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RUNNING TIME: 299 Minutes
• Commentary by Jean-Claude Van Damme and Michael Rooker
• Deleted Scenes
• Cast & Crew Bios
• Photo Gallery
• Commentary by Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, Roland Emmerich, and Dean Devlin
• "Guns, Genes, and Fighting Machines"
• "A Tale of 2 Titans"
• Alternate Ending
I know your dilemma. You’re thinking your DVD collection is crying out for a major infusion of Van Dammage, but you need it in compact form so it can easily be tossed under a sofa cushion when alleged cineastes come over. Fret no more. The Van Damme Collector’s Set delivers a triple dose in a slim package that is both highly affordable and discreet, unlike a certain coke habit. Inside are the previously released editions of Kickboxer (’89), Universal Soldier (’92), and Replicant (’01). I’ve reviewed them from least to greatest in order to save the best splits for last.
"Go on, say ‘David Bryan’ again, asshole. I dare you."
Van Damme is an excellent fighter, definitely an excellent fighter.
Jean-Claude Van Damme (Bloodsport), Michael Rooker (Cliffhanger), Catherine Dent (The Shield)
A serial killer known as The Torch (Van Damme) has been terrorizing the Seattle (read Vancouver) area, methodically murdering and flame-broiling single mothers. Burnt out detective Jake Riley (Rooker) has long been after him, and nearly retires only to be recruited by a secret government agency for a pilot program. He is charged with the care and training of an infantile adult clone (also Van Damme), freshly created from the Torch’s DNA, who it is believed will lead him to his quarry. Just take it on faith, OK?
"Look, I’m Belgian, not French. I shower – honest!"
All actors want to be remembered for a unique attribute or ability. In Van Damme’s case one might assume that would be his trademark high kicks, but it seems his true passion has become the exploration of human duality. Recently he played a dirty police officer who undergoes a stunning moral transformation in Until Death. Replicant takes things one step further as his two divergent personalities exist simultaneously, and he often has to act/kick opposite himself.
It’s an interesting acting challenge to be sure, though not the sort of thing one would ordinarily feel comfortable assigning to Van Damme. The childlike, borderline autistic clone is a charming and relatively believable performance, but the Torch is a way over-the-top mustache twirling cliché. Of course, since the latter has considerably more dialog it isn’t really a fair fight.
Replicant also taps the buddy genre through the Rain Man-light pairing of the clone and Riley. There’s probably a great sitcom to be had here, but the film is too preoccupied with the murder investigation to pursue many laughs, or at least good ones. In the most ludicrous and labored effort Riley’s mother walks in on her son aggressively attempting to strip search the handcuffed clone, prompting the inevitable "It’s not what it looks like!" protest.
"Jesus, ma! That tie ain’t hanging on the doorknob to dry."
Rooker turns in his usual world-weary cop shtick, and it’s hard to tell if his low-key performance denotes a lack of enthusiasm or just Rooker being Rooker. Not that dialog like "Bedwetting mama’s boy!" is anything for him to get excited about. Rooker definitely deserves some kind of honorary award for all the physical abuse he endured. He gets thrown off a speeding truck, nearly run over, beaten relentlessly, and even set on fire. By the end of the film there’s barely enough left of him to sweep up.
If all this sounds suspiciously familiar, consider that Rooker auditioned for this role while shooting Schwarzenegger’s The 6th Day, the better-known Vancouver man vs. clone thriller. The 6th Day leans more toward sci-fi, and a discussion however cursory of the social impact of cloning. For what it’s worth it’s the more polished and sophisticated film, but not necessarily more exciting action wise.
Replicant may have nothing on Hard Target or Universal Soldier, but director Ringo Lam does an admirable job of supplying the fireworks one expects of a Van Damme film on a tiny budget. Unlike his other recent films the fights are plentiful and energetic. Unfortunately there are a lot of frustrating cuts, so half the time you don’t see the blows land.
"Man, trash-talking myself is a real drag."
