Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Sci-Fried Theater: UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING (2012)

What do you think of when you think of the film UNIVERSAL SOLDIER? Plastic soldier outfits. Jean Claude Van Damme's moussed hair. Dolph Lundgren's awesome nutballery. Confusingly numbered sequels... After the 1992 original, in 1998 Showtime and The Movie Channel decided to produce UNIVERSAL SOLDIER II: BROTHERS IN ARMS and UNIVERSAL SOLDIER III: UNFINISHED BUSINESS intending them to be pilots for a series that never got off the ground. In 1999 a proper sequel was produced in UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: THE RETURN. By proper I mean featuring at least one returning cast member (Van Damme as Luc Deveraux). The lackluster production pretty much killed the franchise and ironically featured the tag line "Prepare to become obsolete".

A full decade later, John Hyams (son of the hit and miss Peter Hyams) decided to tackle the material with both returning stars, Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren. Throw in UFC's Andrei "The Pitbull" Arlovski and you have a masterpiece, right? Uhhhh, no. Using one of the most irritating, budget-saving action movie cliches, "science fiction" is envisioned by having a bunch of guys fight in an abandoned refinery. Imagine my surprise to discover that Hyams was attempting another sequel, not only with Van Damme, Lundgren, and Arlovski returning, but with the addition of our golden-boy of modern action flicks, Scott Adkins! Holy crap, prepare to mark out! So if you're like me, you'd probably think that Hyams is going to waste all of that talent on another cheap, forgettable sequel... and you would be wrong. Dead wrong. [edit: Since this review was written, I've gone back and revisited UNIVERSAL SOLDER: REGENERATION (2009), and realize I let a few annoying details ruin an otherwise solid solid film. It still isn't anywhere near the insanity of this film, but it's definitely an enjoyable outing with some great stunt work].

UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING is like UNIVERSAL SOLDIER, in the same way GWAR is like Winger or a Pagani Zonda is like a Toyota Prius. There are some similarities, but they are really not the same at all.

Starting off with a fantastic sequence in which, through the eyes of average schmoe John (Scott Adkins), we see him check his home for the monsters that his daughter is afraid of at night. After checking every room in the house, he opens the kitchen door and there they are. Three men in black who beat John senseless with a tire iron and then one takes off his balaclava to reveal that he is Luc Deveraux (Van Damme). He then executes John's wife and child with extreme prejudice. It's a scene that would normally feel cliched and old hat, but here Hyams makes it very engaging and interesting by making it a first person view, complete with slightly blurred tunnel vision from being woken up in the middle of the night, somewhat reminiscent of some of the first person scenes in ROBOCOP (1987).

Waking up in an oddly large, modern hospital room after being in a coma for almost a year, John is visited by a Fed who is interested in having John track down the man who killed John's family. Of course, John is pretty damn interested in this guy too, and after leaving the hospital sets out on a path of revenge. Only one problem: he can't remember a damn thing about his past other than the murders of his family. This means he must stumble around in the dark (sometimes literally) in order to find clues, though it isn't too hard since the clues invariably find him, usually by way of Deveraux's newest recruit, Magnus the plumber (Arlovski). At the same time we discover that Deveraux is a cult leader of a group of mindless super-soldiers who rally around a new religious symbol and the preaching of the amazingly still-alive Andrew Scott (Lundgren channeling his Street Preacher role from 1995s JOHNNY MNEMONIC). Deveraux has apparently developed some sort of mind-control serum that counters the military's programming in their UniSol experiments and claims he is freeing their minds. Instead he is simply turning the control over to himself, so that he can use a group of bloodthirsty killing machines to do his bidding and retaliate against the government who created them.

That is essentially the spoiler-free version of the plot, but for the most part this movie is not about plot. In spite of the the fact that it is the most plot intensive films of the series, there is no hand-holding and spoon-feeding of a story going on here. You grab hold and hang on. This movie throws so much crazy shit at you at once that you will get whiplash from watching it. What Hyams has created is an sweat-stained, hallucinogen-soaked, enigmatic fever-dream that is not so much a blustery Sy-Fy Channel wannabe, but a brooding, nasty, bloody horror-thriller with brutal action setpieces. Dark shadows are bathed in glowing neon lights that flicker and strobe, splashing unreal colors around detailed ruined sets filled with broken objects and damaged humans. Often literally. To say this movie is visually arresting and jaw-droppingly off kilter is putting it mildly.

An audience member after seeing the film

While screenwriter Doug Magnuson borrows bits and pieces from SILENT RAGE (1982) and BLADE RUNNER (1982), it's APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) that DAY OF RECKONING owes a serious debt to. Instead of painted natives worshiping a bald and insane Marlon Brando, it's painted soldiers worshiping a bald and insane Jean-Claude Van Damme and it's John's trip (both literally and figuratively) up the river to find and kill the madman, that this film is all about. And what a trip it is. Hyams and Magnuson actually manage to build their own little world, in much the same way APOCALYPSE NOW created theirs. It's like the real world, but it's not. It operates on it's own logic, or illogic, as the case may be, and there is no anchor to reality. No scenes that bring a sense of normalcy, to ground the audience and to contrast what Salvador Dali called "the super-reality" of the bizarre world that John (who has no last name) encounters. There are a few scenes of exposition, but Magnuson isn't about to hand everything to you on a platter. You have to pay attention to action on screen in a way that resembles "slice-of-life" filmmaking. The only difference is, slice-of-life is usually reserved for charming character pieces from France in the '50s, not a straight-faced, disorienting orgy of destruction that made the man with too many first names, John Charles, comment that he was not sure whether he was watching a UNIVERSAL SOLDIER sequel or a SAW sequel.

If you are looking for EXPENDABLES 3, you are barking up the wrong tree. There are no jovial quips, self-referencing in-jokes or Hollywood gasoline explosion set-pieces with our heroes diving out of the way in the nick of time. There are great, gristly action scenes, one after another, particularly involving Arlovski (ummm... didn't Arlovski die in the last one. Come to think of it. Didn't Lundgren take a header into a combine in the first one?). In one scene he attacks John in a hardware store after a really impressive truck-vs-SUV chase and collision (in which the actors look like they legitimately took a beating). This fight, in which they attack each other with baseball bats wielded like martial arts weapons, is probably the highlight of the film for fight fans, as is the blood-drenched close-quarters fight between Adkins and Lundgren. As cool as those fights are, this movie spends much of its time throwing out utterly bizarre scenes, that hint about something, ultimately meaning nothing, but sure make for a wild ride. Wild like how, you ask? How about Adkins killing his own doppelganger with a shotgun in a rundown shack painted floor to ceiling with abstract images of a hooker, before having a drill press pushed through his skull, driving him on a berserk, blood-soaked rampage? And that, my friends, doesn't even put a dent in the awe-inspiring bizzaro-land that is DAY OF RECKONING, a film that has suddenly turned John Hyams into the most exciting action director around. Isaac Florentine, you have been one-upped. Dolph says "bring it."






Moments of Clarity:

1 Reactions:

  1. I will be watching this one soon. It looks amazing and Van Damme is particularly creepy.
    I have found a reborn interest in him.

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