A Universal Disease — How Not To Change A Series
by Martin Gerecht
I recently watched the newest Universal Soldier installment, called “Day of Reckoning”. And a day of reckoning it was. I’m not complaining about plot holes. With the Universal Soldier series that would be like shooting fish in a barrel. I didn’t watch “Reckoning” to get a clever plot or intellectual entertainment. I wanted action in the style of early to late 90s with glorifying shootouts, martial arts, corny lines and cheesy dialogue. What I got was one of the most confusing experiences since watching “Irréversible” (2002). For those of you who have seen that, sorry for bringing back the memories, for those who haven’t, if you like disturbing scenes that will stick with you for a while, give it a try.
So there I was, watching what I anticipated to be action fast food, but turned out to be a mind bending trip of violence and depression. “So what happened to the Universal Soldier franchise?” I wondered. I had seen the first one a long time ago and all I could remember was a bunch of action scenes, dialogue that made you laugh and shake your head in disbelief, because someone actually got paid for that, and that was it. Sure, the violence was pretty graphic, but mostly comically over the top.
In “Reckoning”, the violence is very graphic as well… But somehow nothing is funny. No corny lines, almost no dialogue at all, disturbing background noises and a love interest that blurs into the background, granting no comic relief (in contrast to the love interests in “Universal Soldier” 1&2). So I started wondering, am I even sure the first “Universal Soldier” was as tongue-in-cheek as I remembered it? Only one way to find out and a few hours later I had watched the original “Universal Soldier” (1992), “Universal Soldier: The Return” (1999) and another new installment called “Universal Soldier: Regeneration” (2009), and again, was baffled by the differences. I’m going to exclude the remaining two Universal Soldier movies, since they lack the original cast and, as far as I know, are made-for-TV features and not larger scale movies like the other four.
Lights, Camera… Content?
The first movie introduces Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme), who was a soldier in Vietnam and after being killed during one of his missions, he gets resurrected by a secret military program in the U.S. A female reporter uncovers this program and frees Deveraux from government control. Having been dead for a while Deveraux seems to have no idea how to behave like a normal human, which allows for a lot of slap stick comedy. The military is of course trying to catch the two and after many chase scenes and a lot of fun action the movie leaves you with a cliché, satisfying ending.
The second movie starts with Deveraux being part of a new secret government program that tries to improve new Universal Soldiers even further. He also has a daughter in this movie (I’m guessing that this is explained in the TV-features). The program is led by an artificial intelligence, S.E.T.H., who notices that the program is supposed to be shut down and reacts accordingly by going crazy and sending the Universal Soldiers he controls after everybody else. Deveraux, being the only ‘free’ Universal Soldier, is the only one able to stop them and with the help of a new female reporter goes head to head with S.E.T.H. A lot of other fun stuff happens in this one, but it is definitely not to be taken serious, and for its sake, I hope it wasn’t trying.
The newest two of the series have a completely different feel and perfectly show the trend of big budget movies to have brooding and mopey protagonists and a depressing atmosphere in order to be taken seriously. The problem is, and here I do take a pot shot at the plot of Universal Soldier, a movie about a resurrected soldier who has been genetically enhanced and is controlled by the military is a difficult thing to pull off seriously without becoming ridiculous. The first movie had serious elements, yes, but it never took itself serious as a whole.
The third movie is trying to be serious, but refuses to offer a plot that allows this change of direction. In other words, just because you put brown and gray filters on your camera lense and never show a person smile doesn’t mean your movie stepped up the ladder. The plot of “Regeneration” is crazy, which in itself is the right approach for the series. A bunch of dissident Russians kidnap the prime minister’s children and take control of a nuclear power plant, all with the help of a new model of the Universal Soldier. I seriously do not remember the demands the Russian dissidents made, and they don’t matter. Why? Because the leader of the dissidents is killed by the new Universal Soldier half way through the movie and is replaced by the crazy scientist, who was there to ensure that the Universal Soldier didn’t screw up. Meanwhile, the Americans (yes, they go to Russia… Because project Universal Soldier is secret and evidence needs to be destroyed or something) are trying to storm the plant and, of course, get shot to pieces. They realize that they need someone who can kick some ass. So instead of calling Van Damme’s character then and there they get four other Universal Soldiers who, you guessed it, get shot to pieces. Now they’re really desperate and call in Luc Deveraux, who at that moment has therapy sessions somewhere in Northern America, because him being dead and revived has caused some serious trauma. Well, they convince him to go to Russia, he runs into the facility and lots of shooting (shot in the most uninteresting ways possible) and a bit of fighting with the bad guy (I really don’t want to call it martial arts) ensue. *Spoiler Alert* Deveraux saves the prime minister’s children and in a final awkward shot runs off screen without any recognition for what he did or any words at all. Roll credits.
