In a sequel-heavy landscape, the age old idea that a follow up could never be as good as the original has been dispelled over and over again. It’s fairly common for the third, fourth or even fifth entry in a franchise to be somebody’s favorite. Still, after the disastrous follow up to Roland Emmerich’s Universal Soldier, one could be forgiven for assuming that any further installments wouldn’t be worth seeking out. I was one of those people. I spent quite a few years seeing DVD covers featuring the weary faces of JCVD and Dolph Lundgren leering back at me in video stores and would chuckle to myself and move on. It wasn’t until I dove headfirst into action cinema, DTV action and all things Scott Adkins (and with a healthy dose of rave reviews from film fans I trusted) that I finally gave these a look. Never in my wildest dreams would I have expected to see two of the most thoughtfully potent action films ever made and a one-two punch treatise on trauma and moving forward.
“Your mind is not your own.”
In 1992, Roland Emmerich did the unthinkable and united action heavyweights Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren with Universal Soldier. As Luc Devereaux, JCVD is a soldier in Vietnam in 1969. After coming across his sergeant, Lundgren’s Andrew Scott, crafting an ear necklace and holding a Vietnamese couple hostage, the two men fight to the death. Decades later, the two have been reanimated and repurposed by the UniSol project. Mindless zombies, the men are part of an elite force of soldiers with no free will and the inability to die. After a trigger image reawakens Deveraux, he breaks free and goes on the run. Scott’s reawakening soon follows and the two engage in a cross-country game of cat and mouse until Devereux finally dispatches of Scott, seemingly once and for all.
The film, a modest success, was written off as “Terminator-clone” but did well enough to spawn a sequel six years later called The Return. The Return sees Devereaux a little older and fighting against living computer Seth (Michael Jai White). Bafflingly, Devereux is now all in on the UniSol program despite being the living embodiment of why the program should never continue. The first, for all of its glorious JCVD ass shots and killer Dolph one-liners, offered a grim depiction of the military: A meat grinder warping the minds of young men and turning them into nightmarish killers. Devereux escaped but did so with a mind that would take a lifetime of work to keep intact. His commander’s downfall, the direct result of a psyche poisoned by being battered with horrific imagery and ordered to do despicable things. That both men were thrust back into this nightmare of endless killing, years later, against their will is nothing short of tragic. Terminator-clone or not, the first UniSol has enough military commentary to chew on that the outright dismissal of it and Devereaux’s journey by the sequel is flat out insulting. If the series ended with this mindless waste of time I’m not sure anyone would’ve argued.
“I just remembered what I wanted to tell ya.”
In 2009, like Luc Devereaux himself, the franchise was resuscitated by director John Hyams with a Direct-To-Video sequel titled Universal Soldier: Regeneration. Reuniting JCVD with Dolph’s Andrew Scott and adding UFC legend Andrei Arlovski, Hyams’ is a brutalist and unflinching action masterpiece. It’s decades later and Luc Devereaux is in constant therapy, always working to mend his shattered mind. After a group of terrorists led by UniSol’s next evolution, the NGU, or Next Generation UniSol (Arlovski), kidnap the Ukrainian prime minister’s son and daughter, the military plucks Devereaux out of society and forces him back into a life of violence. His mission: to take out the NGU and stop nuclear catastrophe. To complicate matters, Lundgren’s Andrew Scott has been cloned and is waiting as an added measure of security should NGU fail.
What’s happening in Hyams’ take on the UniSol series is a tragedy and a catharsis on two fronts. Textually, Regeneration is a somber journey of two men locked in an eternal battle, dusting themselves off and picking right back up. Devereaux coming upon Scott isn’t treated as a bombastic reunion of action icons. Instead, Hyams frames it as two soldiers stumbling into one another, barely able to hold a conversation. Their minds are so broken by war that all they can do is the only thing they’ve ever known: fight.
As the two reengage in their struggle, Scott keeps muttering about having “something to tell” Devereaux. Lundgren stares straight ahead, eyes glazed over, a look of bemused sadness on his face. Before he can reach through the fractures of his mind for what he wants to say, the two are fighting. Always fighting. As the fight spills out into the open, the two end up on the ground. Scott on top of Devereaux finally remembers what he wanted to say but before he can say it, Devereaux blows his head off. It’s hard to sympathize with Andrew Scott. The man is a sadistic killer, no two ways about it. When you view him through the prism of the military industrial complex, it’s impossible not to see anything but sadness. That he spends his entire resurrection searching for the words to say to Devereaux, only to be denied, is shattering. You wonder if he’s realized that they aren’t each other’s enemies. That they should be freeing themselves from these shackles and taking the fight to the US Government. These thoughts are seemingly confirmed in the next installment, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. It’s heartbreaking then, that Scott’s mind is so broken and all that’s left to to do, in lieu of talking, is fight.