Most viewers will probably be anticipating the VD vs. VD struggles, but for my money the Torch’s murderous rampage against the healthcare system provides the most entertainment. Try and keep a straight face as he uses a wheelchair patient as a battering ram, kicks a nurse in the crotch, rips away a feeble geezer’s IV, and slams an ambulance into a cripple.
I haven’t seen Lam’s other films, though I hear good things about his Hong Kong Chow Yun Fat collaborations like City on Fire, but I get the feeling that vehicle stunts are his specialty. The two superb parking garage chases look like they came from a much more expensive film, and quite possibly used up most of Replicant‘s budget. Particularly noteworthy is the stunt where a fleeing Riley clambers up a fence and the Torch smashes his car through inches under him, similar to the ATV stunt in Tom Yum Goong/The Protector.
Replicant contains hints of interesting ideas, such as how the Torch and his clone quickly begin to relate to each other as brothers. However the sci-fi aspects are never developed enough to add much flavor. Perhaps wisely, no explanation is even attempted for the corny psychic link between the Torch and his clone, which somehow allows them to share memories and sensations à la Tomax and Xamot.
"If that damn Aussie steals another one of my bits I’ll splatter his beautiful mind."
Visually and sonically the film’s a washout. I hear Vancouver’s a beautiful city, but whenever Hollywood heads up there they seem to hang out in the most nondescript, drabbest warehouses and back alleys available. The cheesy score sounds like an early 90s TV movie.
The cover of this collection succeeds in being sharp and cheap at the same time. If you can’t be bothered to use a couple of colors, you can’t really expect consumers to get excited about the contents. Speaking of which, I did notice a few very brief instances of pixellation in the film.
Replicant‘s extras are both surprisingly extensive and amazingly halfassed. Though there are numerous deleted scenes, they’re mostly forgettable Rooker character moments. I guess the world wasn’t ready for his steamy kitchen lovin’.
Next come some storyboards, which admittedly is a neat idea for a martial arts film. It would be fascinating to see how all the fight moves were mapped out. Which is why of course the scene featured here is nothing but… dialog (!).
For Ghoulies fans the nightmare never ends.
There’s the usual cast and crew text bios, curiously including all four producers, and then a most bizarre photo gallery consisting of nothing but the charred "corpses" of the Torch’s victims. I’m not sure which fetish this appeals to, and I’d prefer to keep it that way.
Wait, all hope is not lost, for there is also the Van Damme/Rooker feature commentary. It does begin very tediously, but by the second half both speakers entertainingly open up, possibly with the aid of a bottle, and Rooker takes the piss out of his modest career while Van Damme inanely philosophizes. You’ll be glad to know he’s a supporter of stem cell research: "We can find through DNA, disease, and how they are building and immunin… immuting themselves against us. So by building up a puzzle you can fight, you can find inside that puzzle what make the puzzle hold, or de-hold, that puzzle." Admittedly I wouldn’t sound even half that eloquent in French.
Like most of Van Damme’s recent output Replicant‘s for fans only, although nearly tops among his DTVs. If you want to see him do sci-fi though, turn to Cyborg first. Wait, no, I mean Timecop. Never turn to Cyborg. I don’t care if it IS 3 AM and the liquor store’s closed.
To be honest, when his brother said he had a "special" celebration planned for his birthday, Kurt had expected a strip club.
Would Bloodsport by any other name smell as sweet?
Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dennis Alexio (champion kickboxer), Dennis Chan, Michel Qissi (Lionheart), Haskell Anderson
Kurt Sloane (Van Damme) serves as trainer for his older brother Eric (Alexio), recently crowned American kickboxing champion. They travel to the sport’s homeland of Thailand seeking a new challenge, and quickly find it in the form of ruthless competitor Tong Po (Qissi), who paralyzes Eric with an illegal blow. Bent on revenge, Kurt enlists the aid of an eccentric teacher (Chan) and trains relentlessly to fight Tong Po himself.
Kurt was mortified. The tattoo artist had sworn his was the only Blue Dragon 17B on the continent.
