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Criminally Underrated: Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning

Criminally Underrated: Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning

In the age of streaming media where anyone with a Netflix account can build their own personal canon, “underrated” becomes a somewhat relative concept.

In the age of streaming media where anyone with a Netflix account can build their own personal canon, “underrated” becomes a somewhat relative concept. While Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, the second installment directed by John Hyams and the sixth in the series overall, is not without its champions (I myself found my way to the film thanks to praise from both the AV Club and Cracked), that gaping 52% on Rotten Tomatoes indicates that there’s still some work to be done in spreading the good news of the Unisol Church of Eventualism.

For those who aren’t old enough to remember (or who are now too old to spend their evenings getting baked and watching basic cable into the wee hours of the morning), Universal Soldier was a Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle from ’92 in which the Regent of the Roundhouse played Private Luc Deveraux, a slain Vietnam War veteran resurrected as part of a top secret government super soldier program. Opposite him was Dolph Lundgren as Andrew Scott, a homicidal fellow soldier whom Deveraux died taking down. The film wasn’t exactly the stuff that empires were founded upon. A middling actioner, it wasn’t even really bad enough to draw much of a cult following. For most of the remainder of the decade, the franchise languished in made-for-TV hell until, in 1999, TriStar made one last gasp at returning the series to the big screen, but to no avail. From thence, Universal Soldier settled into what seemed like it’s natural habitat: the direct-to-video market.

And that’s where John Hyams got his hooks in it. Hyams’ background included a variety of documentary shorts on MMA fighters, and he brought this fixation to the films. Universal Soldier: Regeneration infused the series with a new intensity and raw physicality, and it’s widely considered a high water mark in the series. But Hyams was only just getting started.

Day of Reckoning centers around John (Scott Adkins), a man who wakes in the hospital after a brutal home invasion with no memory save of his wife, his daughter, and the man who murdered them. That man is identified as Luc Deveraux, whom FBI Agent Gorman (Banshee‘s Rus Blackwell) believes may be leading a terrorist group composed of brainwashed government agents. As John penetrates deeper into the mystery of his past, he uncovers shocking secrets about his own connection to Deveraux, and finds himself caught between two sides of a conflict he doesn’t understand.

David Lynch’s name gets thrown around a lot in relation to DoR, and with good reason. Beyond the film’s blatant forays into surrealism and grotesquery, there are deeper explorations of such common Lynchian themes as the compartmentalization of memory and identity, and the encounter with one’s double. Like the protagonists of Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, John is wandering blind through his own life, uncovering clues to a dark and unsavory past hiding just beneath his respectable suburban family-man veneer. Even more impressive is Hyams’ appropriation of Lynch’s visual grammar, like the way he sometimes transitions between scenes with slow fades and superimpositions. The camera has a weightless feel to it; it’s rarely static, and even during stationary shots, you can often feel it drifting slowly, like a leaf in a breeze.

This does more than anything to account for the film’s strangeness. The off-kilter quality of the visuals resonates through the story’s narrative structure. Most action movies, particularly ones as high-concept as this, feel the need to surround every key plot point with flashing neon lights to make sure the audience is following along, but there’s not a lot exposition in Day of Reckoning. We float from scene to scene, sometimes without a clear understanding of why. Dialog is spare, and even when we are privy to an information dump from one of the characters, what we learn is fragmented and incomplete. In one scene, Dolph Lundgren’s Andrew Scott delivers a revival-tent quality sermon to the soldiers in Deveraux’s army, but while his words help to clarify the nebulous sides of this conflict, there is no pontification on the organization’s “master plan” or end game. It’s as if our presence at this gathering were a privilege, not a right. The speech was never really meant for our ears. Moments like this add to the sense of unreality that pervades the film, as though we are wandering through a dream, perhaps one not even belonging to us.

In stark contrast to the film’s peculiar visual style and meditative pacing are its numerous bloody and meticulously choreographed fight-scenes. From the pair of slugging matches between John and Magnus (MMA fighter, Andrei “The Pitbull” Arlovski) to the stunning, cut-to-look-like-a-single-take battle at the film’s climax, Hyams constructs set pieces that invoke the white-knuckle brawls of The Raid films as easily as the more polished and fanciful gunplay of films like John Wick and Equilibrium. Even at its most elaborate, though, these fights are messy affairs. People lose extremities, break bones, catch blades with their palms, shoulders, and forearms. The brutality of the violence is matched by its suddenness. There is rarely lead-up to any of the action scenes; danger comes from out of nowhere and strikes when you feel the safest. There’s a scene set in the Unisol bunkers, where a fellow soldier attempts to take a bottle that Magnus is drinking from and the two break into fist fight. But as the aggressor staggers, dazed and beaten, the other soldiers join in, each taking his turn pummeling the defeated warrior until he’s nothing more than a bloody heap for Deveroux himself to put down with a bullet. It’s a cryptic moment, one that does nothing to advance the plot, but one that I believe sketches out the moral universe, not just of Deveraux’s congregation, but of the film as a whole. There are no heroes in this film, no sides that we can pick to pin our hopes on, only predators vying with one another for dominance over the herd.

But Hyams knows how to do more with his actors than turn them into life-sized action figures. Scott Adkins lives at the center of this thing, and he proves equally capable of playing John as the confused suburbanite, steel-eyed killing machine and mourning family man. He brings a degree of genuine pain and loss to the role that keeps his character grounded in human feeling, in spite of what we learn about him as the story progresses. Lundgren and Van Damme were never particularly renown for their acting abilities, but they’re both in fine form here. Lundgren brings a kind of evangelical frenzy to his role, and Hyams frames him in such a way that his still-impressive bulk (dude is pushing 60) positively dominates the screen. The scene in the brothel where we are first re-introduced to him with a shot from behind of his shoulders straining against the confines of his immaculately white button-down shirt provides one of the most arresting images in the whole movie. And Van Damme has never been more chilling, his cold, dead eyes looking upon the world and everything and everyone in it, and finding it all lacking. He’s possibly the most enigmatic figure to exist in an action film, a complete cipher.

The logical initial reaction to seeing Day of Reckoning is to assert, “This thing shouldn’t exist.” The R-rated American action film, once a proud staple of our cinema, has become something of an endangered species in a Hollywood landscape where only projects with the broadest possible appeal make it through the focus group abattoir. But of course a movie this vicious, this daring, this bizarre could only have been made for the direct to video market. This is a movie where its two biggest stars get a combined total of about 20 minutes screen time. A movie where we watch a man’s family die in Enter the Void-esque first-person POV. A movie where Jean-Claude Van Damme squares off for his final battle looking like a replicant of Colonel Kurtz. Something this beautiful and fucked would have set fire to any multiplex screen it touched.

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