To be perfectly honest, I never expected to see another 'Universal Soldier' film. Well, I suppose a dusty corner of my brain figured we may eventually get a remake at some point, as soon as Hollywood had sucked the horror well dry and moved on to leech off the sci-fi genre, but after a stinker of a true sequel and two made-for-TV duds, I really thought the franchise was over with, at least in its current state.
Then I heard about this fifth entry in the works, originally titled 'Universal Soldier: A New Beginning,' which was finalized as 'Universal Soldier: Regeneration.' Needless to say, even with both Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren reported to be returning, my hopes still weren't running very high. I mean, eighteen years have passed since they starred in the original together, so they're not exactly spring chickens anymore, and when has a fourth sequel ever been good? To me, the film just seemed destined to join its three brethren as another forgettable flop. But you know what? In the hands of director John Hyams (son of director Peter Hyams), the series has actually been given a breath of fresh air by going back to the basics and completely ignoring past mistakes--effectively removing the fork from a long done property.
The film takes place in Europe, and a group of mercenaries have kidnapped the son and daughter of Prime Minister Musayev (Stanislav Pishtalov) and seized control of an abandoned nuclear reactor at Chernobyl. General Boris (Aki Avni), the leader of the terrorists, sends word to the prime minister demanding the release of 227 political prisoners within three days otherwise the reactor will be destroyed, releasing a radioactive cloud upon millions of people, beginning with his children.
Patrolling the grounds of the reactor is Boris' watchdog, a stolen prototype NGU (Next-Generation UniSol) played by the aptly named MMA fighter Andrei "The Pit Bull" Arlovski. The only hope the military has in defeating the NGU, defusing the bomb, and rescuing the kids is by sending in first wave UniSols, particularly GR44 AKA Luc Devereaux (Van Damme). But Luc has been in rehabilitation for years, and with the NGU stronger, faster, and deadlier, as well as an old foe regenerated -- the force will have to be with Luc if he's to prevent the area from becoming a catastrophic ground zero.
'Universal Soldier: Regeneration' doesn't have an overly complex story, but the script is still pretty decent, especially since it's written by first-time scribe Victor Ostrovsky. There are a few twists and alternate plot arcs, most notably the return of Dolph Lundgren as Andrew Scott (this isn't really a spoiler by the way), and another involving an American soldier named Captain Kevin Burke (MMA fighter Mike Pyle) who also plays an integral role. The plot does drag its heels briefly about an hour in, but for the most part, I thought it moved along at a smooth and brisk pace.
The first film also succeeded because it didn't demand too much "acting" from its stars, and fortunately the same pattern is followed here. We actually don't even see Van Damme until about halfway into the movie, and when he finally shows up, his wooden nature still suits his role. There's also a fair number of other players, so the entire movie doesn't solely rest on his shoulders, which works in the film's favor. Lundgren is on screen significantly less, as he was only on set for six days, but his appearances are relevant and memorable. Sometimes a little goes a long way, and in regards to the performances, this film certainly benefits from that principle.
In the end, though, the main strength of 'Universal Soldier: Regeneration' is easily the action sequences. Hyams stages them extremely well, so they come nowhere near having the generic run-of-the-mill feel in many of these types of movies. All of these scenes are intense, featuring some of the best work we've seen from Van Damme and Lundgren's films, plus it helps that the abandoned steel mill subbing for the reactor is an eye-catching playground for the carnage to unfold. I'll also admit I had a few concerns the fights were going to be lame after sitting through the embarrassing 'Death Warrior,' but what a huge difference it makes when the MMA fighters stay on track and do what they do best. Arlovski is viciously brutal, and more than once falls back on the ground-n-pound method of attack--which is a hell of a lot more believable than resorting to ridiculous airplane spins. Hector Echavarria really could learn a thing or two from watching this movie, that's for sure.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Sony brings 'Universal Soldier: Regeneration' direct to high-definition video on a dual-layered BD-50 Blu-ray Disc inside a standard blue keepcase. Before getting to the menu, there are forced previews for 'Black Dynamite' and 'Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day.' The Blu-ray disc is also reported to be region free and therefore should function properly in all PlayStation 3 and standalone players.
I mentioned in my review for the original 'Universal Soldier' that it was one of the best-looking catalog titles on Blu-ray out on the market. While the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 (2.35:1) encode for 'Universal Soldier: Regeneration' isn't quite as impressive, it still has a pretty decent transfer.
'Regeneration' was shot digitally so the image is super clean, free of dirt and debris, and there isn't any grain to speak of. Hyams has given the picture a cool color palette with bleak grays, browns, and pale whites for a heavily washed-out appearance. Blacks seem to struggle in maintaining their deepness, often slipping to more of a weaker shade of dark gray. Most of the film is also relatively flat, with very little depth. Skin tones have acceptable color and detailing, although they occasionally appear waxy in places. Both Van Damme and Lundgren are starting to show their age with their rough, weathered facial features and the robin's egg on JCVD's forehead really stands out in high-definition. There's some motion blurring during some of the action sequences with the way the camera pans and swirls, plus there's quite a bit of banding throughout the film, but I didn't notice any noise, edge enhancement, or DNR.
'Universal Soldier: Regeneration' may not be a visual delight, but it's attractive enough that it doesn't have to consider walking around town with a paper bag over its head, at least.
'Universal Soldier: Regeneration' is loaded with action sequences, and the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track on this Blu-ray makes every single one of them sound amazing.
The film opens with quite a bang, as a vehicular smash n' grab sends jolts of crunching metal and screeching tires across the soundscape, setting the intense tone for the rest of the movie. Gunfire, explosions, and the punches and kicks of hand-to-hand combat come through clean, distinct, and weighty. The mechanical action takes full advantage of smooth pans while delivering a terrific sense of directional movement. I was also impressed how well the music spreads to the rear channels, too. Dialogue is also always clear and well balanced, even during the chaotic battles and firefights. This is one B-movie where the audio easily gets an A.
There aren't any additional track options, but there are optional English and English SDH subtitles.
Sony only really includes a pair of feature related supplements on this Blu-ray, but both items have some substance to them at least.
'Universal Soldier: Regeneration' isn't just the best of the franchise, it's one of the better limited release films I've seen in awhile. John Hyams cleverly uses the action to mask weaker elements (like the plot and acting capabilities of the stars), and it's this proven formula that made the first film work so well. This Blu-ray sports fine video, outstanding audio, and although there aren't many supplements, at least what is included has some meat on its bones. Casual viewers may want to stick with a rental, but if you already own 'Universal Soldier,' you'll definitely want to pick this one up.