Universal Soldier - Day Of Reckoning
The "Universal Soldier" series has always been pretty lowbrow, and "Day of Reckoning," the latest entry, does nothing to reverse the trend. These are decidedly exploitation-style efforts, with surreal and absurd twists to boot. There's not even much continuity among any of them, including between "Reckoning" and the last entry, "Regeneration." Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, Pro MMA Fighter Andrei Arlovsky, and others are featured as undead government operatives who can take punishment hundreds of times more than human soldiers can, and prove it endlessly in brutal hand-to-hand fights? And thanks to the aforementioned lack of continuity, they can return from the dead in each entry? It sounds like Direct-to-DVD heaven. But it's also more than just mindless trash.
Because there's something simmering below the scenes in the past couple entries of the series: sadness. Sure, it's obvious in the narrative: in this one, John (Scott Adkins) wakes up to see his wife and young daughter murdered, then sets off to murder Van Damme and the other bastards responsible. Meanwhile, an unstoppable soldier played by Arlovski hulks his way through whorehouses and strip clubs, taking out whatever fellow 'soldiers' he can find. But where the melancholic tone truly comes in is with Lundgren and Van Damme, their characters wiped of memory, fighting because they truly remember nothing more. It's the action movie equivalent of the zombies returning to the mall in "Dawn of the Dead." "The Expendables" lionizes action stars as being glorious warriors. "Reckoning" laments that fact that they clearly aren't.
And then there’s director John Hyams, who’s earned himself a reputation with these past two entries. Bathing scenes in disconcerting neon lights, tackling sequences with claustrophobic long takes, and composing everyone as the center of CinemaScope frames, he displays the type of ’insane genre craftsman’ edge cinephiles like myself have been missing since the dawn of the grindhouse.
He also clearly lionizes David Lynch, imbuing the picture with dreamy tricks (the camera even "blinks", at one point), disturbingly disfigured baddies, and the overarching feel of a fever dream. Unfortunately, he hasn’t reached the top shelf yet, and often steals images and plot points he can’t succeed in making his own. The last third of the film is an extended riff on "Apocalypse Now," which is fine by me. But Hyams doesn’t add anything: he simply borrows the indelible images, and works his action around them. He has good taste in who to steal from, but totally fails to take those references to somewhere new. The films he’s ripping off had singular ideas and visions; his "Day" is just scattershot.
Still, his audacious turns are much appreciated in such a tired, predictable genre. Say what you will about "Day of Reckoning," but you don’t see movies like this very often. The violence, particularly Arlovski’s brutal fisticuffs (a fight scene with Hyams is the highlight,) comes fast and furious, and the melancholy tags along in equal force. Hyams gives you the fight scenes you paid for and many of them - an inventive throwdown in a sporting goods store, innumerable knife fights, even a battle between Adkins and Van Damme (doing his best Brando-as-Kurtz impression.) Yes, he borrows a sense of suburban surrealism from Lynch, long tracking shots from Kubrick, and an entire third act from Coppola. Clearly, he hasn’t quite outgrown his influences yet. But look at the trash Hollywood passes off as action movies: "Alex Cross," "Red Dawn," even "Skyfall." They are as tired and predictable as they come. I’ll take this furiously flawed actioner over that ’competition’ any day.