What if David Lynch directed a Philip K. Dick scripted Apocalypse Now with Jean-Claude Van Damme instead of Marlon Brando and Scott Adkins instead of Martin Sheen, with a dash of Chronicles of Riddick thrown in for good measure? Then you would have Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. And it would be pretty much as awesome as it sounds.
If you don’t think that sounds amazing, then I just don’t know you at all anymore.
When Writer/Director John Hyams rebooted the languishing Universal Soldier franchise in 2009 with Universal Soldier: Regeneration, many people rolled their eyes. But when confronted with the brutally efficient and bone-jarringly violent movie, fans of action films found something to rally around. Hyams utilized his background making documentaries on UFC fighters, MMA fighters, and Bull Riders to ground the action in a physicality that had been missing from American action films for years. He also wisely chose to ignore any other Universal Soldier film beyond the 1992 original – which, while not being great, was directed by Roland Emmerich and helped to maintain Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren’s 80s Action Icon status into the 90s.
Regeneration brought Van Damme back as UniSol Luc Deveraux and pitted him against an upgraded clone of his original nemesis, Dolph Lundgren’s Andrew Scott, in a near-future terrorist scenario that, as one might expect, went horribly wrong. By the end of that film, Deveraux had escaped, free from government control, and Scott was dead after breaking with his programming – oh yeah, and nuclear devastation was averted.
Day of Reckoning gives us a fresh take on both of Van Damme’s and Lundgren’s original characters with Deveraux apparently embracing the liberation theory of Scott and setting himself up as the semi-mystical leader of the Unisol Church of Eventualism with another clone of Scott serving as his right hand. Together, they are breaking the government programming of Sleeper UniSols and forming their own cult/army in a mysterious underground bunker complex somewhere “upriver”.
The film opens with a continuous first-person perspective shot as John (Scott Adkins) wakes up to a home invasion, suffers a vicious crowbar beating, and helplessly watches the head-shot murders of his wife and child by Deveraux. After a nine-month coma, he awakens and begins trying to track down the man who destroyed his life.
But was it his life?
In a series of strange experiences that weirdly brings to mind David Lynch’s classic mind-fuck film Lost Highway, John discovers an entirely unknown life that he has no memory of, all the while being hunted down by rogue plumber (and Sleeper UniSol) Magnus (Andrei Arlovski) in increasingly brutal confrontations. After a series of twists and turns, John finally confronts Deveraux in a final showdown that ostensibly ends Van Damme’s association with the franchise.
But we are dealing with virtually unstoppable, genetically-enhanced cloned killing machines, so never say never.
Cinematographer Yaron Levy crafts a beautiful little film here, utilizing Baton Rouge, Louisiana wonderfully to create a wide range of looks, from small town streets, to seedy dive bars, to gorgeous swamplands and forests, while the music of composer Michael Krassner serves to enhance the growing sense of unease that John feels as he gets further and further out of his depth.
Hyams’ direction is usually as efficient and clean as his editing style, but Day of Reckoning gives him the opportunity to experiment a little as John is drugged and begins having hallucinations of his murdered family and receiving mystical messages from Deveraux. Fair warning, though. There are a couple of strobe effect hallucinatory transitions that are so intense that it was actually painful to keep my eyes on the screen. If ever a film was going to trigger seizures, these scenes may do the trick.
While the mind-fuck storyline is especially appealing to me, I have to admit to a fascination with the way the camera explores the iconic landscapes of Van Damme and Lundgren. Both men are into their fifties and every year is etched onto their faces. Van Damme’s look is both entrancing and unnerving, with his shaved head and heavy lids appearing surreal and exhausted. His detached, almost emotionless delivery helps to create the sensation that the weight of the world is on Deveraux and provides a glimpse at a fatalism underlying the revolutionary rhetoric.
Lundgren, on the other hand, is massive and solid with a lunatic grin and an energy that almost glows from the crevices lining his face. He’s clearly relishing the role as mouthpiece for the Church, giving vigorous speeches and towering over everybody else in the film in his beret and spats. Yes, spats.
This film is unquestionably a celebration of thick, meaty masculinity, and there is hardly a single man on-screen who doesn’t exude an intimidating physical density that is simply impressive on the most fundamental of visual levels. Hyams takes that physical masculinity a step further as we get a look at what life is like for these super soldiers once they are cut loose from their government chains.
They are aggressively, preternaturally masculine; enthusiastically swigging whiskey straight from the bottle whenever they’re not fucking (ladies, of course) or fighting (anyone, of course) with abandon. Boxer, Roy Jones Jr. has a cameo as a UniSol who is beaten down by Magnus after trying to steal his whiskey. Once he shows weakness, the other UniSols jump in to beat and kick him nearly to death before Deveraux appears. The UniSols all stop what they’re doing and bow their heads in reverence as Deveraux calmly walks over and shoots Jones dead.
This is a bestial expression of masculinity unleashed from restraint, only reined in by unbending allegiance to the pack leader. There’s really no room for anything feminine in this world. There are only a few feminine presences in the film at all, all of whom remain on the periphery of the narrative. John’s murdered wife and daughter serve as motivational forces only, with the stripper Sarah, played by Mariah Bonner, having the only substantial role – a role that actually plays out in an ironic commentary on traditional action film clichés.
And when compared to the physicality of the male characters, her extremely thin frame is lacking almost any overt female sex traits – unlike the majority of background women at the strip club, who actually provide a wide range of body types. It’s almost as though there can be no visual distractions from the hyper-masculinized characters in the central narrative.
I suppose an argument could be made for this as a homoerotic work, but I think it falters in that respect, as sexuality is barely even a part of the narrative – even subtextually. There’s really no male bonding or substantive relationships outside of the wolfpack dynamic, which centers almost entirely on power. Even the visual approach of the director emphasizes family, loyalty, and violence. As such, it’s kind of surprising, given how easy it is to slip, even without realizing it, into subtle fetishizing of the male body.
If it does veer into homoeroticism it’s in the “lady doth protest too much” aspect of its presentation of masculinity and an arguable substitution of violence for sex, but that argument relies a bit too much on clichés and pop-psychology for my tastes. It’s violence that being fetishized here by Hyams, rather than the body.
The only real shortcoming of this film, to my mind, is that any right-thinking viewer will know from the start that John is also a UniSol and the memories of his family – and their murder – are implants, so some of the climactic reveals fall a little flat. But if you can come at this with fresh eyes, it’s still a very engaging story about a search for meaning and the establishing of identity in the classic Phil Dick style.
Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning has been available since 10/25 on VOD and there was a sneak preview of the film on HD Net Movies on 11/28 before opening in theaters today, 11/30/2012.