Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning

Saying that the Universal Soldier franchise is odd is kind of an understatement.

The first film, which was a successful teaming up of 90s action stars Jean Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren, was a simple summer popcorn movie that was filled with crazy action and stunts.

Then there were two made-for-Showtime sequels, Universal Soldier II: Brothers in Arms and Universal Soldier III: Unfinished Business. Van Damme’s character was taken over by the uncharismatic Matt Battaglia and the UniSols were found to be smuggling diamonds for a corrupt CIA agent and more ridiculous shenanigans. Long story short: they sucked ass.
The real sequel showed up a few years later. Universal Soldier: The Return brought Van Damme back to the part, but the story was a cheesy mess that took the franchise in the wrong direction. The series was for the most part dead at this point.

Flash forward 13 years and out of nowhere comes Universal Soldier: Regeneration. Van Damme and Lundgren are back (even though Lundgren’s character died in the original) and the movie surprisingly didn’t suck.

Now we have the fourth official movie in the series, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. The two major stars return again, but this time they are the villains. The lead role is played by martial artist Scott Adkins who gives the best performance of his short acting career so far.
John (Scott Adkins) is a family man whose wife and daughter are murdered in front of him by Luc Deveraux (Jean Claude Van Damme), who then beats him to a pulp with a crowbar. John wakes up in the hospital months later and is told he has been in a coma ever since the attack. Vowing to avenge the death of his family he begins to track down Deveraux and his crew of renegade Universal Soldiers.

I did enjoy this film a lot like the third before it. Director John Hyams (who helmed Regeneration as well) has taken the latter films in this series in a very different direction that I’m sure wasn’t the intention of the original writers. Where the first was an escapist summer film and the second was hokey crap, the third was a dead serious action thriller and the fourth is a dark and violent tale of revenge. Basically Hyams made this once defunct franchise viable again by taking some risks and pulling it off in a way that seems to work extremely well. Since they’ve made a fourth film I assume that people saw part three and it made a tidy profit. I certainly liked it and its brutal take on the material. The fourth follows suit, but goes off into yet another area the series isn’t known for. And by making the characters that were once heroes the antagonists you have to admit that it would certainly pique the curiosity of any fan of the series… like me.
Scott Adkins has never been known for his acting chops, but rather his insane martial arts skills. Dude’s kind of amazing in that regard. But here you can see that he’s really trying to step his thespian game up a notch or two and he managed to impress me a great deal. His role of John is complex; he cannot remember a portion of his life due to the beating he received, his family was killed and somehow he’s connected to a group of renegade super soldiers that are constantly trying to kill him. His character is mucho sympathetic and he definitely got that across to me, and when the time came for him to open a can of whoop-ass on some punk bitch I felt every blow he received because of that. I was rooting for him and I have never done that to any film Adkins has starred in. I think he’s going to finally be able to break into the big time pretty soon and take on the mantle of “Major Hollywood Action Star” pretty soon.

Van Damme and Lundgren are relegated to smaller roles as the villains, and their parts have gone through some serious modifications. Van Damme runs his renegades as if he were Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now (complete with shaved head and wacky Day of the Dead make-up) and Lundgren is his devoted second-in-command who loves to get his troops riled up via inspirational speeches about duty and honor. This new approach to the characters is never really explained in the story. All we get is that they were sick of being used as government slaves, but their ultimate goal is never divulged. My guess was that to keep the movies interesting they had to do a little change-up to the roster. It worked. Van Damme actually comes off as epically creepy. Lundgren’s character might have teamed up with his nemesis, but he is still the same old Scott we remember. He’s just older and more fun to watch.
There is virtually zero action for the first half of the film since the story is set up as a mystery. Like Resident Evil before it, John’s character is a blank slate standing in for the audience. As he learns what is going on around him we do as well. And does he ever find out some effed up shit about his life. I won’t ruin it for anyone interested in seeing this but there were some twists I definitely did not see coming.

When the action starts… OhMyFuckingGodDoesItKickSomeEverlovingAss! For instance, there is a fight scene between Adkins and Andrei Arlovski (who played the main villain in Regeneration) that takes place in a sporting goods store. They manage to find ways to use almost everything on hand during their brawl; medicine balls, free weights, baseball bats. You name it. And it is intensely violent. I wasn’t expecting it to go to the lengths that it does, but I’m not sorry that it did. As far as I’m concerned it brought more weight to Adkins’ dilemma. Both Van Damme and Lundgren get their time to shine as well and they still have what it takes to be in a well-choreographed action scene.
The cinematography has to be mentioned as well. There are some fantastic visuals on display here, from the opening scene that is shot completely in the first person from Adkins’ perspective to the crazy speed ramping during the car chase. It looked like Hyams and his camera crew went out of their way to give this film a unique look to sell the idea of the main character’s confusion and outsider point-of-view to the audience. I also think it was shot in 3D as well (in the documentary on the disc the crew is seen wearing 3D glasses to watch the dailies), which would have sold these stylistic choices even more. Although I did get seriously annoyed with all the strobe effects that are combined with fades to and from white. It’s almost blinding and I got a headache during one of the scenes.

But I do have a few qualms. Once the big twist is revealed and a few doubts I had up until that point were explained away, I still had a problem with the reality of certain details. Like the issue of blood loss. One character loses what appears to be pints upon pints of blood during the film’s last 30 minutes and never once does it seem to affect them in any way, shape or form. This character, who was wearing a bright white wife beater at the start of the finale, ends up with this thing absolutely soaked with their own blood from multiple cuts, a hole that was dug out of the back of their head and a giant hole that was drilled through their forehead where someone was attempting to rip something out of their brain. This person then goes on to participate in multiple fights where their head is repeatedly hit, smashed against walls and thrown around while executing somersaults. I can suspend disbelief up to a point, but when I see bullshit like this going down and it’s passed off as not that big of a deal I have to call it out.
I also have a problem with the ending in that IT MAKES NO FUCKING SENSE! Again, I will not spoil things for those that want to see this, but when certain events happen to the main character that are completely ignored and/or forgotten about in the final scene I once again have to point it out. And the final big twist?! WTF?! Was that just thrown in there to make us cock our heads to the side like confused dogs? I didn’t understand what the hell that was about and combined with the previous issue of glossed over details I have to say that the ending was nearly a deal breaker for me. Every cool idea, plot twist or bitchin’ fight scene was almost rendered neutral due to this hackneyed rubbish ending.

In the end I did enjoy Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning for its ballsy attempt to keep the franchise relevant, Adkins breakthrough performance, cool twists and the awesome action. But the nonsensical and contradictory ending almost killed it. A word of advice: when the time comes to make Universal Soldier 5… don’t drop the ball during the last 3 minutes. That’s the last impression the audience goes out on, and that will stick in their minds long after they leave the theater. I am a forgiving movie fan to an extent, but this almost pushed that to its limit.

3 out of 5

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