Back to Reckoning
“Day of Reckoning” is very similar to “Regeneration” in the way that it is serious and gritty. I have to say though, in comparison to its predecessor it actually pulls that off. Maybe just a bit too well for its own good. First difference: Our protagonist, John, is played by Scott Adkins and Deveraux has become the antagonist. Just like Deveraux, John has a traumatic origin story. This time it isn’t Vietnam, but a home invasion during which John’s wife and daughter are executed by Luc Deveraux. From that point on the movie becomes more and more complicated and includes elements like cloning and memory alteration. In the first movies the memories and emotions were suppressed, but in “Reckoning” alternate memories are implanted with the help of a chip. I would like to explain the plot, but I must honestly say that I didn’t get all that was going on myself. It is very violent and has a few scenes that could seriously induce an epileptic seizure, but other than that it is very confusing and definitely not foreseeable. Is that a good thing? I’m not sure and as I said, I have no idea what the movie really wanted to tell me. All I know is that it kept me guessing and more interested than “Regeneration”, which I lost interest in after its introducing kidnapping scene of the prime minister’s children.
I also don’t know why and how there are more Universal Soldiers in this one than in the other movies together, but they’re all following Deveraux who apparently started to paint his face and became a cult leader. None of this is explained and the end of the movie isn’t much more uplifting than “Regeneration”, but it leaves possibilities for another sequel, I suppose.
What can we learn from this?
Looking at the origin of the series and what has become of it since then, one can definitely see a trend of modernizing the series in a sense of 2000s Action Movies. I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing, there are great serious action movies out there, but the concept of Universal Soldier and the way it was first portrayed in 1992 doesn’t invite a gritty continuation. “Reckoning” would have been a good stand-alone movie, though it has its confusing moments. Lining it up with the Universal Soldier franchise just didn’t make too much sense to me. During the series Van Damme’s character went from mentally challenged super soldier, to super soldier dad, to isolated super soldier in therapy, and finally, to cult leader and messiah for the Universal Soldiers.
What do I want to say with this? Well, it may be a coincidence, but the box office hits “Batman Begins” (2005) and “The Dark Knight” (2008) preceded “Regeneration” and emphasized the brooding protagonist and a dark story world. Now, I’m not saying those are bad things, but for a series like Universal Soldier that almost seems like a 180 degree turn. Both “Regeneration” and “Reckoning” don’t seem like Universal Soldier movies, rather like movie scripts that had the title “Universal Soldier” attached to them for brand recognition purposes. Which, again, baffles me, because looking at the box office income of the movies following the original “Universal Soldier”, one can see that none of them made much of a profit.
So, where does that leave us? It seems to me that the franchise made two mistakes, first they tried to be something they’re not. As I said, making the movie look a bit darker doesn’t make the plot grittier. This basically resulted from the other mistake, imitating someone else who has been successful. If a movie with a brooding protagonist is making money, why shouldn’t ours, right? Well, sadly, or luckily, that’s not how it works. Especially if you’re too lazy to adjust the script accordingly.
I’m not saying that I’m against gritty and dark movies, quite the contrary. Still, it has to fit the subject matter or maybe (I don’t actually know successful examples of this) the subject matter has to be changed to fit a new approach. In any case, the Universal Soldier series wasn’t suitable for a ‘Nolanization’ that worked on the Batman franchise, at least not in the way it was carried out.