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Kickassualties of War

How the Universal Soldier series became the weirdest, most indestructible film franchise of our time

Sometimes a simple, formulaic genre film breaks free of its format, takes root in the hearts and minds of a generation, and becomes something larger, greater — a modern myth. Movies like these don’t just spawn sequels; they sort of demand them, by building alluring, fully realized worlds to which moviegoers long to return, if only for a few more hours.

The original Universal Soldier, released in July 1992, is not one of those movies.

It was co-written by Dean Devlin and directed by Roland Emmerich. It was Devlin’s first produced screenplay and the German-born Emmerich’s first American film. It starred Euro-import action icons Jean-Claude Van Damme1 and Dolph Lundgren, and it’s amazing without being in any way good.

When we first see Lundgren, as Sergeant Andrew Scott, he’s sewing himself a necklace of human ears. It’s Vietnam, circa 1969, and Scott has just murdered a bunch of Vietnamese peasants, as well as his whole platoon — except for Private Luc Deveraux,2 played by Van Damme. Deveraux’s nearing the end of his tour. He just wants out of this hellhole. But Scott has gone mad. He kills a young Vietnamese girl with a grenade as she’s fleeing for her life. Deveraux attacks him and manages to bury a knife in his gut. They shoot each other and die. And then decades later, they turn up as part of a team of UniSols — genetically modified super-soldiers, the product of a government experiment so top-secret even “those wimps at the Pentagon” don’t know about it, programmed for efficient carnage and maximum obedience.

Before long, both Scott and Deveraux begin to experience Vietnam flashbacks. In its own half-witted, kick-splosive way, Universal Soldier is still a Vietnam movie. Like The Deer Hunter or the first Rambo or the Joe Dante episode of Showtime’s Masters of Horror in which dead Iraq-war vets rise from their remains-pouches to vote the President out of office, it’s about the moral and spiritual cost of turning men into killing machines and/or cannon fodder and society’s inability to reassimilate those men when they come home. But only Universal Soldier features Jean-Claude Van Damme cauterizing his own bullet wound with a car cigarette lighter.

Anyway: Deveraux goes AWOL, with the help of a sassy female newscaster who smokes cigarettes (Ally Walker, anticipating Jennifer Aniston’s flinty/flustered act by a few years). Scott, still crazy after all these years, tracks them across the country to Deveraux’s parents’ farm. They fight; Deveraux says “You’re discharged, Sarge” (you’re crazy for this one, Dean Devlin!), and then feeds him into a hay baler. Roll credits, set to “Body Count’s in the House.” The ’90s, everybody.

Despite withering reviews,3 Universal Soldier was a modest hit in the U.S. and a smash internationally. Devlin and Emmerich went on to make hit movies like Independence Day and The Patriot. Van Damme went on to face-kick his way through Timecop and Street Fighter and co-star with Dennis Rodman (in his film debut, as an arms dealer named Yaz) in the truly insane Double Team4 before succumbing to the law of diminishing returns. The era of the muscle-bound action star was over — even the once-invulnerable Schwarzenegger and Stallone were in box-office eclipse — and by the end of the ’90s, Van Damme’s future prospects had disappeared like Crystal Pepsi down the drain. (Lundgren, who’d arguably peaked with Rocky IV, vanished from mainstream movies almost entirely before resurfacing two years ago in the nudge-wink fan-service blockbuster The Expendables.)

The Universal Soldier franchise, meanwhile, remained dormant for about six years, until 1998, when two sequels (starring other guys5 in the roles originated by Lundgren and Van Damme, with Burt “Make It Out to Cash” Reynolds and Gary “I Have Trouble Making Smart Choices and Sometimes the Sun Talks to Me and Tells Me to Do Things” Busey in small roles) were released straight to video, and logically the series should have died right there.

So there’s a new Universal Soldier movie out this month. (It hits theaters, in 3-D, on November 30; you can watch it now on Amazon and, depending on where you live, maybe your cable system, too.) It’s called Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, and it’s great. Surprisingly great.