Meta-textually, Regeneration is more fascinating as it plays like two aging action icons facing obsoletion. Arlovski’s NGU is the new breed of action star, younger, stronger and faster. As JCVD works his way to him, his body breaks down further and the lines on his face grow wearier. His path to victory, though, feels like the star’s last stand. A rebuke against the notion that he can be replaced. He outsmarts the younger model, blowing him to hell and living to see another day. By 2009 JCVD had already reckoned with himself in the remarkable, semi-autobiographical JCVD so that’s nothing new but the resolve is. As he’s aged into a sadder and wiser star, Van Damme has become perhaps his most interesting self. Which is why Regeneration hits even harder. Body broken, mind shattered, post-fight he retreats into the wilderness. A star and hero’s final act taking everything out of him. Maybe Scott’s presumed last words of no longer needing to fight were coming from a source deeper than the character? Maybe it was Lundgren trying to tell JCVD himself that their time was up and to let go?
“There is no end. Always another John.”
Let’s assume that Andrew Scott’s final words to Devereaux were a plea to move on. It makes sense then that when we next meet the pair, they’re no longer enemies. In the fourth (and to date final) installment, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, Hyams and Co. give us their tour de force. If Regeneration was about facing obsoletion, DoR forces our hero to not only see the future but to accept it. Entering the UniSol fold is this century’s finest Western action star, Scott Adkins. If Arlovski’s NGU was a glimpse at the future, Adkins is the future kicking your teeth in. Handsome and charismatic while possessing the otherworldly ability to do what no body should, Adkins is the rare kind of star who can act and kick ass. He’s a once in a generation talent who sears through your screen even if the film he’s in is dogshit. JCVD and Dolph, two men I adore deeply (especially the latter), have charm for days but if we’re talking purely acting, Adkins has them beat. While this is far from the first film to cross Adkins and JCVD’s paths, it’s the first to truly examine each other’s place in the action hierarchy.
When we meet Adkins’ John he’s being woken by his daughter. Claiming she hears “monsters” in the kitchen, John seeks to quell her fears and groggily investigates. All through a stunning POV sequence, John finds that his daughter wasn’t hearing things at all. To his confusion and then horror, John is beaten within an inch of his life and forced to watch his wife and daughter murdered. Before he blacks out, the leader removes his mask revealing himself to be Luc Devereaux. John awakens again, this time in a hospital bed. After being approached by FBI Agent Gorman asking what he remembers, John embarks on a quest of vengeance. Working his way through his own fractured mind, John begins to discover that he may not be who he thinks he is. This is brought into focus after an incredible fight with Arlovski’s NGU Magnus in a sporting goods store. Possessing super strength and speed, John kills Magnus. Adkins takes out the first attempt at a JCVD replacement. Arlovski, the solid and dependable stand-in but no heir to the throne.
Piecing together bits of his past, John heads to a cabin and comes face to face with…Scott Adkins. This is the original John, a former assassin sent to kill Luc Devereaux and his separatists but instead found himself turned by them. His mind full of violence and rage, this John is too far gone and our John is forced to kill him. What’s happening here couldn’t be more apparent: if Adkins is going to take his place at the mountain top, he has to do the one thing JCVD couldn’t. Get out of his own way. John killing John. Adkins cleansing himself of ego. The only way forward is through yourself. Through your insecurities. It’s an astonishing bit of storytelling.
DoR’s surrealist nightmare ends with John, free of himself, finding the UniSol’s cavernous hideout. It’s here he discovers the truth: Luc Devereaux and his UniSols didn’t murder his family. John never had a family. The government implanted these memories knowing it would enrage him enough to seek vengeance. He’s just another in a long line of “Johns” sent to destroy Luc Devereaux. What’s so remarkable about this is that we’ve spent the entire film following the villain and we never knew it. More importantly, we spent the entire film following the ghost of action’s future haunting the men who came before him. We’re not here to witness an act of revenge. We’re bearing witness to an unnervingly violent changing of the guard.
In what may be the single most breathtaking fight set piece of the past decade, John, lost in the madness of pain and grief upon this realization, eviscerates the UniSols one by one, including Lundgren’s Andrew Scott. He doesn’t stop until he’s face to face with Luc Devereaux. JCVD, in full on Col. Kurtz mode, fights Adkins admirably before finally recognizing Lundgren’s presumed last words. It’s time to move on. The future is here. His successor, finally worthy. He allows John to kill him.
Luc Devereaux’s last words “there is no end. Always another John” couldn’t be more clear. Textually he knows that the government will never stop sending “Johns” to end him. Outside of that, JCVD is finally ready to let go. A lifetime of giving his body to us for our entertainment doesn’t end in ceremony. It ends with a somber realization that you were one of many and that maybe the ghost standing in front of you ready to take your place isn’t so bad after all.
Luc Devereaux freed himself from the oppressive shackles of the military industrial complex long enough to find his replacement. He fought against his programming and found a safe haven for all lost UniSols to bear out their madness and aggression. John, his handpicked successor, free of himself and his pain, is no longer a looming specter but the present. A broken man ready to lead an army of broken men against the institution that destroyed their bodies and minds.
Free of expectation, self criticism and destruction, an action icon finally rests. The other, equipped with a wealth of knowledge, ascends. The circle continues. Always another.