In case you haven't seen the original 'Universal Soldier,' or can't remember it, here's a quick recap. It was a 1992 sci-fi action-thriller aka 'Terminator' rip-off, that starred then red-hot Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren, and was the first major American release from the filmmaking
hacks team of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin. It wasn't great but it was a medium-sized hit, and offered the drive-in pleasure of watching Van Damme and Lundgren as "weapons of the future" who soon turn on each other and beat themselves almost silly. It was precisely the thrill of watching these two robotic actors play re-animated characters who are essentially techno-zombies. Again, it wasn't great, but it was kinda fun.
Unfortunately, the film's success would spawn the inevitable sequel, 1999's 'Universal Soldier: The Return.' Only this time, Lundgren wouldn't return, leaving Van Damme to shoulder the entire film with one-half of the chemistry missing. Also gone were Devlin and Emmerich (the latter replaced by director Mic Rodgers), leaving little of the "magic" behind the original 'Universal Soldier' still on board. The result is another poor man's follow-up that tastes like leftovers from a fast food meal.
The story is so dumb it hardly warrants explaining. With Lundgren terminated, Luc Deveraux (Van Damme) is now working as a tech guru at a federal agency. Along with his female partner, Maggie (Klana Tom), the two undergo rigorous training to spearhead the government's hush-hush, revamped UniSol program of high-tech warriors. But things quickly go haywire when the central intelligence of UniSol, the mainframe SETH (that's Self-Evolving Thought Helix for those in the know) learns the government may pull the plug, and seeks to arm his army to prevent shutdown. Leading SETH's charge is the totally bad-ass man-machine Romeo (Bill Goldberg), and the newly-created Squid (Michael Jai White), whose human form (Brent Hinkley) SETH has assimilated. There's even overstuffed subplots thrown in involving Luc's kidnapped daughter (Karis Paige Bryant), a scheming military General (Daniel von Bargen) and an ambitious reporter (Heidi Schanz) out to uncover the UniSol program. Melee ensues.
Any attempts to try and make sense of 'Universal Soldier: The Return' will fail. Story logic and believability pretty much go out the window -- unlike 'The Terminator,' which had plot holes you could at least argue intelligently, 'The Return' comes more from the school of '70s B-movies, where all the pseudo-science and hilariously-dated computer stuff is just a bunch of phooey to string along otherwise-unrelated action scenes. And it's on that level where 'The Return' at least barely delivers. The narrative is often a mess -- I quickly forgot where I was in terms of character development, who was running through which lab, and whether Van Damme killed Romeo with the wrench, the lead pipe or the candlestick -- but when the Muscles from Brussels actually gets into fisticuffs with the baddies, or shoots lots of bullets, the film picks up some steam.
But what's ultimately missing in 'Universal Soldier: The Return' is -- and I can't believe I'm saying this -- the chemistry between Van Damme and Lundgren. That was really the only reason to see the original film. The team-up of these two once-top-tier action stars was like the early-'90s version of 'Freddy vs. Jason' -- you wanted to see them pummel each other, and little else. Without Lundgren, even the perfectly serviceable villains Squid/SETH and Romeo lack the same spark. 'Universal Soldier: The Return' is just so-bad-it's-good-enough to serve as a passable timewaster, but it really has no reason to exist other than to pillage the popularity of the already-mediocre original.
Sony offers up a nice remaster for 'Universal Soldier: The Return.' This 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer (1.85:1) isn't spectacular, but it presents the film perfectly well.
The source holds up solidly, with a light veil of film grain visible but no obvious print flaws. Blacks are generally quite deep, and contrast a tad flat in the mid- and high-range, but otherwise strong. Colors waver a bit -- even primaries never really pop, but fleshtones are accurate and there are some moments of vivid hues. Sharpness is on par for a mid-'90s film, never being razor sharp but not looking soft, either. The encode is likewise very solid, with no edge enhancement or artifacts.
A tad better than the video is the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround track (48kHz/24-bit). It's rather polished and aggressive in spots, and engaging in the action scenes.
Surrounds light up with discrete effects fairly frequently, mainly during the action, which is fairly full-bodied and well placed in the rears. There some slight atmosphere and score bleed, though certainly the dialogue/quieter scenes lack pizzazz. Dialogue is sometimes flat in aggressive moments. Dynamics are otherwise rather good, with supportive low bass and a polished sheen across the high end. Not bad at all.
Sony never produced many extras for the original DVD of 'Universal Soldier: The Return,' only a trio of featurettes, and they are repurposed here. Video is 480i/MPEG-2.
'Universal Soldier: The Return' is a barely-decent sequel to a film that was only barely decent to begin with. There's some barely-decent action, too, but the rest of the plot and story is threadbare and cheesy. This Blu-ray is a middling catalog release, with fine video and audio but wussy extras. Only diehard fans of the film need apply.