It doesn’t really bother me when artists repeat themselves, so long as they add something new to the mix. For example the second and equally thrilling Die Hard film follows essentially the same set-up as the first, but drastically increases the scale.
In the case of Kickboxer though, I have to wonder what the point is. The film really doesn’t do anything the very similar Bloodsport didn’t do, and maybe even less. Certainly the Thai scenery is beautiful, but the acting is arguably even stiffer and the slightly more realistic fighting less colorful. The film drags terribly whenever a fight isn’t going on, and that’s most of the second act’s interminable training period.
The cast is just embarrassing really. Just like Schwarzenegger in his early days, Van Damme’s delivery is incredibly awkward and wooden. He’s still not an award winner today, but he’s come a long way with projects like Replicant and Until Death. He’d probably look worse here if he weren’t surrounded by non-actors like Alexio and Anderson, who probably just happened to be at the right Bangkok brothel at the right time. The latter plays Kurt’s arms dealer buddy with a very poor Hannibal Smith impression, complete with frequent cigar chomping. Only Chan has enough charisma to earn a couple laughs, once by strapping raw meat to Kurt’s shorts so that his hungry dog will encourage faster running.
"I love it when a combo comes together."
Interestingly the very non-Thai Qissi was good friends with Van Damme in the early days, and they both hit Hollywood screens for the first time in Breakin’. They signed a three-picture deal that also covered Bloodsport and Lionheart, though this is Qissi’s most prominent role.
His final showdown with Van Damme makes for the film’s only standout fight, in which they glue bits of glass to their fists Rambo III style. Van Damme gets hit so many times his face should be John Wooed instead of just bloody. When he really cuts loose at the end he delivers some entertainingly brutal blows, but the inevitable outcome limits suspense.
Still, you must own this movie for what is undoubtedly the greatest moment in Van Damme’s career, and a shoe in for at least one of those AFI Top 100 lists. The legendary drunken kung fu fighting bar scene showcases the most righteous dance moves ever performed by a Belgian and perhaps Caucasians in general. It’s hard not to grin from ear to ear for the duration.
YOU ARE NOT WORTHY.
Naturally most of the enjoyment is ironic, but watching the scene now for what must be at least the 37th time I must concede that the choreography is sublime, from the hip shaking to the ass kicking to the drunken staggering it’s an intricate ballet reminiscent of Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master. The dance itself is audaciously ridiculous, and outside of Jackie I can’t think of any other action stars who would have the nerve to let their hair down quite that far. Highlights include Van Damme dropping down in the splits to avoid a blow then socking his assailant in the breadbasket, and kicking a table-wielding goon into the river. That thug’s choice of weapon remains one of the great mysteries of cinema. Perhaps he hoped to soften the inevitable whupping, or disable Van Damme with a large splinter.
Like Bloodsport, Kickboxer‘s soundtrack is full of choice cuts for fans of campy 80s pop anthems (guilty!). In particular it boasts three tracks from AOR master Stan "The Touch" Bush, who comes through with another epic lighters-in-the-air ballad, "Fight for Love." The groovy commercial funk of Beau Williams’ "Feeling So Good Today" is a key ingredient of the dance scene.
Criminally Kickboxer remains one of Van Damme’s bare bones titles, despite this being the 20th anniversary of Bloodsport and all. I’d love to hear his commentary on these early, low budget efforts, and raw footage of fight rehearsals would be very interesting.
Kickboxer has always labored in the shadow of the iconic Bloodsport, and casual viewers may not feel the need to track both down. Those two minutes of disco heaven will eventually get enough spins for feature length entertainment though. Learn the moves by heart and the ladies will swoon wherever destitute peasants congregate.
"OK, OK, paper beats rock already!"
Terminator meets Twins, dysfunctional that is.
Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren (Rocky IV), Ally Walker (Happy, Texas), Ed O’Ross (Red Heat), Jerry Orbach (Out for Justice), Ralph Moeller (Best of the Best 2), Tiny Lister, Jr. (Posse), Simon Rhee (Best of the Best 2), Eric Norris (Chuck’s son), Michael Jai White (Spawn)
In 1969 Vietnam, American soldier Luc (Van Damme) and his bloodthirsty sarge Scott (Lundgren) come to blows over civilian murders, and gun each other down. Their bodies are recovered and decades later they are resurrected as genetically modified Universal Soldiers (unisols), unthinking and nearly invulnerable commandos who are deployed for missions too dangerous for normal humans. Ordered to apprehend an aggressive TV reporter (Walker) for photographing the top secret operation, Luc and Scott again clash over the use of force and jog memories of their original identities. Their mental facilities and free will reawakened, they resume their vendetta: Luc and the reporter on the lam with Scott and the unisols in pursuit.
"Belgian problem? Who you gonna call?"
It’s a pity that "Vs." films have only recently come into vogue, as most of the true action superstars are now a little past their prime to deliver the sort of showdown that would once have been a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. Since it’s unlikely throwing two of these guys together back in the 80s would have broken the bank, one supposes egos stood in the way of such collaborations.
Today the Rock and Vin Diesel both desperately need to revive their action careers, and a showdown could be just the ticket. In recent years Jet Li has been the go-to guy, facing off against Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon 4, and then Jason Statham in The One and soon War. Two decades earlier Sylvester Stallone would have what remains perhaps the most famous confrontation, slugging it out with Dolph Lundgren in Rocky IV. Several years later they would both find themselves facing up and coming superstars, Stallone pursuing Wesley Snipes in Demolition Man and Lundgren stalking Van Damme in Universal Soldier.
The film would go on to be the biggest of Van Damme’s career, and propel him into a string of high profile projects like Hard Target, Street Fighter, and Timecop. Curiously Lundgren immediately reverted to small pictures, and never had another hit. Perhaps that’s why action stars are reluctant to play the villain.
Eventually the price of fame proved too high for Optimus.
Universal Soldier was produced by the legendary Carolco Pictures, once an action blockbuster machine churning out hits like Rambo: First Blood Part II, Total Recall, and Terminator 2. Unfortunately 1995 proved fatal for the independent, knocking it out cold with the floptastic combo of Showgirls and Cutthroat Island. I have to say it warms the heart to see that logo flash before the credits once more. It almost always promised something exciting, and certainly delivers here.
It’s debatable whether Universal Soldier is Van Damme’s best film, but it’s easily the crown jewel of this collection. The action is infinitely bigger and slicker and the plot has a few neat ideas, even if they are largely lifted from Carolco’s Terminator franchise. It’s unfortunate that the film devolves into a simple, though entertaining, chase movie halfway through. The story is a little claustrophobic, never really exploring the implications of the unisol program. If the dead could fight one might imagine an end to military conscription, and active trafficking in battlefield corpses.
Van Damme is in good form, though his robotic character doesn’t stretch him much. He plays off his natural stiffness to humorous effect, particularly in the diner scene when ornery rednecks keep trying to interrupt his greasy eating binge. He draws the biggest laugh when questioned whether his accent might be French or Canadian, dryly responding "What accent?" Co-writer Dean Devlin takes partial credit for Van Damme’s performance, saying he cut the dialog down to the bare minimum to avoid pronunciation missteps.
"Goddamn Swedish drivers… JUST GO AROUND ALREADY!"
The real surprise is Lundgren, who is atypically lively in his big scenes. His opening First Blood speech is awkward, but he really swings into gear in the film’s second half. The loony rant to bewildered supermarket shoppers about how to win wars is probably the most human performance I’ve seen from him.
I’d not seen Walker before or since Universal Soldier, but I must admit she does well with the thankless role of gratingly aggressive reporter/love interest, once a staple of action films. I don’t know when this archetype was created, but it’s been a constant thorn in Van Damme’s side ever since Bloodsport. Thankfully annoying reporters seemed to die out around the turn of the century, possibly due to society’s changing attitudes toward chain-smoking.
