In the first installment of HeadStuff’s series on B-movies, Pierce McDonough dives into the bargain basement to retrieve John Hyams’s sci-fi action Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, starring Scott Adkins, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren.
Lying in the cinematic gutter that is the direct-to-video (or DTV) world are some underrated and skillfully crafted gems. This largely ignored world comprises low-budget genre films that skip the festival circuits and multiplexes, instead immediately being made available to purchase online. They don’t really show up at the Oscars either.
Action films thrive in this market. You know the ones. You’ve stumbled upon the posters while exploring the distant regions of Netflix in the late of night. They brandish gun-wielding action stars of yesteryear, faces freckled with blood, muscles bulging, promising gritty tales of revenge and justice. A lot of mindless, violence laden trash.
Well, don’t be so fast to scroll past that scowling Jean-Claude Van Damme or hulking Dolph Lundgren because some accomplished visual storytelling lies only a click away. As mainstream blockbusters grow more outlandish, with their ever collapsing buildings and non-stop explosions, DTV movies provide grounded alternatives with hand-to-hand combat reminiscent of old school action flicks.
We’re going to look at the pinnacle of direct-to-video action: a film that pushes the obscure genre to its full potential and invites DTV into the arthouse. It’s John Hyams’s Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. If you’ve already heard of it and don’t actually scroll straight past those posters on Netflix, then you know what’s up. You appreciate the wonder of low-budget hyper-violence and don’t need my help. But if you haven’t, fear not. I’ll explain all.
Day of Reckoning is the fourth film in the Universal Soldier franchise (or sixth if you count two 1999 TV films but there’s no need). The original, Roland Emmerich’s Universal Soldier (1992), is an energetic serving of 90’s action. It is straight-faced silliness with a generous side of one-liners and scary Vietnam flashbacks.
Soldiers killed in combat are reanimated in a top secret military project years later. The born-again war veterans are gifted with super strength and enhanced healing factors. Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren) are two of those soldiers, waking up 25 years after murdering each other in the Vietnam war. Lundgren is gleefully wicked as the mad villain, Ally Walker is suitably spunky as the determined journalist and Van Damme gets to do loads of cool kicks. It’s a fun watch.
Universal Soldier: The Return joined it on the big screen in 1999 but bombed at the box office, ending the franchise’s brief theatrical run. The events in this film were ignored by the rest of the series – so we’ll do the same.
Fast-forward ten years to 2009 and John Hyams (son of JCVD regular Peter Hyams) takes the reigns with his DTV sequel, Universal Soldier: Regeneration – an expertly crafted, sombre action film that adorns its universal soldiers (or UniSols) with psychological scars aplenty but suffers from the lack of an easily discernible protagonist. The film also introduces cloning into the mix as a new Andrew Scott is unleashed to defeat Deveraux. Cloning would go on to play a bigger part in its follow up.
Hyams blends science fiction and horror in with the action for the latest addition to the series, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. The genre mash up stars DTV poster boy Scott Adkins as the amnesiac John, out to avenge his wife and daughter. They are murdered by an ominous Deveraux, who has escaped the government’s program and leads his own faction of rogue UniSols, including yet another Andrew Scott clone.
It opens as a horror film, eerie from the outset, as the screen flickers to life over the sound of soft breathing. A sleeping John is woken by his daughter. She says there’s monsters in the house. The whole scene is shot from John’s point of view, his every breath, yawn and sigh clearly audible while other voices sound somewhat distant. We’re inside John’s head, Enter the Void style.
Things get spooky as John pushes open the kitchen door to reveal three balaclavaed men. One of them swings a crowbar at him, at the audience, and the camera swings to the side as the weapon makes contact with his skull. The screen flickers, the speakers ring. The violence is visceral.
Two of the masked intruders drag John’s screaming wife and child into the room while he’s helplessly collapsed on the floor. The third intruder crouches down to John’s level and stares right into the camera. He peels off his balaclava to reveal a bald, emotionless JCVD reprising his role as Luc Deveraux. Only this time he’s the villain. He kills John’s wife and daughter.
It’s a chilling scene, one that successfully utilizes the POV gimmick thanks to its careful sound design which goes a long way in placing us inside John’s head. The gimmick’s only repeated to signify brief flashbacks, clearly distinguishing what takes place inside his head from outside as well as displaying the psychological trauma the widowed and childless father has endured. It’s effective, never over indulgent.
The Universal Soldiers carry a lot of psychological baggage as getting genetically augmented takes its toll. They turn to sex workers and alcohol to dull their pain, fucking and drinking until it’s time to fight. In one particularly violent scene, a government controlled UniSol crashes a brothel to take on the rebel faction inside. Pink neon soaks the sleazy battle ground while electronic music thumps underneath the gruesome violence. You won’t see this in The Avengers.
Fight scenes like Day of Reckoning’s brothel brawl and subsequent lethal squabbles best demonstrate Hyams’ mastery over action filmmaking. Distorted minds distort bodies as elbows, knees, fists and feet smash into opponent’s body parts in scenes of balletic mayhem. Hyams skilfully wields his camera-stylo, keeping these shots wide enough so that every brutal assault remains clearly visible, gently pushing in to emphasise a point of contact or pulling back to give space for a grander move.
It’s a meticulous arranged marriage between camera movement and fight choreography, cinematography synchronising with performance, as the camera swerves delicately around actors trying to kick each other’s heads in, panning back and forth with every swung fist or thrust foot. The cuts progress seamlessly, maintaining the spatial consistency of wherever the fighters make their arena.
It’s not just the fights that Hyams can shoot though. Cutting to a wide shot after the brothel carnage, Adkins sits alone at the end of his kitchen counter. He takes up little of the frame, hunched over his porridge, motionless in the empty room. He briefly glances to the left, then the right, looking at nothing. His solitude is palpable, conveyed instantly.
When reflecting on the film, moments like this get lost among more provocative visuals such as neon flickering, blood splashed brothels and POV glimpses of murdered family members. However, this quieter moment is a prime example of Hyams effectively communicating with his audience through the visual medium. Hyams speaks cinema fluently.
But what’s he trying to say? It would be a mistake to assume that it’s all just an exhilarating exercise in empty escapism because there’s some heady stuff to dig into here. The film asks what defines who we are as John struggles to recall events in his own life prior to the home invasion, questioning who he really is, and the universal soldiers fight, not for their lives, but rather for their identities. Inner conflicts are externalised when the government’s UniSol comes for the rebels. Are they the men they distantly remember being or the killing machines they were programmed to be? The battle ensues and they decide the only way they know how.
I won’t delve any further, refraining from spoiling any of the cerebral twists and turns this philosophical beat-‘em-up takes but, ultimately, the film ponders what role memory plays in personal identity – can pasts we don’t remember define us? And what if what we do remember never happened?