Jean-Claude Van Damme saddles up for the role of revived super soldier Luc Deveraux once more in 1999’s “Universal Soldier: The Return”. It’s a title that’s more than a little meta, given that the film would mark the franchise’s return to cinema screens once more following made-for-TV sequels to the 1992 original. While not the riddle wrapped in an enigma of Freudian existentialism that its later successors, “Regeneration” and “Day of Reckoning”, would be, “Universal Soldier: The Return” is arguably the most fun, and certainly most relentlessly action-packed of the series. It marks a welcome return to the series for Van Damme, along with superb villainous turns from WWE legend Bill Goldberg and a then up-and-coming Michael Jai White!
Jean-Claude Van Damme reprises his role of formerly deceased American soldier Luc Deveraux, resurrected decades after his demise as part of the top secret military unit codenamed “UniSols”. Michael Jai White steps into the role of the villainous, A.I. programmed S.E.T.H, who takes on a human form to lead the UniSols to conquer the world. Bill Goldberg portrays his towering lieutenant Romeo, while Heidi Schanz steps into the role of journalist Erin Young, and Xander Berkeley and Daniel von Bargen assume the respective roles of Dylan Cotner and U.S. Military General Radford. Kiana Tom also appears as tech expert Maggie, while Brent Hinkley hams it up as tech expert Squid, and Karis Paige Bryant rounds out the cast in the role of our hero’s young daughter, Hillary.
After his death in the Vietnam war, Luc Deveraux was one of the original specimens in the U.S. Government’s top secret “UniSol” program of reviving deceased combat veterans and transforming them into superhuman weapons of war.
After putting a stop to the renegade UniSol Sgt. Andrew Scott in the events of “Universal Soldier”, Luc has since had the biological implants that brought him back from the grave removed. Deveraux now serves as a technical advisor for the government’s revamped UniSol program, which keeps its super-soldiers from going rogue through the A.I. program S.E.T.H. (Self-Evolving Thought Helix). However, when the government decides to pull the plug on the UniSol program once and for all, S.E.T.H. leads the UniSols in an uprising against their creators, kidnapping Luc’s young daughter Hillary while transplanting itself into the body of a new prototype soldier. With time running out and S.E.T.H transforming his enemies into new UniSols and expanding the ranks of his forces, it’s up to Deveraux, the original UniSol, to put a stop to S.E.T.H.’s insurrection once and for all.
To the extent that the Universal Soldier series can be called “light-hearted” (which most certainly is NOT the case for its latter day instalments), “The Return” is the most light-hearted of the bunch. [Full disclosure – as a little kid, I can vividly remember seeing the posters and trailer for the original “Universal Soldier” whole-heartedly believing at the time that it was a big-screen adaptation of “G.I. Joe”. I can only imagine how much more convincing a misconception that would’ve been for a me as a wee lad had “The Return” dropped just a few years earlier.]
The film is both significantly more cheerful and much more bloodless than its theatrical predecessor to such an extent that, with a little editing here and there, it could conceivably get away with a PG-13 today. And that’s much more for nudity and R-rated expletives than actual gore (considering that “The Matrix” was released the very same year, perhaps 1999 was the year of R-rated action movies that shouldn’t have been so). The Universal Soldier series may well be the only action film franchise that can get away with being so tonally all-over-the-place from movie to movie, and “The Return” gives audiences a kinder, gentler but no less action-packed alternative to the hardcore first film and the darker, foreboding later chapters that bookend the series.
No one is likely to call “The Return” a very deep or introspective film, but it’s certainly the most heavily action-packed instalment in the series, and on probability the most martial arts heavy. Even as a de-powered UniSol, Deveraux is consistently able to mop the floor with whatever bouncers and security guards he encounters in his efforts to shut S.E.T.H. down, but it’s a different story when he faces off with the new generation of UniSols.
With our hero now rendered essentially human again, he consistently finds himself battling opponents with far greater physical strength, and it’s more fun to see him utilize his wits and whatever tools he finds at his disposal (along with his fighting skills) in order to prevail.
Deveraux finds himself going toe-to-toe with Romeo no less than three times throughout the film, and one comes at the tail-end of a tertiary pro-wrestling-inspired-battle between Romeo and two equally brawny security guards. Watch out for Goldberg’s trademark “Spear ” manoeuvre, wrestling fans, geeks and nerds…relive and rejoice!
However, it’s really Michael Jai White who carries the film. Having just played the title role in 1997’s “Spawn”, he’d largely held off on action-heavy roles to this point, meaning that “The Return” is really the first place where White would get to show off what he could do in a villain role, and he does not disappoint. One unfortunate encounter between S.E.T.H. and an unlucky hospital security guard leads to the latter being on the receiving end of a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kick in the face from our villain – just one of S.E.T.H.’s rewind moments in the film.
The final one-on-one with Deveraux and S.E.T.H. is a career highlight for both White and Van Damme, and would not be equalled for the title of the best fight sequence in the Universal Soldier series until the shockingly gruesome battles of “Day of Reckoning” came along. Be sure to keep that remote control close by for one particularly awesome leaping roundhouse kick on our villain’s part, that sends both the viewer and Deveraux through the wall…literally!
“Universal Soldier: The Return” doesn’t have a lot deep thoughts on its mind, and for a series that can be quite the gore factory, it’s easily the most tame in terms of violence. But that doesn’t stop it from being loads of action-packed, over-the-top fun with Jean-Claude Van Damme as reliably committed as ever, Bill Goldberg injecting a surprising amount of levity, and Michael Jai White just about walking away with the whole show with his performance as S.E.T.H. The Universal Soldier series may have rejiggered its continuity a little with its more recent films, but fans of the series should still give “The Return” a look for probably the most pure fun and breakneck-paced instalment that the “Universal Soldier” series has delivered so far…
- Michael Jai White also appeared in a minor role in the original “Universal Soldier”, in the film’s Vietnam prologue.
- WWE’s Stone Cold Steve Austin was originally offered the role of Romeo.
- Michael Jai White would later appear alongside another star of the “Universal Soldier” franchise, Dolph Lundgren, in 2015’s “Skin Trade”.
- When S.E.T.H breaks the facility’s termination code during the final fight with Deveraux, it is NCC1701: the same set of numbers on the outside of the Starship Enterprise in the Star Trek franchise.
- William Malone was originally set to direct the film, but left due to creative differences with the film’s producers, with Mic Rodgers subsequently coming aboard as director.
- In his interview with KFK, Michael Jai White revealed that he got himself down to approximately 205 lbs (93 kilos, 14.9 stone) for the role of S.E.T.H., the lightest he’s ever gotten for a movie.
- “When I was a machine, I yearned to be a man. Now I’m better than both.” – S.E.T.H (after activating his new body.)
- “The only way to stop them is to blow them up, and hope the pieces don’t keep fighting us.” – Deveraux (explaining the best method of taking down the UniSols.)
- “This is not your lucky day.” – Deveraux (during a confrontation with Romeo.)
Film Rating: 8/10
What’s your favourite fight or action scene from the Universal Soldier series, what kind of Dammage could JCVD, Michael Jai White and Bill Goldberg (or others) create in their own ensemble? Let us know in the comments below; Like, share and join in the conversation on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram (Take a FU-turn to these reviews for even more kicks!)