`Soldier' Is Tired Sequel For Van Damme

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X "Universal Soldier: The Return," with Jean-Claude Van Damme, Michael Jai White. Directed by Mic Rodgers, from a script by William Malone and John Fasano. 82 minutes. Several theaters. "R" - Restricted because of nonstop strong violence, and for language and nudity.

A robot movie that seems to have been manufactured by robots, "Universal Soldier: The Return" follows the Jean-Claude Van Damme action-movie formula so closely that there's little room for anything but repetition.

This sequel has no apparent purpose but to match the fights, explosions and chases from the 1992 original, which was in itself a weary collection of robocop/terminator/cyborg cliches. Still, the first film had a certain wide-screen visual splendor that's missing here - not to mention a co-star, Dolph Lundgren, who matched the "muscles from Brussels" in beefcake appeal.

"The Return" has the cramped, shoddy look of a straight-to-video knock-off, and it makes pitifully minimal use of the Lundgren replacement (Michael Jai White as the musclebound embodiment of the supercomputer SETH) and such good actors as Xander Berkeley (Julianne Moore's husband in "Safe"). Neither has enough screen time to register, so it's mostly Van Damme's show.

The events in "The Return" take place years after the first film, in which Van Damme's character, Luc Devereaux, was a resurrected corpse. Some of these creatures are still around, leading to lines like "I don't care if he is dead. Next time he grabs me, I'm gonna kill him."

But Luc, who winces at the thought that he was once one of them, has somehow escaped this fate and gone on to a higher plane. He's now enough of a functioning human to have produced a daughter (Karis Paige Bryant), whose chief purpose in life is to be kidnapped by the egomaniacal SETH. Luc also attends a strip show (where he does more head-bashing than ogling), flirts with a reporter (Heidi Schanz) and watches as an old colleague (Kiana Tom) is transformed into a cyborg.

The relatively high proportion of females in the cast doesn't mean the testosterone level has subsided. Nor do Luc's endearing declarations that "all soldiers are not mindless, violent killing machines." The ratings board clearly meant it when they assigned an R rating on the basis of "nonstop strong violence."