Direct-to-video – nowadays, video-on-demand or shunted-to-Netflix – is a phrase that arguably still has unfair pejorative connotations of cinematic dross and has-been casts and cheap cameras. But if DTV is an ignored ocean, then it is one with an oasis at its center. Within that oasis lies a wealth of gems, from the boundary-pushing works of Hong Kong’s CAT III label and Japan’s V-Cinema, to the ‘90s explosion where films like Steve Wang’s Drive and PM Entertainment’s vehicular mayhem thrived. Today, you’ll likely find more competent action filmmaking among direct-to-video flicks than in most Hollywood blockbusters, and John Hyams’ Universal Soldier: Regeneration embodies that ideal with gunmetal grace.

Roland Emmerich launched the Universal Soldier franchise in 1992, pitting Jean-Claude Van Damme against Dolph Lundgren as Vietnam veterans-turned-resurrected “UniSol” weapons. There’s a darkness to that first film, but it’s also a film fully embracing ‘80s action-hero excess: grenades, squibs, and one-liners galore. Three more sequels followed, with JCVD’s Luc Deveraux even returning for 1999’s The Return. Then, a decade of dormancy.

Universal Soldier is not forgotten though. But the modern action fan’s point of familiarity is most likely 2012’s Day of Reckoning, where John Hyams turned the series into a surreal sci-fi-horror-noir hybrid and put fan favorite Scott Adkins in the lead role. However, that film was Hyams’ second stab at the franchise, leaving 2009’s Universal Soldier: Regeneration the odd man out, its desaturated industrial havoc overlooked in favor of Reckoning’s existential bloodbath.

While Day of Reckoning went weird, enigmatic, and grotesque, Universal Soldier: Regeneration is an assured aggressively-sculpted action engine. One minute has passed when the film erupts with a guns-blazing kidnapping and crunching car chase, the spectacle tearing up wintry Eastern European streets with grey-tinted clarity and ruthless bloodshed. The stark intensity of that opening drives Regeneration from one set-piece to the next, briskly establishing the story: children of the Ukrainian PM kidnapped, a terrorist plot based in the ruins of Chernobyl, a joint US-Ukraine task force to rescue the captives. That narrative framework has all the hallmarks of its direct-to-video ilk – minimal locations, a dilapidated European setting, a lot of masked combatants to hide and re-use stuntmen – but Hyams uses those aspects to the advantage of pacing, geography and focused action.

Day of Reckoning is remembered as the action-horror entry, but Hyams lays the seeds for that tonal shift in Regeneration. Both Van Damme’s return and the film’s treatment of its UniSols reinforce the excitement with subdued intrigue, exploring the dehumanization of its engineered soldiers. Deveraux’s plot involves mental de-programming; however, his attempt at normalcy is always portrayed as a curious experiment for his handlers, rather than humanizing growth for the man. Andrei Arlovski’s terrorist-deployed UniSol is treated with cold detachment, body parts replaced and emotions suppressed. The chassis of Regeneration may be a gritty action film, yet the fuel is sci-fi cruelty and bio-programmed body horror.

Many odes to John Carpenter are slavish to ‘80s nostalgia. Regeneration instead captures the feel, momentum and scrappy low-budget meanness that defined Carpenter’s thrillers. Hyams’ action direction is calibrated for blistering, bone-snapping brutality, swinging for the fences with slaughter-filled long takes and wall-shattering brawls. One could argue that with Regeneration, he delivers the best Terminator throwback.

Arlovski’s next-generation UniSol is the sleeker killing machine compared to Van Damme’s grizzled model; Hyams makes sure to frame Arlovski’s unrelenting attacks with a horror lens, like a warzone slasher film. Deveraux is akin to the slower and outmatched Terminators that Arnold would play in the sequels. Dolph Lundgren makes a memorable cameo as a Frankenstein’s monster-esque foil, prefiguring Genysis’ Arnold v Arnold smackdown. When Van Damme and Arlovski clash, their fight is essentially an undead-soldier variant of the T-800 versus the T-1000, complete with a “we only slowed it down, time to run” moment akin to the liquid metal reforming after its temporary shattering.

Following this with the gonzo gruesome Day of Reckoning and the survival thriller Alone, John Hyams has cemented himself as one of the most exciting new directors in genre cinema. His Universal Soldier: Regeneration is arguably the best DTV action of the 2000s, a lean relentless sledgehammer of a film that barely lets off the gas.

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