Lightning fails to strike twice for Jean-Claude Van Damme in “Universal Soldier: The Return,” an underwhelming follow-up to one of the career-stalled action star’s better efforts. Unlike two unrelated made-for-cable sequels — “Universal Solider II: Brothers in Arms” and “Universal Solider III: Unfinished Business,” both toplining Matt Battaglia — “Return” is receiving at least token theatrical exposure. (Pic opened nationwide Friday without benefit of press previews.) But this slapdash, slam-bang piece plays like a routine direct-to-video time-killer and likely won’t find its most appreciative audience until it returns on VHS and DVD.
The original “Universal Solider” (1992) launched the partnership of director Roland Emmerich and screenwriter Dean Devlin (“Independence Day” — but, on the other hand, “Godzilla”). A clever and resourcefully kinetic work, pic introduced Van Damme as Luc Deveraux, one of several Vietnam War casualties recycled as bionic commandos for a top-secret military project. Unfortunately, the other “UniSols” — led by Dolph Lundgren — went a little bonkers, forcing Deveraux to kill or be killed.
“Return” picks up a few years later, reintroducing Deveraux — the last UniSol standing at the end of the first pic — as a kinder, gentler and appreciably more human hero. At this point in his scientifically extended life, he’s a widowed father with a cute kid (Karis Paige Bryant) and much-improved social skills.
Trouble is, neither Deveraux nor his employers at a Dallas research facility have learned anything from past mistakes. Everyone agrees that the carnage caused by the first UniSols was a bad thing. But that doesn’t stop Deveraux and a new team of scientists from trying to perfect a new breed of UniSol — stronger, smarter and, presumably, less likely to annihilate innocent bystanders.
The real brain of the outfit is a super-duper computer: the Self-Evolving Thought Helix, aka SETH. At first, SETH is content to dutifully serve his human masters by programming and controlling the second-generation UniSols that Deveraux is training. But when SETH learns the entire program is being shut down as a result of military budget cutbacks, the soft-spoken cyber-mastermind takes control of the research facility by ordering his UniSols to shoot first and ask no questions. Think of Hal 2000 from “2001: A Space Odyssey” with an army of buff and bad-ass cyborgs at his disposal, and you’ve got the basic setup.
Van Damme struggles mightily to inject a touch of soulfulness into his macho-man heroics, but he winds up looking faintly ridiculous each time his gets all teary-eyed over a casualty. The Muscles from Brussels is on much safer ground when he goes through his familiar paces — kicking, pummeling and head-butting bad guys.
Working from a by-the-numbers screenplay by William Malone and John Fasano, vet stunt coordinator Mic Rodgers (“Braveheart,” “Payback”) makes a less than promising debut as a feature director. He places great emphasis on frenetic action and deafening explosions, but fails to instill a sense of urgency in the routine and occasionally incoherent goings-on. Even when Rodgers pumps up the volume of a soundtrack filled with speed-metal numbers by Megadeth, Anthrax and GWAR, among others, there is something almost soporific about the routine mayhem.
Most of the repetitious action is set in and around the research facility, as Deveraux and an obnoxious TV reporter (embarrassingly overplayed by Heidi Schanz) dodge bullets and seek hiding places. But Rodgers and his writers cynically contrive to take a side trip to a nearby topless bar, in order to flash a bevy of bare breasts while Van Damme causes damage to the bouncers. Some mildly amusing comic relief is provided by Bill Goldberg, the muscular World Championship Wrestling superstar, as the most resilient of the UniSols. Playing Wile E. Coyote to Van Damme’s fleet-footed Roadrunner, Goldberg is shot, set ablaze, crushed under a truck and tossed from an upper-story window — but keeps on keeping on.
Michael Jai White is a commanding screen presence as the flesh-and-blood vessel for superhuman intelligence when SETH takes human form in pic’s final third. Better still, White is a worthy sparring partner for Van Damme as the ex-UniSol and the reconstituted computer duke it out in a climactic dust-up. Here and elsewhere, editor Peck Prior proves to be the production’s most valuable player by skillfully enhancing the rough stuff.