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Fantastic Fest Review: Universal Soldier: A New Beginning

By  · Published on October 6th, 2009

Tim League, owner of the Alamo Drafthouse and co-founder of Fantastic Fest, is a giant child. I don’t mean that as a disparagement; quite the contrary. What I love about Tim is that he has never lost a wild, unrestrained passion for film and for anything that could be considered “badass”. He has no concept of pretension or egotism. This is the guy who takes all the filmmakers visiting for Fantastic Fest to a freaking shooting range! I never tire of the image of Tokyo Gore Police director Yoshihiro Nishimura brandishing a shotgun with little to no idea how to use it. Welcome to America buddy. And who else but Tim would think it a good idea to use a flame-thrower to sear meat in a packed movie theater? Come on! While many others ran the gamut from severe disappointment to utter rage at the announcement that Universal Soldier: A New Beginning would be the final Fantastic Fest secret screening, I relished it as yet another example of Tim’s childish glee toward all things cool. When he heralded the arrival of special guest Dolph Lundgren with the Rocky theme, it was hard not to applaud.

Universal Soldier: A New Beginning opens with the kidnapping of the two children of the Russian president by a rogue military commander seeking independence for his breakaway republic. The commander is aided in his revolution by a genetically altered super soldier played by MMA superstar Andrei “The Pitbull” Arlovski who cannot be stopped. It also doesn’t hurt that he has taken over a nuclear facility in Chernobyl and therefore threatens the lives of millions of innocents in addition to the two children. What is the free world to do? Luckily, we still know where to find Jean-Claude Van Damme; the original Universal Soldier. What follows is a 90 minute exploration of the finer points of punching culminating in the long-awaited rematch of Lundgren/Van Damme.

Taken at face value, US:ANB is completely successful. It achieves everything it needs to and doesn’t short the actionphiles one bit. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and while I acknowledge that the film is flawed, it is far better than any of the direct-to-video swill either of these two titans of 80’s fight sequences have produced of late. Sure, the story is as contrived as anything else we’ve seen in a film like this, but it was the perfect vehicle to bring these guys back together. I won’t spoil much beyond that, but it was a forgivable screenwriting device. The addition of Arlovski gives the film a contemporary flavor to balance out the classic, grounded appeal of its veterans.

I cannot in good conscience review this film without talking about the action sequences. The film opens with a very effective, surprisingly expensive car chase that is quite impressive. It’s no surprise that Arlovski delivers the blunt force when needed and he cuts quite an imposing presence even next to Lundgren. But the crown jewel fight, of course, is that of Van Damme & Lundgren. These two beat the tar out of each other as if their very legacies were on the line; not too far off really. The size differential works just as well here as it did in the 1992 original and the use of various walls as crumbling, bone-shattering props was a thrill. The finale of this single exchange is better than anything else in the film, and I honestly believe that is not a back-handed compliment.

Fantastic Fest was the perfect venue for this film. After the initial outrage of ravenous festival attendees who were dead certain this was going to be Where the Wild Thing Are wore off, I think everyone in the room had a great time. Last year, one of the biggest hits of Fest was JCVD in which an action icon, who is as much maligned as he is beloved, shed all pretenses and limitations and delivered one of the most honest performances on screen. It was heart-breaking, self-effacing, and brutally revealing all while paying homage to the cheesy fare that earned him his fame. And I saw a little bit of that self-awareness and pathos in his performance here. Lundgren is the same stiff, stoic painbot we all know and love except that the inclusion of Blade Runner references lends a certain credibility to his role. Sure, it has eye-rolling moments and inexplicable plot points (the special ops guy who gets sent in when all indications are that no one needs him) but the film is everything it needs to be and I enjoyed every second of it.

The Upside: Stupendously entertaining reunion of Lundgren and Van Damme that packs the proverbial punch.

The Downside: It is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination and some of the moments are down-right silly.

On the Side: Director John Hyams is the son of Peter Hyams who also directed Jean-Claude Van Damme in Timecop.

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.