Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Overlooked Gems #55: Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning

Grade: 75/B+

No, wait! Where are you going? It’s easy to dismiss a film by the name of Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. It’s a patently ridiculous title, and when one considers that it’s a sequel to the schlocky, not particularly reputable Universal Soldier action series starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren, it sounds even more dubious. But Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning transcends its schlocky roots because of director John Hyams’ unconventional style, which pushes the action movie to the point of abstraction.

Scott Adkins plays a man whose family is brutally murdered by Luc Deveraux (Van Damme), the hero of the previous Universal Soldier movies. When Adkins comes out of his coma, he starts searching for answers behind what happened to him. Deveraux, it turns out, leads a group of former super-soldiers (along with former adversary Lundgren) against the government that had previously controlled them. Adkins finds reason to question everything he held to be true and, more to the point, finds that he has the same propensity for violence that Deveraux has.

It’s a flimsy, somewhat murky plot, but it hardly matters. Hyams (son of journeyman genre director Peter Hyams) succeeds early on by throwing the audience into a situation where they’ll have as few bearings as possible and be in the same state of confusion as the protagonist. Any idea that this will be a standard-issue action flick disappears with the take-no-prisoners opening scene, an impressive long POV shot in which Adkins is turned into a voyeur, a man with no control over the violence done to him (a brutal beating) or to his family. It’s a deeply uncomfortable and disorienting opening, and Hyams is skilled enough to sustain that sense of unpredictability throughout the film.

What’s impressive is that Hyams is just as good with moments of relative quiet as he is at the more visceral action moments. Simple expository scenes between Adkins and other minor characters have the quiet, humming menace of a David Lynch or Stanley Kubrick film, aided by Hyams’ exact compositions. Still, the film is at its most exciting when dealing with outright nightmare imagery (see: drill into forehead, blood on a teddy bear) or the kinetic action scenes, which are absolutely breathless. Particularly impressive is six-minute sequence in which an assassin makes mincemeat of a bunch of brothel-dwelling tough guys. Here, Hyams makes great use of disquieting sound design, pounding techno music, florescent lighting in a dim area, and strobe effects amidst the absolute carnage on display. It's as if Gaspar Noe had directed an action movie. If someone can just get this guy a great script, he’ll no doubt become one of the finest action directors in the world.

This film is available on Netflix Instant.

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