Monday, October 29, 2012

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (John Hyams, 2012)

Having only become aware of John Hyams' work recently, I nevertheless quickly fell for his elegantly composed long takes and Carpenterian Steadicam tracks. The straight-to-DVD/VOD fare of Universal Soldier: Regeneration and Dragon Eyes was so accomplished that I could not help but wonder what Hyams could do with an actual theatrical release. Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning released on VOD a month ahead of a 3D theatrical release, exceeds even the loftiest expectations of the director's potential. Filled with gorgeous shots, blunt choreography and a trove of cinematic references, Day of Reckoning takes a smaller focus (and budget) than Regeneration and delivers a vastly bigger film.

Hyams opens Day of Reckoning on a nightmare (perhaps literally), using full POV shots—complete with handheld walking and "blinks" à la the opening segment of Gaspar Noé's Enter the Void—to depict a father being woken in the dead of night by his young daughter complaining of "monsters" in the kitchen. The camera bobs through the house as the unseen man playfully searches empty rooms for beasts until he flips the kitchen light on and gets a crowbar to the head. The beating is swift and brutal, topped off by an execution of the man's wife and child by...franchise hero Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme, looking like Brando's Kurtz). It is a bewildering, horrific beginning, and one that gives an indication of just how far the director is willing to take the movie away from a pandering sop to JCVD's shrunken but vaguely resurgent fanbase.

The man through whom the viewer sees that first scene is John (Scott Adkins), who awakens from a coma nine months later capable of remembering only the night his life fell apart and the face of the man responsible. Driven to find answers and punish Devereaux, John begins piecing together clues to lead him to the universal soldier, who has been gathering a small army of other UniSols by breaking their programming. The deeper John ventures, however, the darker, madder, and more unlike any other action movie Day of Reckoning becomes.

Immediately apparent is Hyams' stylistic ambition. If Regeneration's aesthetic owed to Carpenter, Day of Reckoning expands the director's referential palette to an admitted influence of the aforementioned Noé, David Cronenberg, even David Lynch, who exerts the strongest pull on the film's dream logic and elliptical layering of clues. A scene that places John in a motel room with a French topless dancer (Mariah Bonner) who tells the amnesiac they know is each other is odd enough on its own, but Hyams turns the room into a Lynchian microcosm of noir deconstruction, with the room filling slowly with cigarette smoke and the dance of a red light across the wall a reminder of what district the pair are in. Even without the 3D effects, the walls of the room pop out against a void, isolating the set from the rest of the world as the man with a dark past he cannot remember and the sultry avatar of that past inhabit their own space of pure cinema.

This carries over to the action sequences, which employ long takes and taut choreography for maximum effect. A UniSol still under government command (Andrei Arlovski, who ironically played the enemy soldier in Regeneration) is sent to dispatch Devereaux's new right hand man, former nemesis  Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren), and some other rogue UniSols vigorously enjoying the services of a brothel. The resulting firefight moves methodically from room to room, Arlovski taking rounds without flinching as he has to put multiple shots into each target to get him to stay down. When he reaches Scott's room, he enters a neon blue and pink box that illuminates Lundgren in a plastic sheen, emphasizing both his iconic (and much copied) figure and the artificiality of these real but programmed people. Scott gets the upper hand, naturally, and frees Arlovski of his own programming, which leads to a scene of the Russian MMA fighter getting into an extended car chase that morphs into full-on brawl in a sporting goods store. Such scenes are too muscular to be accurately called "fluid," but the execution is spatially logical in a way the plot deliberately isn't, not to mention thrilling in a ludicrous but plausibly grounded way.

Yet the action is also nightmarish, not merely for its situation within the surreal framework around it but in the tone Hyams sets for the violence. During Arlovski's tear through the brothel, prostitutes already suffering at the hands of their aggressive johns callously dispatched as obstacles between the controlled UniSol and his "jailbroken" brethren. Other touches, such as the death spasms of a downed UniSol and some shots of male nudity as another soldier makes a futile move for survival rather than the usual, approved modesty, highlight the suddenness and indignity of death. Likewise, the aforementioned car chase is exhilarating, but Adkins' furious realization of his super potential in a close-quarters brawl with Arlovski is horrifying, unleashing a savagery that leaves a spate of onlookers, including Bonner's tagalong dancer, stunned into silence. Even the brilliant climax, a tear through Deveraux's underground lair filmed in long takes mostly made to look like a single shot via some Rope-esque moves in and out of darkness, stresses the sheer waste of the carnage and the brutality of the killing. Nothing epitomizes Hyams' subversive view of the traditional action he replicates so well as the grimly hilarious and terrifying way in which Lundgren bloodily shouts, "That's the spirit, soldier!" in his duel with Adkins.

What makes these sprees all the more unsettling is that Day of Reckoning features the least amount of government involvement of the franchise. The controlling influence of the military-industrial complex is largely absent here, save for the occasional appearance of an FBI agent who cryptically suggests to Adkins that the state might still be monitoring the situation. But even if they are, Hyams' film bleakly depicts a history of violence as nearly impossible to overcome, and to call the UniSols who no longer answer to the military's commands "liberated" is hopelessly naïve considering how they instantly imprint upon Deveraux, heretofore the one super soldier capable of moral independence but corrupted by the power his new recruits invest in him.

The whole film thrums with fluorescent light, which seems to hover and burn in the vague shape of the bulbs that emit them rather than come from those bulbs. Occasionally, the screen whites out in epileptic flashing as the ambient soundtrack cuts to a deafening whine. The effect is slightly surreal, but the harsh glares reflect a world as spartan as the warriors set loose in it. The opening sequence, with its erratic POV movement, is distinct from the camera style of the remainder of the movie, yet one could see the entire film as set in the perspective of these soldiers. For them, the world is an empty glare, a confusing distraction that they push out of mind to maintain total focus on their destructive existences. This is the third (technically, fifth) sequel in a franchise about reanimated and cloned instruments of war, yet Day of Reckoning captures the grotesque finality of death and endless killing of its genre with a repulsive clarity most action films would not dare acknowledge.


  1. Is this the son of Peter Hyams?

    I've been following your praise for this film on Twitter, and I was looking forward to a genuine review that explained your enthusiasm for something that, quite honestly, I would never expect anyone to claim as being great. I'm not averse to giving it a shot, of course, but I just know from your previous takes on films like CRANK and RESIDENT EVIL 5 that we don't always agree on these types of movies. However, I'm looking forward to watching this in hopes of seeing what you see. Hell, I'm the guy that puts MIAMI VICE on my top 10 of all time list, so it's not as though I don't find value where most wouldn't even look. I love your enthusiasm in this piece, and I'll put this one in the queue.

    1. Thanks, Kevin! Yeah, this is Peter's son, and Peter was even the cinematographer for UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: REGENERATION. Know that I'm not the only defender of this, though. Eric Kohn of Indiewire praised it, as have MUBI critics like John Lehtonen and Adam Cook and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky. I'm really looking forward to seeing where Hyams goes from here.

  2. Great movie review on this one. I am looking forward to seeing it. Should be a good one.