Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, May 26, 2016

JCVD-A-THON: Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012)

Damn, who would’ve thought “Universal Soldier” would be such a long-lived franchise? As I’ve said before, it’s not like the original is some universally beloved, unassailable classic or anything. After “Universal Soldier: Regeneration” became a minor sensation among genre film fans, suddenly the idea of a sixth “Universal Soldier” movie didn’t seem unappealing at all. Director John Hyams, Van Damme, and Dolph all returned for “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning.” The sequel also added Scott Adkins, more-or-less the modern equivalent of what Van Damme was in the late eighties. “Day of Reckoning” would push the surprisingly long-running series into a totally new direction. That change of tone made the film divisive but it won some rave reviews, quickly garnering a following even larger then what “Regeneration” gained.

Everyman John is awoken in the middle of the night but his young daughter, who thinks there are monsters in the house. She’s right. Three men in black masks beat John bloody before dragging his wife and daughter down stairs. Before killing them both, the leader reveals himself to John as Luc Deveraux, Universal Soldier and former hero. After awaking in a hospital bed, John suffers from confusion and warped memories. He’s also determined to track down the man that murdered his family. This path puts him into a bloody confrontation with a cult of deprogrammed Universal Soldiers, led by Deveraux, waging a guerilla war against the U.S. government. Yet everything is not what it seems, not even John’s own desires.

“Day of Reckoning” has few connections to the previous “Universal Soldier” films. Aside from a wildly different interpretation of Luc Deveraux, Lundgren’s Andrew Scott, and the concept of government created super soldiers, the story is totally unrelated. In truth, the film is more of a psychologically tinged horror/thriller then a proper action flick. The hero is doggedly pursued by an unstoppable villain, who dispatches enemies in very violent ways. This isn’t unlike a slasher flick and, until Scott Adkins begins fighting back around the half-way point, “Day of Reckoning” feels more horrific then action-y. The themes of memories, identity, and manipulation were probably influenced by David Lynch films like “Lost Highway” and “Muholland Dr.” Deveraux’s brainwashed cult of soldiers and their swampland hideout were intentionally modeled after Kurtz’ jungle stronghold in “Apocalypse Now.” Mostly, the film’s dark, downbeat tone is wildly different then the popcorn fun of the original “Universal Soldier” and its 1999 follow-up.

Another element that pushes “Day of Reckoning” to the edge of horror is its brutal violence. From its opening minutes, it’s incredibly bloody. The first scene is shot from Adkins’ perspective, disoriented and blinking to replicate someone suddenly awoken in the middle of the night. His face is beaten raw with a tire iron. Each head shot leaves a dripping splatter of grey matter on the walls. When a UniSol attacks a brothel, gaping holes are blown in people, victims are blasted across the room, and the walls are painted red. Faces are shattered into pulp, skull and brains tossed into the air, with gunfire and even a baseball bat. Hands and feet are cleaved in half with an axe. Skin is slashed with a machete. Limbs are twisted apart and an eighteen inch long blade is driven through someone’s head. By the end, Scott Adkins is covered head to toe in gore. “Day of Reckoning” is as bloody as the best latter day horror film and utilizes its violence just as dynamically.

While tossing a shit ton of fake blood into the air, “Day of Reckoning” also provides a display for the skills of its leading men. Andrei Arlovski returns from “Regeneration” as the most homicidal of the super soldiers. The scuffle between Arlovski and Adkins in a cramped hotel room is exciting. So is the car chase that climaxes with a Jeep spinning three times through the air. However, the first proper fight between Adkins and Arlovski overshadows them both. The two men wrestle through a sporting goods store. They toss each other through shelves and wield baseball bats like bo staffs. Adkins’ incredibly acrobatic skills are shown off, when he does a spinning back flip into his opponent’s face. The climax of the film has Adkins rampaging through the UniSol base, tearing each of the henchmen apart with bullets and blades. Hyam shoots the scene in a series of long shots, creating a hypnotic swirl of violence and fantastically choreographed action. Adkins’ fights with Lundgren and Van Damme truthfully pale in comparison, even if both feature a lot of flipping, kicking, and brutal contact.

“Regeneration” managed to find an interesting moral about the way governments misuse their soldiers. “Day of Reckoning” has some even heavier themes on its mind. Throughout the course of the film, John discovers that he’s actually a clone of one of Deveraux’s men. Later on, he learns that his family was never real and that his memories of them were implant in his head by – you guessed it – the government. Even after taking out the bad guys, John continues to discover yet more manipulation in his life. His masterful massacre of the rogue UniSols was also planned. The same people who put the false memories in his head also hoped he’d exterminate the renegades. These story turns keep the audience guessing and sometimes threatens to spin the film in a convoluted direction. If these themes and ideas solidify into a coherent whole – beyond “Don’t trust the government,” I guess – I’m not sure how. Yet it’s certainly far more ambitious then you’d expect from the fifth sequel to a barely remembered nineties action flick.

I knew going into this one that it was mostly a display for Adkins and Arlovski’s talents. Adkins is an extremely talented martial artist. The film gives him several opportunities to show off his aerial kicks and tumbling dives. Adkins is also a decent actor, mining okay pathos from John’s loss and anger. Arlovski suffices at playing an inhuman murder machine but neither this film nor the previous “UniSol” story provided chances for anything more. If you’re expecting a lot of Van Damme or Lundgren, you might be disappointed. Their scenes count though. Dolph gets to deliver two insane monologues, something he’s gotten increasingly good at. Van Damme isn’t Marlon Brando, even if his shaved head is obviously meant to recall him. His face slathered in black and white war paint, like a voodoo houngan, is certainly a memorable image. Van Damme’s performance seems halfway between a nihilistic philosopher and a tired soldier. Which is appropriate, and effectively sinister, even if I would’ve perhaps preferred something more colorful.

“Day of Reckoning” does feel a bit like an original screenplay that was hastily retrofitted for the “UniSol” franchise. The film won’t win any awards for its representation of women. Adkins’ love interest provides little to the story and is forgotten by the end. Most of the film’s women are either strippers or prostitutes and usually wind up graphically murdered. I can see why the story’s bleak tone and extreme content turned some people off. “Day of Reckoning” is still a bold statement, featuring impressive action and an ambitious storyline. If another film is made – and Hyams has hinted at that – perhaps it could explore Van Damme’s character some more. What happened to Luc Deveraux to explain the changes between “Regeneration” and this film? Well, that's what I'd like to see anyway. [7/10]

[THE VAN DAMMAGE: 2 outta 5]
[] An Entire Fight, Sans Shirt
[] Close-Up Screaming
[] Dancing
[X] Jump-Kicks A Guy, Through Something
[X] Performs Either a Split or a Spinning Roundhouse Kick

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