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UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: REGENERATION
2009
Written by Victor Ostrovsky and directed by John Hyams
97 Minutes
Rated R for pervasive strong brutal violence and some language.

I honestly wouldn't believe it if I hadn't seen it myself. Looking for a bad action movie on the local video store shelves, my team of skilled shitty movie experts came across this, the most recent sequel to the - let's be honest - pretty dismal 1992 movie. Dolph Lundgren, Jean-Claude Van Damme and not one but two UFC fighters? The only things that could've made this movie more enticing to us would've been promises of nudity, a wrestler, and Lance Henriksen.

Fast-forward to two hours later. We've watched the movie, and now are faced with an unenviable task: how the hell do we explain to other people that not only was this fucking awesome, but it was actually a good movie? No one's going to believe that, it's Universal Soldier for Chrissakes. It's a more-or-less direct-to-video sequel starring UFC fighters and washed up action stars. It's directed by the son of a formerly accomplished film director who has since regaled us with quality films like A Sound of Thunder and End of Days. That same director - Peter Hyams - also did the cinematography on this film, which struck me as unusual but sure as hell made sense once we started watching. And to top it all off, the writer doesn't even have any credits to his name outside of this movie.

The R rating cites "strong brutal violence" and it's not fucking kidding; brutal really is the best word to describe the violence in this film. In many ways it's a throwback to old school American action films before they got caught up in flashy cinematography and martial arts. If you miss the bloody, reptile-brain violence of classics like Die Hard, you're going to be at home here. Gunfights have fairly realistic bursts of blood, motherfuckers get hit by cars, and bitches get stabbed, cut, all kinds of shit. The fight scenes are about the only thing fairly modern, and even then it's less of the flashier martial arts and more straight-up brawling, wrestling, etc. Fight choreography is outstanding, eschewing flourish in favor of the kind of full contact violence you might have appreciated in Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior. If anything, Universal Soldier: Regeneration ups the game in some ways. People aren't often finished off in a single decisive blow; they get pinned down and have their faces pulverized.

Part of what makes the action so effective is that the director, John Hyams, doesn't often really cheat. He seems to have a very clear understanding of what we want to see: people getting genuinely fucked up. You want to see the hit connect. You want it to look like it hurts. You don't want the film to cut too frequently to hide stunt work. When a character gets shot point blank with a shotgun, the hardcore action fans are going to want to see that head explode, and Hyams delivers. The violence is in your face, very clear and easy to follow, and coupled with strong sound work that heightens the sense of brutality.

Surprisingly, the script and acting both range from solid to excellent. I almost get the sense the writer, Victor Ostrovsky, took this project seriously. There's a lot of subtext to the film that comes through surprisingly well in the performances of Van Damme and Lundgren. This is the second-best performance in Van Damme's career (outside of the equally strangely phenomenal JCVD), and for Lundgren it's the most fun watching him since Rocky IV. The dismal sequels that precede this one are all rightfully eschewed in favor of leading almost directly off of the first film. And probably the most vital decision made was a willingness to commit to the story and place it above the reunion of Van Damme and Lundgren from the first film, which is really what this film would've been marketed off of. There's a surprising amount of depth and complexity in the story, even daring to actually ask questions about what life must be like for a Universal Soldier. It seems silly, but it works and works well.

If the film has any weaknesses, it's that certain plotlines just aren't as strong as others, and the story is daring in ways that pay off big time but can also cause some problems. This is something I think continued education and practice largely breeds out of writers and sometimes for the worst: scripts become more even, without a lot of the drastic highs and lows that come from the sense of adventure a young writer can bring to the table.

Ultimately, though, this was surprisingly enjoyable. It's almost criminal that an action film this solid is going to go largely overlooked by the movie-watching public, because it's worlds better than the action films that get wide theatrical release these days. If you're like me and want a meatier action film, and if the Bourne sequels didn't do it for you, this is your antidote. Rent it, watch it, squirm. It's awesome.

- Dustin Sklavos

All written content and colored rating system copyright Dustin Sklavos 2010. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.