How surprisingly depends on whether you’ve seen 2009’s brutally effective Universal Soldier: Regeneration, wherein Deveraux is reactivated to stop terrorists from poisoning the world by blowing up the old Chernobyl reactor. Both Regeneration and Reckoning were directed by the same guy, John Hyams, and they’re tonally similar, but you don’t have to have seen Regeneration to appreciate Reckoning. Regeneration disregarded the straight-to-video sequels and 1999’s “official” sequel Universal Soldier: The Return, which starred Van Damme, Michael Jai White, and WCW legend Goldberg, but not Lundgren; Reckoning, in turn, ignores Regeneration. In Regeneration, Van Damme’s Deveraux seems to be close to regaining his humanity; when he returns in Reckoning, he reappears, without explanation, as the seemingly super-insane leader of a cultish zombie army of liberated UniSols, with Lundgren (his longtime nemesis) as his right-hand man, even though Lundgren dies at the end of Regeneration. It sounds confusing, but it isn’t. Basically, the Universal Soldier franchise now exists in a state of perpetual reboot. It’s a series of movies about unstoppable machines with fuzzy memories of their own past that is itself an unstoppable machine with a fuzzy memory of its own past. Reckoning is either the fourth installment or the sixth one, but it doesn’t really matter. When Lundgren and Van Damme finally square off at the end of Regeneration, this sense of lost time gives their conflict an existentially tragic dimension. They have to kill each other, but they don’t remember why. Lundgren’s only in the movie for a little while — you get the sense that both these films have been constructed so as to not unduly tax the stamina of their fiftysomething stars — but he’s great in it; the flicker of self-awareness in his eyes recalls Roy Batty’s “Tears in rain” speech at the end of Blade Runner, at least until Van Damme spears Dolph’s veiny forehead with a lead pipe and then fires a shotgun through it.

Reckoning opens with what may be the most shockingly violent scene in the history of the franchise. In a series of escalatingly claustrophobic first-person POV shots, we’re introduced to John (Scott Adkins), our protagonist, as a masked paramilitary strike team invades his home in the middle of the night, beats him senseless with a crowbar, and murders his wife and daughter right in front of him/us. And before we’ve had time to process this, the strike team’s leader pulls off his mask and gives John/the camera/us a good look at his face. It’s Deveraux — alarmingly bald, and convincingly soulless. But what we’re really looking at is Van Damme, age 52, a once-beautiful human hollowed out by years of bad luck and worse decisions.

Universal Soldier

Even early on, when he was full of energy and cut like a GI Joe designed by Bruce Weber, there was always something vulnerable and melancholy about Van Damme; he looked like Buster Keaton, if Buster Keaton had made his living helicopter-kicking other men through Sheetrock walls. Now he just looks like his own skull. Lundgren, 55, looks even weirder, as if he’s been surgically reconstructed from a bar mitzvah caricature of Ivan Drago (plus he still delivers his lines like Jame Gumb doing a John Wayne impression). Following in the footsteps of The Terminator, the original worked around Lundgren and Van Damme’s limitations as thespians by casting them as deadpan automatons; Reckoning capitalizes on the visual not-rightness of its stars’ faces by casting them as monsters and weaving a horror movie around them.

I should note here that it’s not a horror movie that makes a particularly great amount of sense, although complaining about character and motivation in a movie about soldiers who stopped living and became mixed-up zombies constitutes a failure to meet said movie on its own terms.

(Spoiler alerts apply from here on out.)

John wakes up after nine months in a coma. Unable to remember anything about his life prior to the night of the murders, he goes in search of answers, and revenge. He meets a horribly disfigured crime boss who claims his condition is John’s fault, a stripper who seems to know him quite well, and — eventually, inevitably — another John. He was a UniSol all along! It’s the movie’s big reveal, although it’s hard not to see it coming; Adkins is not exactly a vibrant screen presence, and it would have been odd if he hadn’t turned out to be a lab-grown robot-person.

Meanwhile, the government activates a UniSol sleeper agent (Belarusan MMA fighter and Regeneration co-star Andrei “Pitbull” Arlovski, here sporting a sinister Stanley Kubrick beard). Abandoning his day job as a plumber, Arlovski ambushes Lundgren and his men at a brothel where UniSols pay prostitutes to abuse their invulnerable bodies with hammers and nails; he does serious damage to Lundgren’s squad before Lundgren injects him with a syringe full of what I’m going to go ahead and call freedom-juice, at which time Arlovski switches teams and goes after John. There’s a car chase that’s effectively a vehicular fight scene, and then an even-more-brilliantly-staged throwdown6 between Adkins and Arlovski in a sporting-goods store — one of the great guy-realizes-he-has-superpowers scenes of the post-Matrix era — and then John takes a boat up a river to confront and kill Luc Deveraux, who’s painted his head like a black-and-white cookie for the occasion.

Any echoes of Captain Willard’s journey to relieve Colonel Kurtz of his command are blatantly intentional. There’s nothing about Day of Reckoning that isn’t blatant. There’s nothing particularly original about it, either, but it borrows from so many disparate sources so audaciously that it becomes original — Hyams crossbreeds Apocalypse Now and Funny Games and Enter the Void7 and Memento and Total Recall into a formula that was itself a shotgun gene-splice of RoboCop and Frankenstein and First Blood, and while you have probably seen most or all of these movies before, you’ve never seen them all at the same damn time.

