As a writer, a thesaurus is a wonderful tool. Not only does it allow one many choices of how to more colorfully describe something, but it also often introduces the author and his/her subsequent readers to some new words. For instance, just today I discovered that my thesaurus lists more than one hundred synonyms for the adjective "bad."
Although I didn't find any really funky obscure ones, looking through them and just trying to pick out the best was about the only fun thing about reviewing Jean-Claude Van Damme's latest film, "Universal Soldier: The Return." The sequel to -- yes, you guessed it, 1992's "Universal Soldier" -- this film is so bad it's ripe for the picking.
As such, the subsequent problem was then trying to sort through the myriad of choices. Should I say that the film was "irredeemable" or "awful?" Perhaps "unsatisfactory" would be good, but then again "pathetic" seems a bit more descriptive. Regardless of the word selection, it all boils down to the fact that movie is a bomb.
While I don't recall a great deal from the original film beyond the muscles from Brussels and Dolph Lundgren beating the stuffing out of each other, it apparently became something of an international success and thus begot this sequel. Following the advice of Bob "The Price is Right" Barker, I think we can all agree that it's time to take this franchise to the vet for a little neutering to prevent critics like myself -- and the general moviegoing public -- from having to sit through films like this one or worrying that they're out there repopulating the world with more cinematic offspring.
Of course, fans of Van Damme and his films such as "Double Impact" and "Sudden Death" won't care squat about any such criticisms. After all, the prerequisite material -- plenty of kicking, punching, wooden performances, inane dialogue and being thrown through glass walls -- is present and accounted for. That said, the sheer hyperkinetic onscreen activity and laughable thespian/filmmaking efforts are about the only thing the film has going for it to prevent audiences from dozing off.
Unfortunately, and unlike many Asian martial arts films, the material isn't so far over the top in its ludicrousness that it actually becomes fun and/or funny to watch in a campy way. Of course, one can't forget Van Damme's performance. While action star Arnold Schwarzenegger is no Laurence Olivier, at least he knows it and no longer makes a pretense about trying to be a good actor.
Jean-Claude, on the other hand, seems to think he can and should be a serious actor, but it simply just doesn't work. Beyond the fact that the dead wife scenario has previously occurred in his films ("Timecop"), such "missing you" moments here don't connect with the audience and are obviously filler for the downtime between action sequences.
As soon as Van Damme comes to a similar realization and decides to make a film that either a) plays off his woodenness in a self-deprecating way or b) forgets any dramatic moments and just lets loose with nonstop action, he and everyone subjected to sitting through one of his films will be much better off.
To be fair, Van Damme shouldn't be singled out for this stinker by himself. An equal amount of blame should be leveled at screenwriters William Malone (a TV writer for "Tales From the Crypt" and "Freddy's Nightmares") and John Fasano ("Judge Dredd," "Another 48 Hours"), along with director Mic Rodgers (making his feature debut).
Not only do they unimaginatively rip off material from other pictures such as the "Terminator" films (done many times) and even "2001: A Space Odyssey," but they also present only enough of a bare bones plot upon which to hang the action sequences. There's also plenty of horrible dialogue (Erin: "I'm not getting killed until I get my story" and SETH: "When I was a machine, I yearned to be a man. Now I'm better than both"), and more than enough implausibilities perhaps to become a listed synonym for that word.
My personal favorite involved Luc needing access to a computer. So where does he take Erin to log on? A strip club, of course, since, as he states, such places always have computers (for the porn sites). Of course, in reality we simply realize that up until that time he -- and we -- hadn't encountered any topless women. As we all know, such characters in such a setting are clearly prerequisites for a film like this.
Then there's the TV reporter -- annoyingly played by Heidi Schanz (who had bits parts in "Seven" and "Virtuosity") who, along with her cameraman, is allowed to walk into the core operational room of this project and then stand there taping away as if they were just covering the local county fair. Of course, and since she's pretty -- another required element -- no one, including Jean-Claude, has the guts to remove her from the premises. Since when did the military believe in unencumbered freedom of the press?
Beyond Van Damme who plays yet just another variation of his standard kickboxing character, the rest of the performances are similarly unremarkable. While both Michael Jai White ("Spawn," "Ringmaster") and professional wrestler Bill Goldberg are quite the visual examples of spending too much time in the gym, they can't do much of anything with their menacing, two-dimensional characters other than, well, looking menacing and getting into many fights.
While Goldberg has been given some Schwarzenegger-like one-liners to spout, they're not particularly funny. That's also the case with Brent Anderson's role as a wild cyberpunk that's presumably supposed to be the film's comic relief. Trust us, it's not. The rest of the roles -- including the military General and the endangered daughter -- are just throwaway ones and easily could have been played by anyone without any effect -- good on bad -- on the film's outcome.
If you like thoughtless and unimaginatively choreographed violence (with a heavy rock soundtrack blaring during such scenes) -- which is about all this film manages to offer -- you might something "redeemable" here. Otherwise, and unless you're a fan of Van Damme or like being cinematically tortured, we'd recommend you skip this film and thus dissuade Hollywood from making any more like this one. Hardly a surprise, we give "Universal Soldier: The Return" a 1 out of 10.