The rest of the cast is packed with B action veterans. Sadly O’Ross’s stern military commander isn’t a patch on his gloriously sinister Russian mobster in Carolco’s Red Heat. Apparently there was frantic competition between the huge unisol actors like Moeller and Lister to pump up before shooting their many topless scenes. In the film they use a form of steroids, which is one of those things that makes you go hmm…
Open relationships sure can be complicated.
Universal Soldier boasts a variety of top notch action. You get rappelling down the Hoover Dam, the full auto dismantlement of a motel, a cliffside truck chase, and two mano-a-manos between the stars. The climactic fight is the film’s reason for being, and it doesn’t disappoint. A bit of wirework is used to indicate Scott’s chemically enhanced strength as he flings Luc around, but there’s nothing artificial about those signature Van Damme high kicks. Except maybe how Scott obligingly stands still to receive them. The conclusion is telegraphed a bit too much for my liking, but is satisfyingly R-rated. Plus it produces the following classic exchange:
Luc: "Goodnight asshole."
Speaking of which, I used to think tales of Van Damme’s derriere fixation were exaggerated, but sure enough he flashes the camera twice and has Walker grope him. According to Devlin, during his big close-up Van Damme demanded of the cameraman, "Iz my butt een focus?" Still not damning enough? In the extras he boasts he could crack a walnut with it. His confidence is impressive, but exactly which Van Damme fans is all this supposed to appeal to? It’d be interesting to see how much of Universal Soldier‘s $101 million worldwide gross came from female viewers not clubbed and dragged by their hair.
Here we have another opportunity for a fantastic commentary, with Van Damme, Lundgren, Emmerich, and Devlin in the house, albeit not the same one. Is it too much to ask for a little teleconferencing if everyone can’t be in L.A.? Disappointingly this is primarily the Roland & Dean show, though they do provide a lot of interesting production details. Among them: several bit parts were filled by Devlin’s completely talentless friends, an Arizona golf course doubled for "Vietnam", and Lister’s unisol headset had to be modified because it covered his only functional eye.
"What the?!! Trust me to order hot dog delivery from Hollywood Boulevard."
The "Tale of 2 Titans" featurette gives a nice overview of both stars’ careers, especially the early years. Van Damme turns out to be the more entertaining if not better spoken of the two, as you never know what nutty thing he might say. He relates how his father was inspired by David Carradine’s Kung Fu series to enroll him in karate school. On a publicity tour for his first feature role in Bloodsport he was chewed out by producer Menahem Golan for telling the press he "could do better."
"Guns, Genes, And Fighting Machines" thoroughly examines the making of the film through interviews with the commentary group. The film was originally titled "Crystal Knights," which sounds more like a hamburger promotion than a gritty action flick. Emmerich and Lundgren claim they’d never heard of Van Damme before Universal Soldier. WTF? I wonder if these are putdowns motivated by lingering resentment. Although no one says anything directly, one gets the impression Van Damme may have been a bit of a prima donna on set.
By far the coolest extra is the alternate ending. Usually these things are total letdowns with only cosmetic changes. Here though the resolution is altered dramatically with a neat, dark twist that subverts the typically Hollywood theatrical cut. With a little work it would easily be the superior version, but as is it’s rather awkwardly slapped together with poor pacing and terrible narration.
"Hey, check it out! This is the part where I kicked Julia into a coma."
If you dream of a world in which Van Damme and Lundgren can attain Schwarzenegger-like status, Universal Soldier offers a riveting glimpse. And it’s the most profitable film ever starring a Belgian or a Swede. OK, so I don’t have any data to back that up, but I dare you to disprove it. No, Victoria Silvstedt Playmate videos don’t count.
The Van Damme Collector’s Set offers a lot of kick for the buck, if no new content. Come for Universal Soldier, stay for two of his more obscure but respectable outings. Forget about his tired DTV productions for a while and take a look at what a dynamic fighter he used to be. His upcoming The Shepherd is being billed as a return to form, though whether that means more tail kicking or shaking is anyone’s guess.
* 5 if you’ve already seen Bloodsport.