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Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning Review

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by Casimir Harlow Mar 6, 2013 at 12:23 AM

  • Movies review


    Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning Review
    Underacknowledged. Brutal. Unmissable.

    Imagine an ultra-violent, low budget, thriller directed in the style of Gasper 'Irreversible' Noe, based on a treatment of the original Apocalypse Now script adapted by David 'Mulholland Drive' Lynch, which has been fashioned into a psychological horror movie, only featuring martial arts action stars.

    Welcome to Day of Reckoning.

    Don't be put off by the fact that it barely saw a Theatrical Release in the US - that it's technically the fourth entry in a franchise that probably didn't even warrant a first sequel - 2009's moody, broody, atmospheric Universal Soldier: Regeneration was one of the absolute best straight-to-video sequels that I have ever seen, and Day of Reckoning is, if not even better, then certainly even more daring.

    With Regeneration, Director John Hyams – son of Peter “Outland/2010” Hyams – injected the franchise with fresh blood; gave it a new lease of life, and worked wonders with a next-to-nothing budget. Here he returns, taking the series to the next level, in 3D no less. And it’s something that nobody was prepared for.

    “Daddy, there are monsters in the house.”

    A man awakes to the sound of his daughter’s voice, calling out for him. His eyes shift into focus; he pushes himself out of bed and splashes some water on his face to wake up. He goes to explore the house, thinking that the daughter just had another nightmare. He doesn’t expect to find anything, but what he does find will change his life forever.

    Waking in hospital, the man is told that he’s been in a coma for months; that he was badly hurt and that he has suffered a great loss. He does not understand why, but he knows who did it, and when the authorities provide him with the name of the man who inflicted such great pain upon him, the man sets out to put an end to his nightmares. He will find this man; he will kill him.

    “Your memories, they give you pain. But I can release you from them. I can release you from your pain. Would you like to be freed from pain?”

    The idea of relentless, unstoppable assassins – unperturbed by emotion or morality; immune to pain and with a possessed, zombie-like dedication to their primary objective – dates back decades; back to films like The Terminator and, even before that, Westworld. These movies have always had a natural horror vibe to them and it’s no surprise that they come from the same basic gene pool as their outright horror cousins, like Carpenter’s Halloween, where, instead of a relentless cyborg assassin, the antagonist is a human with much the same traits.

    1992’s Universal Soldier actually made halfway decent use of this idea, focussing on a bunch of frozen soldiers who were ‘lost’ in combat during the Vietnam War and then reanimated decades later to become unstoppable fighting machines. Today we see them in the Bourne films, but twenty years ago they were brought to life by the likes of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren, under the direction of none other than Roland “Independence Day” Emmerich.

    After an unsuccessful late-nineties sequel – which has since been largely ignored – 2009 saw writer/director John Hyams take up the mantle and evolve the set-up. Now technology has advanced and the Universal Soldiers have evolved with it – healing factors have been improved; temperature stability is no longer an issue; and damaged body parts can be replaced with surgery as easily as you can replace the arm on a child’s action figure. Other avenues have also opened up: cloning. Now the black ops units who runs these programs don’t have to worry about losing their billion dollar product; they can make a dozen identical ones and just keep sending them out, one after the other, until one of them succeeds.

    This latest addition to the franchise takesthese ideas and goes off in a wild, unexpected, yet strangely natural direction. Whilst it clearly borrows heavily from the ideas of Apocalypse Now, they seem perfectly suited to the material, and it works as both a logical expansion of the previous themes and characters, and a brilliant tribute to Coppola’s masterpiece and, indeed, the book from which it was borne.

    “The one that came before you? Sent on the same exact mission. And he came the closest, but he disappeared.”

    Whilst obviously not captured with the same majesty of Coppola – or any of the greats – by the same token there are plenty of sequences which will genuinely surprise you. They are beautifully framed, perfectly shot and far from what you would expect given the low budget nature of the feature. Aside from the first-person scenes – which are brutally effective – the cinematography is generally astounding. There’s a brilliant shot in the whorehouse scene, taken from behind one of the character’s heads, which is staggeringly stylish. And there are so many wonderful little nods to Apocalypse Now, from the journey down-river to the camouflaged soldiers waiting in the water on arrival; from shots of the haunted, shaven-headed fallen soldier who commands a troupe of renegades, sitting in the dark, beads of sweat trailing across his skull, to the face-painted final confrontation – like all the great tributes, Days of Reckoning does not seek to imitate Apocalypse Now, but it is quite clearly informed by it.

    Shot in 3D, this added dimension (the working title for the film was the painfully clichéd “Universal Soldier: A New Dimension”) further adds to the experience. This is one of the best adult rated 3D movies that I have ever come across. Normally, if you’re not talking about animated kids’ movies; movies featuring blue CG aliens; or superhero movies, the only naturally-shot 3D movies for adults you get are horror movies or horror actioners (like the last two Resident Evil films or Underworld: Awakening). Indeed, aside from Dredd 3D (and perhaps Prometheus), Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is probably the next best example of an impressive film for adults shot in 3D.

