[Review’s note: The version reviewed is the R-rated video-on-demand version. There is an unrated version that was released in other territories last month and will be released eventually on blu-ray.]
HOLLYWOOD, TIME TO GIVE JOHN HYAMS A BIG BUDGET FILM. Many others will be echoing that sentiment as Hyams’s new film “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning” makes its various rounds from video-on-demand to limited theatrical. It is without a doubt a complex, thought-provoking film, words not usually used to describe a balls-to-the-wall action genre film. In fact, it may be impossible to define it by any one genre as, if anything, it is genre-bending in some of the most unexpected ways.
Back in 2009, a little direct-to-video movie, “Universal Soldier: Regeneration” came out. There was no hoopla or great expectations and there was more than a few grumbles along the lines of is another film in a severely inconsistent franchise—and I use the word “franchise” loosely—really needed? Being a fan of the original, a loather of the 1999 theatrical sequel, “Universal Soldier: The Return”, I was almost sure I’d detest “Regeneration” much like any movie series that insists on bastardizing the original film that it is an offspring of. “Regeneration” was an atomic bomb to the original and 1999 sequel, cleaning the slate and reinvigorating the “franchise.”
Now three years later, John Hyams—like a sculptor never quite happy with the way his sculpt is looking, tearing it back down, re-building in a different shape and style—unleashes his brooding vision for “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning.” It shares very little in common with any of the prior Universal Soldier movies, including “Regeneration” and while some might cry foul, wanting to know what happened to the heart and soul of the series, Luc Deveraux (Van Damme) at the end of “Regeneration,” others will be glad that Hyams took yet another fresh approach and decided to tell this story (which this time he had full control of from the ground up, with story and casting) from the perspective of the “monsters” (as he said at the Fantastic Fest screening), which are basically all of the Universal Soldiers, modern-day Frankenstein’s.
“Universal Solider: Day of Reckoning” tells the story of John (Scott Adkins) who suffers a violent crime that puts him into a coma, where nine months later he awakens to find his whole world is upside down and may very well be the result of one man, a rogue Universal Soldier named Luc Deveraux. Not all is as it seems as John follows the bread crumbs to where Deveraux may be, discovering things better left alone, gaining an ally along the way that seems to know him and wants to help him, and facing more questions than answers. Along their travels and quests for answers, he matches wits and fists with several rogue Universal Soldiers, perhaps the most menacing, Magnus (MMA fighter Andre Arlovski) and Sgt. Scott (Dolph Lundgren reprising the role for the umpteenth time), culminating with an epic face-off with Luc Deveraux, where everything comes full circle.
Hyams had a small budget for this film as is the case on many direct-to-video and limited theatrical movies; it’s a shame as he, along with long-time Van Damme movie producer Moshe Diamant (who shares story credit with Hyams) were able to bring a cinematic experience out of the depths of what on paper should be just another direct-to-video film. Hyams is ambitious as he is creative and right from the beginning he throws caution to the wind by incorporating a first person perspective scene, full of all the horror movie dread and atmosphere that can be mustered.
The overall story may seem simplistic, but actually there are layers of development and underlying themes that run throughout. In some respects, the film shares Orwell’s “1984” distrust of a Big Brother government. There are shades of Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” with the character of Luc Deveraux who went running off in the last movie and in this one, stands his ground in a Col. Kurtz-type of way. In fact, Van Damme’s performance, while short, is very memorable and resonates throughout the movie.
There are several fight set pieces, no doubt designed around Scott Adkins’s near superhuman martial arts repertoire and the fact that the movie was shot with the same 3D cameras that “The Amazing Spiderman” was shot with. Each one builds on the next, expertly choreographed by the very talented Larnell Stovall (“Undisputed III”), with one really capturing the ambition of this not being your run of the mill low budget film. After a long car chase scene, John and Magnus engage in a gladiatorial contest in the best place to have one: a sporting goods store. Don’t laugh as this is one of the most creative fight sequences I’ve seen this year, outside of some of the ones in “The Raid.” It’s the kind of fight you don’t see in the mega-budget movies, but should. Like Hyams, Stovall is very deserving of bigger and better things as his talent has shown.
