December 2, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009)

by Nick Schager

Universal Soldier: Regeneration

[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by its sequel, the Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren horror-actioner Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning]

For a franchise predicated on resurrection, it's an unexpected twist to find Universal Soldier: Regeneration reviving the long-dormant Jean-Claude Van Damme/Dolph Lundgren series by switching its focus from reanimation to cloning. Replication, however, does not breed derivation in John Hyams' 2009 direct-to-video gem, which ignores a handful of preceding sequels and picks up some time after Roland Emmerich's 1992 original, in which 'Nam soldiers Luc Deveraux (Van Damme) and Andrew Scott (Lundgren) were brought back to life as superhuman killing machines by the U.S. government. At the start of Regeneration, that covert project has shifted to cloning and modifying the deceased into unstoppable zombie warriors, and has fallen into the wrong hands courtesy of Dr. Colin (Kerry Shale), who's gone rogue and sold his services—namely, a behemoth dubbed NGU (Andrei "The Pitbull" Arlovski)—to Commander Topov (Zahary Baharov), who's threatening to detonate a Chernobyl nuclear reactor if political prisoners from his fictional Eastern European homeland of Pasalan aren't released. Making things even more complicated, he's kidnapped the children of Pasalan's prime minister, an opening-scene crime perpetrated at a museum that leads to a car chase shootout of such blistering intensity—every gunshot and car flip resounding like a small detonation—that, from the outset, the momentum and brutality feel dialed up to eleven.

Universal Soldier: Regeneration

With his director-father Peter working as cinematographer, Hyams shoots that initial salvo with a clarity and physicality that defines Regeneration, as every subsequent action set piece is similarly marked by an attention to lucid spatial relations and a fixation on the nasty viciousness of kicks, punches and stabbings. One can feel the violence throughout, a tack assumed not just for shock value but as a means of maintaining concentration on the limits of the human body to endure manipulation and punishment, notions that (along with father-offspring undercurrents) are central to Victor Ostrovsky's script. Forced to contend with the NGU, the U.S. military re-enlists four dormant first-generation Universal Soldiers to help spearhead a rescue mission at Chernobyl. That siege is a model of action-moviemaking adeptness, with Hyams staging mayhem with methodical efficiency and breakneck hostility as, one by one, the Universal Soldiers fall to the NGU in showdowns that are characterized by fleet and inventive hand-to-hand combat that's always clearly arranged within the frame. With cold eyes illuminated only by the occasional sadistic glint, the towering Arlovski is a figure of terrifying cruelty, and there's an exhilarating scariness to the sight of him patiently stalking his victims, or running and leaping around Topov's industrial-warehouse Chernobyl base, his villain a militarized Frankenstein monster beholden only to orders, impervious to pain, and unburdened by conscience.

Universal Soldier: Regeneration

The NGU is an unthinking, seemingly invincible fiend, and the notion of autonomy is ultimately central to Regeneration once the American government, faced with no other choice, re-commissions Luc Deveraux into service, despite the fact that for years he's been in a program under the guidance of Dr. Sandra Flemming (Emily Joyce) that seeks to rehabilitate him into a free-thinking human being. Regardless of the dividends reaped by Flemming's ink blot tests, an early encounter at a café reveals that altering Devereaux's true nature is likely impossible, and such a goal is thoroughly thwarted once he's brought back into service to kill the NGU. Courtesy of massive drug ingestion and military training, Deveraux reverts to ruthlessly lethal form. Hyams' story, however, treats this development as not a rah-rah climax—the badass hero returns!—but as something approaching tragic, both because Deveraux is again denied his basic humanity by a government interested in using him only as a tool, and also because this process is doomed to failure since Devereaux's newfound self-awareness isn't, in the end, completely erasable.

Universal Soldier: Regeneration

An unwilling Terminator nonetheless forced by design to carry out his mission, Deveraux storms Chernobyl in a prolonged finale that's never more masterful than during a single-take scene in which the camera swings around Deveraux to provide 360-degree views of him killing a battalion of enemies in a building's narrow corridor. Before reaching the NGU, Deveraux is first forced to confront Scott, who's been cloned by Dr. Colin but turns on his creator because—contrary to his programming—he does "contemplate the complexity of human life," a flicker of the very sentience also found in Deveraux. Van Damme and Lundgren's meeting is a mirror-image of their first confrontation in 1992's original film, but here, their fight is infused with a melancholy over the fact that both of their characters are, in the end, mere victims of the Universal Soldier agenda. That mood may wane a bit during Deveraux's subsequent, bracing race-against-time efforts to defuse the bomb, save the kids, and kill the NGU, but it resumes, in surprisingly poignant fashion, in the last image of Deveraux—having completed his assigned task—fleeing into an unknown future, as well as in a closing shot that exposes warmongering inhumanity as something that, no matter the potentially disastrous consequences, endlessly regenerates.

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Posted by ahillis at December 2, 2012 5:40 AM