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Movie Review

Van Damme in Engaging Battle in Sleek 'Universal Soldier' Sequel

August 23, 1999|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The sleek and exciting action-filled "Universal Soldier: The Return" stars Jean-Claude Van Damme in a satisfying sequel to one of his biggest hits. The filmmakers shrewdly use the seven years that have gone by since the first film to suggest that in that period Van Damme's cyborg Luc has fully evolved into a human being. He in fact is a widower still grieving and raising his young daughter (Karis Paige Bryant) on his own.

When we catch up with Luc he has become a technical expert on a special government project dedicated to breeding super-soldiers, recycling battlefield casualties into warriors of superior intellect and strength. The army captain (Xander Berkeley) in charge of the project, however, has bad news for Luc and his key aide, Maggie (Kiana Tom of the ESPN 2 workout show "Kiana's Flex Appeal"). Cutbacks in military spending dictate canceling the project.

As it turns out, the captain's words have actually come too late, for catastrophe strikes before we even get a chance to wonder what will be done with a passel of Unisols who are more than robots but not quite human and in the process of being trained. It seems that the project has done its work too well, relying upon a computer called Seth, whose artificial intelligence has evolved to the level that he has been able to assume human form with the help of a crazed renegade (Brent Hinkley).

In human form Seth (martial arts superstar-actor Michael Jai White) is possessed of a magnificent physique and an even more impressive mind. As if Seth weren't enough for Luc to tackle, he's got another formidable nemesis in the Unisol named Romeo, who is played by wrestling legend Bill Goldberg. Seth naturally intends to lead the other Unisols (who all look to have been recruited from a World Gym) in a conquest of the world.

Writers William Malone and John Fasano take it from here in clever fashion, never overlooking opportunities to inject humor to leaven the action, so expertly staged by Mic Rodgers, a veteran second unit director in a most assured feature debut. (Rodgers did the second unit on "Braveheart," doubled for Mel Gibson on "Lethal Weapon" and coordinated the stunts on its sequels.) The filmmakers are fortunate that in this post-Columbine era that their film, hard-hitting as it is in the literal sense, does point up the dangers of a cyborg future in which humans could find themselves at the mercy of heavily armed supermen. The easy, amused personality of Goldberg, a natural screen presence if ever there was one, brings a welcome tongue-in-cheek quality to the entire film.

Van Damme easily dominates, suggesting that in the crunch heart and courage might still be able to win over pure strength and intellect untempered by emotion, but teaming him with White and especially Goldberg keeps him plugged into contemporary audiences. Van Damme's leading lady, a determined TV reporter, is well-played by Heidi Schanz, whose Erin is every bit as smart, resourceful and determined as Luc. Bryant is pretty and poised as Luc's daughter.

"Sleek" is the word for "Universal Soldier: The Return," which moves with such swiftness and ease, its story blending seamlessly into its sci-fi technology and special effects. This is one "return" that's surely welcome.

* MPAA rating: R, for nonstop violence, and for language and nudity. Times guidelines: The film is too intense and brutal for children.

'Universal Soldier: The Return'

Jean-Claude Van Damme: Luc

Michael Jai White: Seth

Heidi Schanz: Erin

Xander Berkeley: Dylan Cotner

A TriStar Pictures presentation of a Baumgarten Prophet Entertainment/IndieProd Co./Long Road production. Director Mic Rodgers. Producers Craig Baumgarten, Allen Shapiro, Jean-Claude Van Damme. Executive producers Michael Rachmil and Daniel Melnick. Screenplay by William Malone and John Fasano; based on characters created by Richard Rothstein & Christopher Leitch and Deven Devlin. Cinematographer Michael A. Benson. Editor Peck Prior. Music Don Davis. Costumes Jennifer L. Bryan. Production designer David Chapman. Art director John Frick. Set decorator Donnasu Sealy. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.

In general release.

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