The general consensus among Soldier fans who’ve seen both is that the stripped-down RegenerationUniversal Soldier plus Bourne plus Metal Gear Solid, shot in a color palette best described as “Eastern European City With Really Good Tax Breaks Blue/Gray” — is the stronger of the two Hyams outings, and that Reckoning is an ambitious mess. Ultimately, your preference will depend on how much narrative coherence and realism you feel entitled to demand from a movie about reanimated Vietnam War vets punching people to death. I prefer Reckoning‘s borderline-Lynchian waking-nightmare pacing to Regeneration‘s neck-snapping ruthlessness, although Regeneration does give Van Damme something to play besides cold malevolence, developing Deveraux’s character in a way that only Van Damme probably wanted to see. When we first meet him, he’s undergoing psychological rehabilitation in a ski lodge with a kindly British therapist; in order to return to action and take Lundgren down, he has to unlearn the humanity he’s struggled to regain. On a symbolic level, it’s about why Van Damme continues to do this sort of thing and whether or not there’s any hope for an aging action hero to be anything else.

I don’t want to be buried in the ground, rotting, with all those worms. What I would love is to have my body dropped where you have those big icebergs and the water is so cold and pure, to be eaten by a polar bear or a seal or an otter.”

— Jean-Claude Van Damme, 1995

Regeneration is of a piece, thematically, with the best non–Universal Soldier Van Damme film of the last decade, Mabrouk El Mechri’s meta–Van Damme crime drama JCVD, from 2008. Van Damme plays Jean-Claude Van Damme — aging, exhausted, pale, bloated, forever losing roles to his old nemesis, Steven Seagal. When he’s not on set being pushed around by young-punk Asian action directors who don’t respect him, he’s in court, embroiled in a nasty custody battle in which his ex-wife’s lawyer enters a stack of Van Damme DVDs into evidence as proof that he’s no good.

After Timecop, Van Damme says Universal was offered $12 million for a three-picture deal; he demanded $20 million, and claims he was summarily blacklisted for his hubris. There was also the 10-gram-a-day cocaine habit, the bipolar-disorder diagnosis, the spousal-abuse allegations in his 1993 divorce from a former Hawaiian Tropic model, the strip-club fistfight with ex–Hells Angel and Howard Stern Show barnacle Chuck Zito, and enough bad movies to max out a landfill. Some of this is mentioned or alluded to in JCVD; all of it is inscribed on Van Damme’s face.

While recuperating at home in Brussels, JCVD‘s Van Damme–as–Van Damme visits the post office and finds himself trapped in a hostage situation that serves as a deft metaphor for the way Van Damme is trapped by the idea of Van Damme. In the movie’s most powerful moment, he floats out of the post office set and into the rafters of a soundstage, where he delivers what feels like an improvised monologue to the camera (and by extension, the audience) as if pleading his case to God.

“You made my dream come true,” he says in subtitled French. “I asked you for it, I promised you something in return, and I haven’t delivered yet. You win, I lose.”

He keeps talking, for six minutes — about his many wives, and the samurai code, and fancy hotels, and money, and the absurdity of stardom, and the drugs that ruined him. “Van Damme, the beast. The tiger in a cage. The Bloodsport man got hooked … It’s not my fault if I was cut out to be a star. I asked for it. I asked for it, really believed in it. When you’re 13 you believe in your dream. Well, it came true for me. But I still ask myself today: What have I done on this earth? Nothing. I’ve done nothing.”

It’s both bizarre and deeply moving; in acknowledging his own failure and all that he’s squandered, Van Damme achieves a level of pathos he’s never come close to before. Time Magazine‘s Richard Corliss called his work in the film “the finest, most scab-pulling performance I’ve seen this year”; for a minute, it looked like JCVD might do for Van Damme what The Wrestler did for Mickey Rourke. Then, on the eve of its U.S. release, Van Damme opted to blow off a press tour to stay home and care for one of his dogs, who’d suffered a stroke. So it goes.

Is Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning the Van Damme movie we were promised, the one he feels he owed us? I don’t know. But it’s certainly a better use of latter-day Van Damme than this year’s The Expendables 2, in which his presence as the villain is just an excuse for director Simon West to serve up the Sly–Van Damme fight scene the Internet’s inner 12-year-old has been aching to see. I love Reckoning‘s formal audacity, its pretensions, and its willingness to throw backstory out the window, confident that anyone who’s enough of a Universal Soldier fan to notice or care will be willing to let it go. It’s a B-movie too dumb or too mutated to know it’s not a work of art, and it is glorious. I wish there were more movies like it, and I can’t recall ever thinking that about a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. And I find myself suddenly wishing the best for Van Damme. I hope he finds work worthy of his ambition, as should we all. And failing that, I hope he’s eaten by an otter when he dies.

Filed Under: ILM, Movies, Series

Alex Pappademas is a staff writer for Grantland.