go baritone), and the grins are glued on. The talents of Jack Warden and Jon Voight are wasted in the company of kids who haven't yet learned which facial expression goes with which emotion -- not to mention being buried under an unintelligent script. (It's safe to assume the phrase "Hey, cut it out!" was not common in early-19th-century Antwerp.) For patronizing and boring adults and children alike, this dog should be put to sleep.
-- Jumana Farouky

Better Than Chocolate

Director Anne Wheeler breaks no new ground with this insipid romantic comedy. It's love at first sight between 19-year-old aspiring writer Maggie (Karyn Dwyer) and street artist Kim (Christina Cox). In an embarrassingly dreary comic scene, they have their first sex in a parked van while it's being ticketed and towed. The need to hide the Truth about their relationship from Maggie's visiting mother (Wendy Crewson) drives what passes for a plot. Helping the film achieve its 101-minute running time is good-hearted Judy (Peter Outerbridge), a pre-op transgendered cabaret singer who's in love with the owner of the lesbian bookstore where Maggie works.

This hot pink placebo of a film would be savorless if it weren't for the cast. Outerbridge and Crewson are the hardest-working actors; Dwyer and Cox more than make up for their vapid roles by frequently simulating sex. By the end, several clay pigeons -- including homophobic scum and Canadian censors -- have been paraded past and disposed of, along with the characters' problems, so that everyone can leave the theater feeling good. So feel good already.

-- Chris Fujiwara

Dudley Do-Right

The animated "Fractured Fairy Tale" short that opens Dudley Do-Right is funny, but it also helps show just why Hugh Wilson's live-action version of Jay Ward's 1960s cartoon is such a dud. Ward, who also created Rocky and Bullwinkle and George of the Jungle, was a master of puns, self-referential humor, goofy characters, and his trademark, the irreverent and meddlesome narrator. In short, his cartoons relied on clever dialogue, not loud pratfalls and gross sound effects. Brendan Fraser -- who you'll remember also played George of the Jungle in that commercially successful but less than satisfying adaptation -- does his best to re-create the hapless Canadian Mountie of the title, and respectable efforts are also put in by Sarah Jessica Parker as his girlfriend Nell, Alfred Molina as the fiendish villain Snidely Whiplash, and Monty Python's Eric Idle in a small role as a country bumpkin. But despite the acting talent and Ward's classic characters, this movie will likely be best remembered for the scenes that tastelessly parody Native American culture.
-- Mark Bazer

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