(Second viewing, on TV, July 2018) I have dim memories of seeing Universal Soldier on VHS back in high school, and I particularly remembered the farm-set climax. I thought it was a below-average film then, and a second viewing doesn’t necessarily improve things. Jean-Claude van Damme is a gifted physical performer (and he was near the peak of his physical form in 1992), but his career was badly damaged by a string of second-tier, nearly undistinguishable action movies. Universal Soldier manages to be a bit more memorable than the others by dint of its science-fiction high concept, having a strong antagonist (Dolph Lundgren), featuring better-than-average action direction by Roland Emmerich, and starting with a great early sequence at the Hoover Dam. Still, it doesn’t really become anything but a generic action thriller in which two muscled guys beat each other up. A tepid romance doesn’t really distinguish itself despite Ally Walker’s attempts to bring some humanity back into a superhuman film. I may remember it now because I was around and part of the film’s target audience at the time, but I didn’t exactly love it then and I can barely even tolerate it now. I suspect that without its easy narrative hook, the film would have not led to any profile-raising sequels and would be long forgotten today. Who else but van Damme fans remember near-contemporaries Double Impact or Nowhere to Run? Exactly.
(In French, On TV, March 2018) What is there to say about Bloodsport? In one way, it’s a mildly famous film for introducing Jean-Claude van Damme to a wider audience, showcasing his martial skills in a film designed around such showcases. As such, there isn’t much to say about the film’s narrative qualities: They have been plenty of movies about martial-arts tournaments, and Bloodsport doesn’t reinvent the wheel. It’s all about providing a narrative excuse for fights, and if fights are your thing then the movie will deliver what you expect. As for me, I felt my attention wander away through most of the movie—I’m not a fan of that particular kind of martial arts, and there is little to complement the fighting. (Other Asian martial arts films usually have better plot or stronger visual/cinematographic ambitions. Not here—Bloodsport is as straightforward as it can be. This being said, I did like the short walk through the authentic pre-destruction Kowloon Walled City—that’s special, and unfortunately it’s roughly the only special thing about Bloodsport once you discount van Damme.
(In French, On Cable TV, February 2017) “Utter and unmitigated trash” is a good starting point for discussing the low-budget sci-fi/action bunch of nonsense that is Universal Soldiers: The Return. Boldly presenting a story that has been done dozens of time before (i.e.; super-soldiers causing more trouble than they’re worth), this is a film that lurches from one ill-conceived sequence to the other, never straying too far from exploitation, familiar shootouts and that elusive but unmistakable stench of late-nineties bad action movies. An all-evil Artificial Intelligence is thrown into the mix for no other reason than “hey, why not?” The rest is just noise and flames and terminal boredom. Jean-Claude van Damme can’t save the mess, and neither can Kiana Tom nor Heidi Schanz as the female counterbalance to a testosterone-drenched film. It’s almost unbearably dull despite the explosions, shootouts, strip clubs and artificial intelligence working to enslave mankind (or something like that). It’s so bad that even the direct-to-video sequels ignored it. You might as well stay away.
(On Cable TV, June 2013) I have only seen two films directed by John Hyams (Dragon Eyes being the first one), and I’m already developing a bit of a dislike for his work. While I can appreciate his eye for good cinematography and strong action sequences, his obvious inability to deliver a coherent narrative is far more irritating than the amount of eye-candy he can deliver. Crucial narrative moments are missing, intriguing ideas are abandoned as soon as they’re raised, and nothing seems to matter as much as the camera angles that he use. While action movies (and direct-to-DVD action movies in particular) have never been too strong on story, there are basic mandatory requirements than Hyams isn’t even meeting. The plot is a muddle of enhanced-soldier stuff overlaid with rogue agents, military conspiracies, fake memories and who know what else; it’s handled so badly that it’s hard to care about any of it. While Jean-Claude van Damme and Dolph Lundgren are hyped as being “back” in the series and the film, viewers should temper their expectations and expect merely a few unconnected quasi-cameo appearances. Scott Adkins handles protagonist duties, and the best one can say is that he does not embarrass himself. The same can’t be said about Hyams, who seriously needs some adult supervision before he’s allowed to mangle another script again.
