Not since a gun-toting Henry Fonda mowed down an entire frontier family in Once Upon a Time in the West has a villainous reveal been as shocking as the one that opens the fourth official installment in the Universal Soldier franchise. Okay, we’re being a bit hyperbolic. Still, it is pretty thrilling when the ringleader of a gang of murderous home invaders unmasks himself as genetically enhanced series hero Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme), who then proceeds to nonchalantly shoot the wife and child of a military man named John (Scott Adkins). Our strapping protagonist awakes in a coma nine months after this tragic incident with vengeance on his mind and strobe visions of Deveraux in his head. But is John seeking out Van Damme’s test-tube-cloned killer of his own free will—or is something else making him do it?
Director John Hyams treats this Z-level trash with a high-art pomposity that verges on laughable. The first half finds our hero shuffling among locales while the camera sl-o-o-o-wly, morosely tracks him. (Ever wonder what bargain-basement Kubrick might look like? Search no more.) There are also halfheartedly developed scenes where the Muscles from Brussels and right-hand man Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren) rile up the UniSol masses about a “day of reckoning” that we assume will come a few sequels from now. But get past all that ephemera and you’ll witness some genuinely inventive action scenes: John’s sporting-goods store mano a mano with a mind-controlled baddie known only as “The Plumber” is a bull-in-a-china-shop delight, while Van Damme and Lundgren give as good as Adkins doles out in the truly insane climactic brawl. It’s almost worth wading through the wearisome setup to get to the fun stuff. But there is a reason fast-forward buttons were invented.
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