    It’s not intrusive 3D either – it’s effective 3D, pulling you into the movie, rather than poking things out at you. It helps the action sequences stand out but it also helps the dark story fully engulf you, drawing you in and making you feel like you are right there at the heart of the mystery as it unravels around you.

    All the while the brooding score pulls you on this journey: a throbbing heartbeat sometimes coming to the fore; the evocative beat of a score that would not be out of place in a classic John Carpenter horror evolving slowly in the background. If you thought that the score to Universal Soldier: Regeneration was effective (composer Michael Kressner returns here), Day of Reckoning manages to both follow in the same oppressive path, whilst also forging a fresh new accompaniment for the haunting voyage.

    “Who is he?”
    “Once a highly-decorated serviceman, now he’s best classified as a deserter.”

    In taking this daring new direction, the writer/director has chosen a new character for us to follow through his stories – and with the pivotal use of first-person sequences, it is very clear that he is our eyes and ears for this voyage. He doesn’t quite understand what he is involved in, and neither do we; as things happen to him, they happen to us, the audience; and as the truth unfolds, we suffer the same haunting realisation that he does, only perhaps a fraction earlier than him. It’s a brilliant fashion of storytelling that is no longer employed by many action directors, let alone low budget limited release indie flick action directors.

    Casting the largely unknown Scott Adkins in the lead role is alsopretty daring, but pays off in dividends. I say ‘largely unknown’ but in action movie circles, he’s been around for quite a while, after a career start in Brit TV drama led to small supporting roles in various films, from Jackie Chan’s The Accidental Spy and The Medallion to Jet Li’s Unleashed; from the acclaimed straight-to-video actioners Undisputed II and III to a couple of blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameos in the likes of The Bourne Ultimatum and Zero Dark Thirty. His real success has been forged through a series of co-starring features with Van Damme, however, pairing up with JCVD for The Shepherd: Border Patrol, Assassination Games, and then last year’s Expendables 2.

    Here, Adkins takes centre-stage, and he does pretty well in the role. Yes, it doesn’t require a huge amount of dialogue, but it does require a certain amount of acting – more than you would expect from this particular franchise – and Adkins actually delivers on this count. As with the last movie, Universal Soldier: Regeneration, which allowed Van Damme to briefly stretch his acting skills (yes, he has them, see JCVD if you want unequivocal proof), here Adkins gets to play the most visibly tortured soul, haunted by the horrors of his memories, and by the pain of his slow-burning realisation.

    “How did you know I’d find him?”
    “You always find each other.”

    Of course there’s more than just acting required of this man, and it’s in the action sequences where we truly find his skills lie. Day of Reckoning may not be driven by fight sequences, but we do get a succession of escalating fights over its surprisingly satisfying near-two-hour runtime; clinically-staged, expertly-choreographed fights which showcase everything that Adkins’s fans knew he was capable of. This guy can kick ass. In style. He’s faster and arguably more flashy than Van Damme ever was (although a good director, like John Woo, does help to bring out the absolute stylish best out of the Muscles from Brussels) and, if this movie is anything to go by, he will be a man to watch over the next few years. Does he have the same inexplicable charisma as some of his predecessors from the nineties Golden era of action stars? Not quite, no. But he does have the acting and action talents, so we’ll see if that’s enough.
    Joining him we get a number of familiar Universal Soldier faces, from a bearded Andrei “The Pit-Bull” Arlovski, one-time UFC Heavyweight Champion, reprising his role as the next-generation UniSol, Magnus, who was the primary antagonist in Universal Soldier: Regeneration, but who has a very different part to play this time around – although just as much fighting! It’ll be interesting to see what part he may play in any possible future instalments (if they don’t just end it here) as he’s almost evolved into the Lundgren role opposite Adkins’s successor to Van Damme, although, admittedly, neither are as charismatic as their predecessors.

    Talking of Lundgren, the b-movie action icon has made quite a name for himself as the go-to guy for charismatic cameos in action films, almost single-handedly saving the first Expendables movie, and certainly making the most of his return to the Universal Soldier series in 2009’s Regeneration. Here he pushes the character in yet another direction, and it’s nice to see him play the fight sequences in an engaging, larger-than-life fashion. Of all the actors, he appears to be the one having the most fun in this movie.

    “That’s the spirit, soldier!”

    Then there’s Van Damme himself. Many long-time Universal Soldier fans will be disappointed that this latest entry spends even less time with the two main characters from the first film, Lundgren’s Andrew Scott and Van Damme’s Luc Deveraux, than the last film. Those fans would argue that these two actors are bound to the series, and to include them in such limited capacities is not wholly unlike having a CG Arnie chip in to Terminator Salvation. I can see their frustration; I’d have loved to have another chapter more focussed on Van Damme’s (and Lundgren’s) original UniSols, but I can also understand why they’ve evolved the plot in this way, and shifted the focus to Scott Adkins’s character. It not only works well to directly facilitate the psychological horror/mystery style of the production, but it is actually something of a natural progression; an inevitability.