(On Cable TV, April 2013) I was left unimpressed by The Expendables’ mixture of self-satisfied machismo, gory violence and incoherent direction, so to say that this sequel is better than the first one only requires slight improvements. By far the best creative decision taken this time around is to give directing duties away from Sylvester Stallone and to veteran filmmaker Simon West –an inconsistent director, but one who at least knows what he’s doing. The macho bravado and CGI gore is still there, but at least the film doesn’t struggle to make itself understood once the relatively coherent action sequences are put together. The tone is much improved: Rather than trying to be a humorless pastiche of 80s action films, The Expendables 2 regularly acknowledges its own absurdity, whether in the form of stunned one-liners, or avowed deus-ex-cameo plot developments that allow icons such as Chuck Norris, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis to come in a save the day even at the expense of basic suspension of disbelief. As with the first film, it’s the casting that provides much of the entertainment: Sylvester Stallone is still obnoxious in a self-indulgent lead role, but Jason Statham is reliably good, Jean-Claude van Damme relishes his role as an eponymous Vilain, Dolph Lundgren gets a bit more of that “mad chemist” character, while relative newcomer Nan Yu makes a bit of impression as a welcome female presence in the middle of so much testosterone. As far as action is concerned, the beginning of The Expendables 2 is generally getter than its second half for reasons linked to the film’s intention: R-rated Eighties action film were heavy on violence (ie; personalized deaths, usually at gunpoint) while subsequent Nineties PG-13 action films relied more on, well, bloodless action: chases and explosions. This sequel has more action at the beginning, and far more violence at the end, especially when is starts shooting up an airport terminal where no innocent travellers are to be found. Dialogue and plot don’t deserve much of a mention, except to note their role in setting up the action sequences or the terrible self-referential humor. While the film is definitively an improvement over the original, the final result isn’t much more than a routine shoot-‘em up: there is little in The Expendables 2 to spark the imagination or even to discuss once the credits roll. It goes without saying that the entire thing is still an exercise is self-absorbed nostalgia. There is no need for a sequel, even though one is nearly certain given the nature of the franchise.
(On Cable TV, April 2013) Following a familiar formula isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but incompetently following a familiar formula seems even more inexcusable than in trying something new. So it is that cheap direct-to-video Dragon Eyes manages to botch a dirt-simple “stranger comes to clean up town” plot template. It’s not even particularly subtle in its presentation, as a sturdy asian protagonist walks in the middle of a black/latino gang-infested Louisiana neighborhood and starts picking fights with the local criminal element. We eventually learn the back-story, but what initially seems like directorial stylishness eventually reveals itself to be pure incoherence. Simply put, Dragon Eyes goes through the motions so automatically that crucial plot developments are forgotten and simply aren’t shown on-screen: the result is a story that is carried forward on pure assumed plotting knowledge: The viewers have to fill out missing scenes in their heads, since what is shown on-screen seeks to skip ahead (or back) without delivering the basic narrative building blocks. From time to time, various visual flourishes keep our interest: Some action scenes (including a few lengthy fighting shots) are directed with some ambition, the opening credits are fine, some stylish freeze-frames introduce the characters (alas, without much final impact) and a few of the actors are clearly too good for the material given to them: Cung Le manages to remain intriguing as the dull protagonist, but Jean-Claude Van Damme steals the film as a grizzled mentor, while Peter Weller has a bit of fun as a criminal kingpin, and Crystal Mantecón is beautiful enough to make an impression despite a woefully underwritten love-interest role. Dragon Eyes quickly becomes an irritant, a film that doesn’t quite know how to tell a basic story despite limiting itself to the barest bones of a narrative. It begins in confusion, advances in incoherence and finishes without a satisfying wrap-up. It ultimately doesn’t distinguish itself from countless other basic low-budget action films except for the fact that it doesn’t even deliver minimal viewing satisfaction.