JCVD’s Universal Soldier Took Movies & Scott Adkins To Become Great
The Universal Soldier franchise has had a unique history, and it really wasn’t until its straight-to-DVD installments starring Scott Adkins that the film series hit its stride. Directed by Roland Emmerich, the original Universal Soldier starred Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren as American soldiers who were killed in action during the Vietnam War. More than two decades years later, the two characters are revived as part of the top-secret UniSol program, with each of them gradually regaining his memory and resuming his prior conflict.
Universal Soldier was a moderate hit when it was released in theaters in 1992, and though the series would continue, its path would be anything but linear. The next two Universal Soldier movies — Universal Soldier II: Brothers in Arms and Universal Soldier III: Unfinished Business — weren’t even released theatrically, instead debuting as cable TV movies. Although the franchise would find its way to theaters again with Universal Soldier: The Return in 1999, a confluence of factors led to it standing as the end of the series, at least for a few years.
The Universal Soldier franchise inexplicably returned to life with 2009’s Universal Soldier: Regeneration, and then the Scott Adkins-led follow-up, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, arrived in 2012. What made the revival unique was not only how belated it was but also how changed the home video environment was at the time. Adding to this was the career renaissance these movies marked for their two stars as well as Scott Adkins’s rise as an up-and-comer who would become one of the most revered modern action stars.
Comparison To The Terminator Movies Hurt Universal Soldier
The 1992 release of the original movie made Universal Soldier a victim of bad timing. Terminator 2: Judgment Day had just become the biggest movie of 1991 as well as one of the highest-grossing movies of all time. With Universal Soldier’s premise being that the UniSols are dead soldiers revived by futuristic government experiments and made into unstoppable killing machines, comparisons to the James Cameron-directed Terminator franchise were hard to avoid. Universal Soldier’s own marketing didn’t help much either.
The trailer for Universal Soldier used sections of Terminator 2’s score and included lines like “Inside the machine is a man.” While it’s not uncommon for trailers to use snippets of another movie’s music if it gels with the tone of the marketing, Universal Soldier found itself branded as a Terminator knock-off upon its release. Any similarities between the two franchises are minor, but Universal Soldier still found itself with a discount Terminator label in spite of its modest box office success.
Van Damme’s Career Decline Coincided With Universal Soldier: The Return
The next two Universal Soldier movies were made-for-cable sequels (originally intended as a miniseries that would then spinoff an ongoing show) and released within weeks of each other in late 1998. Both Universal Soldier II: Brothers in Arms and Universal Soldier III: Unfinished Business lacked the involvement of the exited Jean-Claude Van Damme, so Luc Devereaux was instead played by Matt Battaglia.
Van Damme nonetheless returned to the role in the following year’s Universal Soldier: The Return, while Michael Jai White — who had a minor role in the original Universal Soldier as another American serving in the Vietnam War — played a superhuman A.I. villain called S.E.T.H. Unfortunately, the middling success of the franchise to that point didn’t result in great anticipation for another Universal Soldier movie.
JCVD’s Comeback & Scott Adkins’ Rise Saved Universal Soldier
In 2008, Jean-Claude Van Damme experienced a turning point with his semi-autobiographical feature JCVD being his first movie to receive a wide theatrical release since Universal Soldier: The Return. His performance as a version of his real-world self pulled into a bank heist and ruminating over the mistakes of his life and career garnered him significant praise, and his name was back in the mainstream once more.
What really pushed it up and over, though, was the 2010 direct-to-video release of Universal Soldier: Regeneration. Serving as a direct sequel to the original Universal Soldier, Regeneration gave the Universal Soldier franchise a dark, almost Saving Private Ryan-like makeover. Dolph Lundgren accompanied Van Damme for the resurrection of the franchise, returning as his nemesis, Andrew Scott.
Just a year later, Lundgren was back in the mainstream with The Expendables while Van Damme joined him for The Expendables 2 in 2012. Still, it was Van Damme’s career resurgence that gave the Universal Soldier franchise a soft reboot that completely re-invigorated it, and this coincided with the rise of another action hero. Meanwhile, Scott Adkins had been gradually gaining attention in his own career with straight-to-DVD hits like Undisputed 2: Last Man Standing and Ninja. He’d already worked with Van Damme, in Isaac Florentine’s The Shepherd: Border Patrol, and by 2010 was really starting to enter the mainstream with Undisputed 3: Redemption.
Universal Soldier has traveled a path that perhaps no other sci-fi or action movie series ever has. Surviving three different storytelling mediums, the franchise found the peak of its success by being in the right place at the right time for Regeneration and Day of Reckoning to flex their strength. Coupled with Scott Adkins’ action genre conquest through the niche-turned-mainstream straight-to-video market, the Universal Soldier franchise took its time in finding its groove.
In the face of what seemed like diminishing returns, the latter-day Universal Soldier movies showed the validity of one last attempt at re-invention just when it seems like it’s time to throw in the towel.
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