I have been pretty hard on Jean-Claude Van Damme in the past, especially in my runaway bestseller Mega Roos vs. Giant Crappy Movies. But good ol’ JCVD is one of the best things in the subject of today’s rant, 1999’s Universal Soldier: The Return. I’m sad to say that this was the last big budget, mass marketed Van Damme movie to date. Tragic. It’s a shame because when compared to the acting skills of co-star Bill Goldberg, Jean-Claude Van Damme looks like an Academy Award winner.
This is ironically a variation of the technique Sylvester Stallone & Napoleon Bonaparte used in their prime. Stand by someone smaller, you appear taller in comparison. This is the only reason a sane movie star like Stallone would voluntarily pair himself on screen twice opposite diminutive comedian Rob Schneider. I also believe this is why Estelle Getty was chosen – of all the qualified Golden Girls – for that career making role in Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot. Everyone knew that role was made for Rue McLannahan, but Getty was the shortest.
But I digress.
For those who don’t know, this is a sequel to the not-entirely terrible film Universal Soldier in which Van Damme was opposite actor’s actor Dolph Lundgren. Both of them played Army corpses back to life as a sort of mindless super soldier, Dolph going bad and Van Damme rediscovering his humanity. Interesting historical note, this is the only film where Dolph and Van Damme intentionally played living corpses.
In the woefully Dolphless sequel, Van Damme has apparently recovered from being dead. He is now an official human being, who is working with the government on a new batch of Universal Soldiers. This time the Soldiers are controlled by supercomputer, SETH. Guess you can’t see where this is going, huh?
If you guessed SETH goes HAL, you win!
A General comes to shut the program down due to budget cuts. (One would think the topics of budget cuts would be a sensitive subject with Van Damme.) HAL — er SETH, that is — discovers this by, I kid you not, READING LIPS. If it’s supposed to be an homage it’s about as appropriate as Vanilla Ice performing Mozart.
The general breaks the news to Van Damme and his crew while putting down the nature of undead soldiers with one of the great lines of cinema history, “A soldier has always been the backbone of the military.” REALLY? Perhaps if Napoleon had used soldiers at the battle of Waterloo rather than chefs he’d have had more luck.
Before long, SETH has reprogrammed all the Universal Soldiers, including our pal Goldberg playing “Romeo” (insert laughter here), to kill humans and take over the base. Van Damme teams up with spunky, female reporter Erin Young, who just happens to be on-site at the wrong time. Together they manage to escape after having time to banter and build obligatory romantic tension.
During said escape, Van Damme and Goldberg have one of several fight scenes, this one ending with the nigh indestructible Goldberg on fire, growling, “I’m just warming up!” Ouch. Did that zinger actually twist my ankle? Who knew terrible puns badly delivered could actually cause physical pain? This is on par with any one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s lines as Mr. Freeze in Batman & Robin, such as, “Chill out, Batman!” or “You’ll never put me in the cooler!”
Van Damme and Erin escape and join the military gathered outside. For some reason, when the General understandably asks what she’s doing here, Van Damme says, “She’s with me.” That is enough authorization to allow our reporter friend to snoop and meddle undeterred for the duration of the affair.
As the movie staggers on, Van Damme and the insipid reporter try to beat SETH at his own game, and to do so they go to a strip club where Van Damme claims he knows they have the internet. When pressed for how he knows this, JCVD responds with the only intentionally funny line in the movie: “I, uh, saw it on 60 Minutes.” If Morley Safer and Andy Rooney’s withered heads had been in the front row enjoying a pole-dance, I’d have died laughing, but sadly it was not to be.
Van Damme gets online after head butting a bouncer, which soon leads to a wild brawl in which the strippers strangely turn on the bouncers. I’m sure the inexplicable bouncers vs. strippers incident is a satisfying conclusion to a riveting subplot in the as yet unreleased Ultimate Director’s Cut.
Meanwhile, SETH has put himself in a ultimate Universal Soldier body and has downloaded some of those deluxe, Keanu Reeves caliber kung fu programs. I neglected to mention that Van Damme has a pre-teen daughter, who bumped her head and was taken to the hospital, where Goldberg and SETH kidnap her. This gives Goldberg a chance to beat up some steroid enhanced interns and a large security guard, and deliver another classic line, “Guard this!” Wow. Just wow.
Van Damme comes out of an elevator in the hospital, only to be charged by Goldberg, whom Van Damme easily leapfrogs then presses the down arrow, trapping a confused Goldberg in the elevator. I almost wish there’d been a scene of Goldberg trapped in the elevator growling at the buttons in bewilderment, but alas it’s another missed opportunity.
It all leads to a whole lot of kicking and fighting with Van Damme and SETH having a great showdown in a Rejuvo Booth where SETH will heal Van Damme’s daughter if SETH gets some random code Van Damme possesses. Yes, they actually call it a Rejuvo Booth. Naturally, the Rejuvo Booth is surrounded by about thirteen different layers of glass windows, nearly all of which are broken in the fight. And in another case of Jean-Claude Van Damme movies borrowing from Terminator 2, the way JCVD defeats exactly copied from one of the ways Arnold tried and failed to destroy his nemesis in T2.
This is one of those so-bad-it’s-good action movies that for some reason I thoroughly enjoy. It’s toxic to those who hate cheesy movies, but for me, it’s cinetitanic gold.
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