After seeing “Regeneration” many likely wonder how much screen time Van Damme and Lundgren truly have in this film; while I have to say it is likely not as much as “Regeneration” for Van Damme, Lundgren actually gets a little more, with several scenes where he gets the best lines. He truly looks like he is enjoying every bit of his onscreen time, dominating his scenes. Van Damme, much like Orson Welles’s Harry Lime in “The Third Man,” is not in it much, but when he is, you know all paths lead to him. Over the last several years, Van Damme’s acting has far surpassed many of his 90’s peers, as have his script choices, and the way in which he plays Luc in “Reckoning” is part fanatical and part sympathetic, but more an anti-hero than the Luc of the other movies. I’m no psychiatrist but one could draw the conclusion that Luc has basically reached a point (after the events of the other movies) where he’s seen it all, done it all, and believes himself to be right and everyone else wrong or misguided.
Cinematography-wise, it is much more of a vibrant movie than “Regeneration.” Now while “Regeneration” had the benefit of having the extremely talented Peter Hyams (John Hyams’s father) behind the camera (which he’s done for the better part of his career along with directing), it was still a very sterile atmosphere, with muted colors. Cinematographer Yaron Levy and Hyams created a wonderful palette of colors for each location that added immense depth, making it look like a much more expensive film.
The music score, while not a giant sounding one that you might think would be more appropriate to an action oriented film, is very subtle at times to where you don’t notice it and then it rises to the occasion, but never too much to distract from the movie itself. The composer, Michael Krassner, had a similar score for “Regeneration” though it was far more atmospheric and so subtle that it was almost nonexistent at times. With “Reckoning” he provides a variety of musical cues for certain scenes and characters for a more robust sounding score.
In an age where every movie seems shot and edited to look like someone having a seizure, it is refreshing to see that Hyams decided to go the route of letting the audience see what was going on and go for the long, wide shots, instead of the constant disorienting “shaky-cam” shots you see in most big-budget movies. Every punch, kick and weapon impact you can see and feel. There is some slow-motion for some of the fights which some may not like as it does feel a bit too much, though I found it to perhaps be a visual representation of the Unisols’ heightened speed and reflexes.
The movie is not without some negatives. The pace and structure of the movie may be something that some find fault with. It can drag a little in between the action segments, but that’s mostly due to the narrative of John’s journey and investigation, which introduces you to some characters briefly. They serve their purpose of moving the story forward, but it can also be a bit unsatisfying as there’s no real investment in a few of them. As mentioned earlier, it’s a genre-bending movie so you have the action but you also have a mystery story and it’s like two cars side by side on a narrow road, trying not to veer into each other at times.
“Reckoning” also raises far many more questions than it answers. Earlier this summer, the film “Prometheus” was released and the major criticism was too many questions and not enough answers. The same can be said about “Reckoning” in some respects. For the most part you can follow the story from beginning to end, never having seen any of the other films in the series. In doing so, there are some questions for motivation of characters or what exactly was a Universal Soldier to begin with, since there is not much techno babble discussion, as in some of the prior films. I personally believe the movie is meant to be watched on its own and judged on its own, as if it was the only film. It doesn’t help to answer any more of the questions, but many directors don’t guide the audience—they want the audience to extrapolate their own ideas as to what is going on. (Look no further than David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, David Fincher, etc.) Using Fincher’s “Seven” as an example, did you have to see what was in the box in the end to know what it was? No. In cinema, there is a lot of reading between the lines and “Reckoning” doesn’t hold your hand and walk you through; it allows you to interpret it as you like.
While the fight scenes are choreographed perfectly, there is some noticeable doubling, which due to short filming times, availability and budget, has become common of many lower-budget films. It’s not enough to take you out of the film, but it is there. Some locations had a cheaper look to them as they were sparsely populated with people; again, probably a budgetary item.
If you are looking for a film that has action, mystery and suspense, look no further than “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning.” It is a low budget film with a big budget presentation and deserves to be up there on the big screen, which it will in limited release starting November 30. It is great to see Adkins, Van Damme and Lundgren in an ambitious movie such as this and Hyams and all those involved should be proud of their effort in not settling for the average flick, but making something far superior.