Thursday, February 2, 2017

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning

   As a fan of the original Universal Soldier, and the 2009 sequel, Universal Soldier: Regeneration, when I first saw this one, I hated it. Shut it off halfway through and stomped out of the room angrily. For some reason, I revisited the movie today and was completely blown away. Most action franchises ask us to believe that good guy Joe Policeman will just HAPPEN to run into a fresh batch of terrorists with each new sequel, and nobody will bat an eyelash. Hollywood logic. But, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning leans hard into the grotesque backstories of its characters, and places them at an uncomfortably logical place in this sordid world that director John Hyams has created.

   Reanimated corpses, cloning and government cover ups? That's... well... that's pretty dark material. John Hyams knows. For every punch thrown and bullet fired in Day of Reckoning, Hyams is fashioning not just an action movie... but a horrifying, testosterone fueled, psychological, conspiracy thriller with very muddied morality. It is perhaps the most logical latterday sequel to an old action movie that there will ever be. Another Universal Soldier movie? Luc Deveraux back again? How many times has Andrew Scott died? How long can they keep this up? Scientists in the movie, or filmmakers in the real world- the question applies to both.

   Day of Reckoning feels less like a Roland Emmerich thrill ride, and more like a David Cronenberg thriller. The distinction is important. This movie is a cerebral and psychological head-trip, and its emphasis on bloody violence is never cheered on, or set to a bass thumping techno beat. To the contrary, Day of Reckoning has a haunting music score which leaves its raw violence and brutal action scenes feeling grimy and disturbing. Is Luc Deveraux the bad guy? That's not the question to ask anymore. Are there even any good guys? There you go. "It never ends" Deveraux says to Adkins' character, John. "There's always another John." Very rarely do action movies even attempt to be so meta, let alone pull it off.

   With Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning- you get to have your cake and eat it too. The movie is both a chilling deconstruction of action-sequels, and a full bore action flick in its own right. Star Scott Adkins is more than fit to carry the franchise from here on out. The fight scenes in the movie are impressively choreographed to the nth degree. Every punch and kick hits with a vicious impact, every camera angle is meticulously chosen. When Adkins' character goes full out and has his 'beast mode' moment, it's one of the most stunning action scenes I can remember seeing in maybe the past five years or more even.

   If you're looking for a breezy and uncomplicated latterday follow-up to the original movie, you'll be sorely disappointed. But genre fans with more than a narrow interest in film should be able to appreciate this bloody, cerebral and nightmarish little tale full of twists, turns, and trippy visuals. It's inspirations range from the films of Gaspar Noe to David Lynch, but you'll find very little of the genre's trademark red blooded machismo here. John is a desperate character, not a heroic one. He's out for revenge, but the deeper he digs, the more surreal things become and the more questions he has. Day of Reckoning isn't a simple movie, and I'm hesitant to call it a smart one, but it has a lot going on under the hood.

   If the previous movie, Regeneration, could be seen as a vague commentary about how we keep resurrecting our old heroes, Day of Reckoning explores the consequences of doing just that. It's funny to me that this movie is probably the first one in the franchise good enough to warrant a sequel, but is also the first one that seems vehemently against that very idea- as if sequels to movies like Universal Soldier can only become darker and uglier with each installment, until in the end they no longer resemble a 'good time', but rather something morbid, unsightly and abstract instead.

   That's fine with me. Day of Reckoning is kind of brilliant.

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