When one goes to a Jean-Claude Van Damme action movie, one doesn't
expect certain things they would from a typical film--for example, decent
acting, a strong storyline, interesting characters. True to Van Damme
form, _Universal_Soldier:_The_Return_ boasts none of these qualities.
The problem is, neither does it possess the one thing for which one would
watch a Van Damme vehicle in the first place: excitement.
_The_Return_ is, as can be gleaned by its title, the third sequel (the
Van Damme-less numbers 2 and 3 went straight to cable) to the Muscles
from Brussels's 1992 sci-fi thriller, created by overpaid uberhacks
Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin. That film was far from a
masterpiece--in fact, it was quite bad--but it did have its share of
diverting moments, not to mention a casting gimmick that proved to be the
film's biggest drawing card: pit against Van Damme as the baddie was
another lower-tier action star, Dolph Lundgren.
With Lundgren's character having been fed into a wood chipper at the end
of the first film, there really is no novelty left for _The_Return_. All
that remains are the formica acting and still-below-average English
skills of Van Damme and the plot concept of having dead soldiers
reanimated into invincible supersoldiers. The nothing plotline cooked up
by _The_Return_'s "writers" (I won't dignify their "work" by mentioning
their names) has the computer in charge of a new advanced brand of
UniSols, SETH (eventually played in human form by Michael Jai White, a
charismatic actor who at one point seemed to have a promising career),
going berserk and hence making his UniSols go on a killing spree. The
only one who can stop them of course, is Van Damme's Luc Deveraux, one of
the original UniSols.
There is plenty of mayhem in _The_Return_; the film begins with an
extended jetski/boat chase, and numerous fights and shootouts follow.
Sounds interesting, and, if anything all the wild goings-on keep the
viewer awake. But since they are so conventionally, matter-of-factly
shot and staged by director Mic Rodgers, none of it was particularly
exciting; one generic set piece comes after another, ultimately blurring
into one unmemorable whole by the end of the film.
Perhaps Rodgers thought the mere presence of Van Damme would compensate,
or that of one of his co-stars--Bill Goldberg, of World Championship
Wrestling fame, who plays the evil Romeo. While not at the level of
Lundgren's casting in the original, seeing Goldberg on the big screen
does hold some curious interest. At least, that is, until it becomes
painfully (if unsurprisingly) evident that Goldberg can't act a lick, and
his one showcase scene, where he rips off his shirt for no apparent
reason and dispatches some foes using some wrestling maneuvers, just
makes his presence in the film even more ludicrous.
Van Damme has expressed his interest in making a break from the hard
action scene and going into more classy thriller territory, à la
_The_Thomas_Crown_Affair_. It's a ridiculous idea, but from Van Damme's
standpoint, it's understandable. With the complete failure of
_Universal_Soldier:_The_Return_, it's obvious that the action route is
keeping him stranded in his career cul-de-sac, and he'd be stupid _not_
to look for an alternate way out.