    All this doesn’t mean that Van Damme hasn’t got a significant part to play in Day of Reckoning; quite the contrary – just like Brando’s Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, it’s not the screentime that determines his importance. Indeed, Van Damme, both in terms of performance and physical appearance, has definitely gone down the Kurtz root. He’s a solemn, shaven-headed man, often seen with beads of sweat dripping down his face, contemplating the madness that surrounds him. It’s difficult to determine whether he has achieved some kind of higher-plane clarity, or whether he is just barking mad crazy, but that’s the beauty of the part, and of the performance. You may not have been able to see this coming but if you go back and rewatch Universal Soldier: Regeneration, the warning signs are all there.

    Unfortunately it’s not all great news: this is probably one of the most gratuitously violent and brutally unforgiving movies that I have ever seen.

    Really, nobody is going to see this movie. Why? Well, firstly it’s a low budget limited release fourth sequel in an action movie franchise that people probably thought died out a long time ago. That’s a hard enough sell even to those fans of the original Universal Soldier (after one lame sequel and two straight-to-video, non-canon, spin-offs, few people batted an eyelid when Regeneration surfaced, so why would that change for Day of Reckoning?) let alone for their loyal better halves, who would need some pretty strong persuasion to sit through this. And newcomers? Why would they even go near this? Secondly, the strobe lighting is horrible. It’s excessive – perhaps for effect – but, once you get the point, it just becomes painful, a true test of endurance, and an unnecessary one at that.
    Thirdly – the point which pretty-much seals the fate of this hidden gem and soon-to-be-forgotten near-masterpiece – is the level of violence.

    Of course you would only expect that the participation of all these action stars would lead to no end of... erm, action. Whilst it takes quite some time to bring the story to a boil, with the tension building in a good way, the pay-off is wild and unexpectedly explicit. But the uncut NC-17 cut of the movie – which is the version that has been released international, and is therefore the one that we get here in the UK – is devastatingly violent. It’s so violent that it makes me wonder whether this might be one of those rare examples of a film which would see a wider audience if it were tamed a little; a wild, unforgiving voyage which often goes to unpleasant excess in its action sequences, and both distracts and detracts somewhat from the rest of the absorbing odyssey that you’re on.

    “I get up every morning; I go to work. I come home; I go to sleep. The next day... repeat. Feels like a life, but I’m not sure. Something feels strange. Then one day I hear this voice, telling me that I gotta’ find him and kill him. So I go.”

    We don’t just get head-shots, we get close-ups of exit wounds in half-exploded skulls; we get heads caved-in with baseball bats; we get people stabbed, shot in the neck and impaled through the skull, all at once. And it’s too much. For the very same reason that Gasper Noe’s Irreversible remains a stunning film that has almost zero rewatch value, Hyams’s second Universal Soldier sequel is more violent than his last – and the original Universal Soldier – combined. Worse still, it revels in it, to the point where you can’t help but cry ‘enough, already!’. It’s not satisfying. It’s more often than not excessive. And it is the one valid point that detractors could make to deter people from watching this movie. Credit to any director for wanting the uncut version released (especially in this day and age when Taken 2 is cut to shreds for tweenagers to lap up at the cinema and even the supposed return-to-violent-form A Good Day to Die Hard suffers the same horrible 12A fate) but this is one instance where I’m glad that the Studios pushed for an R-rated cut, and where I would have actually preferred it to have been included as an option alongside the Uncut (NC-17) version. Then maybe I could have actually recommended this film more.

    It’s a shame because, beyond the violence, this really is a near-masterpiece. It’s a fantastic story, taking in themes of identity and society; propaganda and Governmental programming, and fashioning them into a wonderfully dark and immersive mystery that evolves at an enthrallingly natural pace. Honestly, did you ever think that a Universal Soldier movie would have you pondering questions about identity? Wondering just how many truths you could stomach knowing about yourself: it’s hard enough to swallow a few home truths, but imagine if the deepest, darkest recesses of your inner psyche were laid bare before you – would you be able to accept the reality, or would you choose to deny it?

    “My thoughts, they’re not my own.”

    All of this – and more – lies buried inside this brutal little gem of a thriller. It’s a psychological horror-thriller-actioner which has the potential to make you think. If you can just get past its low budget, b-movie labelling and its shockingly explicit violence. Beyond that lies a movie that may well blow your mind, and will certainly set the bar pretty damn high for every single action movie sequel – hell, maybe even every single action movie – out there. A movie which won’t even pop up on the radar of the majority of the viewing public. If you can, try your best to change that fact, because this one comes – with strong warnings regarding violence – highly recommended.

    The Rundown

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