In 2009, a direct to video sequel was released to the Dolph Lundgren/Jean-Claude Van Damme sci-fi/action-er Universal Soldier (1992). Called Universal Soldier: Regeneration  and directed by John Hyams, it was a pretty apt title. Here was a franchise that had been lying fallow for 10 years, starring two guys who don’t get much play in the states anymore (unless there’s a new Expendables installment). Hyams, an MMA documentarian and son of veteran director Peter Hyams (who worked with Van Damme in Timecop, and whose credits vary as widely as Running Scared, End of Days, 2010, and Stay Tuned) was an untested feature director. The new addition to the franchise was Belarusian MMA fighter Andrei Arlovski, who barely spoke and generally terrified other actors, viewers, small dogs.  The senior Hyams even came on as the cinematographer.  For the kind of job it was, it had a good pedigree. Everyone involved was either untested or needed to prove themselves not too old be doing it.  It was a direct to video, third sequel to a Roland Emmerich film (though 5th if you count the Showtime tv movies no one has seen). Even if it lived up to it’s meager expectations it’s still all those things. No one was paying attention.

The thing is — Regeneration is a far better movie than anyone expected. Van Damme and Lundgren have grown into compelling, interesting actors instead of just bags of meat who wail on one another. And Hyams might be the best action director to come along in a decade or so. Straightforward, smart, no nonsense approach to everything from quiet interaction between characters to huge Modern Warfare-esque setpieces. Van Damme killed everything that moved.  Dolph lurked around the story as the tragic, menacing, soliloquy-delivering wild card. “We’ve been over this all before” he says, and it’s true, these two guys have done everything here before. That awareness in the story lent a ton of depth to guys we didn’t really buy as anything but stunt technicians twenty years ago. Regeneration must have made money, presumably enough money to fund the theatrical release (in 3D!) of Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning coming out this November (already available on VOD). In the intervening years, John Hyams has developed something of a following in certain circles. Suddenly the new Universal Soldier was a highly anticipated film.

New to the franchise is star Scott Adkins, who is probably best known for his roles in the direct-to-video sequels to Walter Hill’s Undisputed. Adkins is a nervous presence onscreen, transitioning from hunched and cautious to physically imposing as the film goes on, and in one brief scene wounded and disarming. You see him thinking and making decisions, which is bad acting, but great to watch in a movie like this. The performance Hyams gets out of him is largely why Day of Reckoning is a success. Regeneration is a well executed movie, but Day of Reckoning is a good movie on every level, and the difference is palpable.

The film opens with a brutal six minute POV sequence, where Adkins wakes up in the middle of the night, sees his wife and daughter executed, and is beaten into a coma. We only see Adkins in a few quick shots in the mirror for audience identification. It’s equal parts introductory video game cinematic and the opening audience-implicating reel of John Carpenter’s Halloween. The effect is dizzying and nasty, which is where the tone sits for the whole film. As a whole, the quickest comparisons to make are the surreal duality-fixated approach of 90s David Lynch, the false memory-fueled super soldiers of Wolverine/ G.I. Joe writer Larry Hama, and the weirder back half of Apocalypse Now (Adkins literally goes up the river to meet Van Damme). Day of Reckoning, on the plot level, is about an amnesiac named John (Adkins) trying to find the man who killed his wife and daughter (Van Damme), stumbling onto an underground cell of cloned killing machines, and finding out he’s one of them. There isn’t much more to it. In execution, the ambiguous nature of a story about clones and false memories is spun in just the right way to lend the material a richness it rarely receives.

The only mention of the “Universal Soldier Program” in the film is overheard on a scientist’s tape recorder early on. Unlike Regeneration, this isn’t a movie that plays with the viewer’s pre-established expectations of the franchise. This time around, there are no assumptions, you as a viewer know this completely or would just be distracted by exposition. While a lot of the cast from the previous film are here (Van Damme, Lundgren, Arlovski, the scientist and his assistant). Due to the nature of the plot, there is no effort made to explain how all these characters who died in the last film are alive again. Everyone seems to have the same sense of uneasy recognition, deja vu about their interactions with one another. Adkins ends up face to face with his own doppelganger, first on a video monitor, watching himself murder his friend. Later, hand to hand, literally facing a darker version of himself. “So what are you, my brother?” he says, “No we’re kind of like the same sort of thing, only maybe they made you better.” Later in the film, it is revealed that Adkins is  only 3 weeks old. Instead of the weirdness of the story punctuating the action setup, it’s integrated into a very specific tone – which is probably why nearly every review of the movie has mentioned Lynch. The sense of a straightforward genre story where all the beats are right, but the vibe is wrong, and there are truly disorienting detours.

Hyams isn’t afraid of blasting his ideas out in bright primary fashion, either. Adkins visits a mob boss whose face looks like worn hamburger. Van Damme performs his momentous final scene with his bald head dripping in blood and color-coded warpaint. Lundgren plays his scenes with a scenery-chewing vigor that’s alarming the first time you see it, and his first major scene is delivered lit by throbbing pink neon. While Hyams can find the compelling and strange in this material, he also is perfectly okay with delivering it as is, shamelessly. This is an action movie, and one that revels in being an action movie. These characters’ internal conflicts are played out in grand physical gestures and setpieces, like action movies are supposed to. Hyams is great at giving his actors the space to have compelling fight scenes.  Everyone in the cast is a physical performer first, so they pay off their emotional arcs in acts of violence. There’s a variation of what the action looks like, it never gets boring. An aluminum  bat-fight in a sporting goods store. Arlovski shoots up a brothel like a T-800. Arlovski coming through the door with an axe. Lundgren and Adkins in a close-quarters fight in the armory. A full contact car chase going the wrong way down the highway.  Adkins taking his turn to kill everything that moves. All of it culminates in a huge brawl between Van Damme and Adkins, where JCVD stone-facedly mutters his few lines and goes hard in the warpaint against an actor decades younger than him.

Day of Reckoning is a strange phenomenon, it just existing — a 3D release sequel to a movie that never even came out in theaters. Hyams took his first shot as a chance to show off his chops. This time around Hyams, and everyone involved, try to elevate the material. In its own way, the story’s lingering themes of amnesia and doppelgangers is telling of a larger sense of how similar genre material can be, and how hard it is to distinguish ones self as an actor or director. Hyams knows that approaching these movies as seriously as he does might not benefit him unless he branches out – the qualities of great action directing aren’t prized in Hollywood the way they were, and Hyams applies these qualities to every element of his cinema. There is always a danger of preaching to the choir, but there is also a sense of getting very very good in an area where no one is paying attention. Kind of a double edged sword, but it means while Hyams is in that gray area between learning on the job and firing on all cylinders, anyone paying attention is privy to a great director ahead of the rest of the world.

Hopefully someone will wander into a theater in November 30th, not really knowing what they’re getting into, maybe thinking it was an Expendables-style romp. Maybe they’ll stumble out of the theater with their head bleeding like Van Damme, with a new favorite director, and a movie they’ll have difficulty explaining to anyone who doesn’t have a very specific opinion about the Ringo Lam’s Replicant. Even if they don’t, and this movie ultimately maintains the very small audience it has now, Day of Reckoning is at once astonishing and a fluke. The core idea of a clone like many others distinguishing himself that rests atop the well of thematic concerns is also an honest appraisal of what the movie is. Hyams, Lundgren, Van Damme, Adkins, they all know where they are working, and they do the best job they can. Enough can’t be said of how great this movie is as a result.

As Van Damme says in his last moments, “There is no end”.

-Sean Witzke, November 2012.

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About sean witzke

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