The fact that I get paid money to write about movies kind of blows my mind. Even more amazing, a big part of why I get to do this is because I make a lot of jokes, and a good 20% of them work. If you squint, I get paid to be funny. That’s not even a dream come true because I was never that optimistic.
But when you’re a smart-ass like me, it’s hard to remember that each joke has a target. Sometimes those targets are people, and I can feel bad about it after a certain amount of contemplation. Most times they’re movies, and it doesn’t bother me so much because movies don’t have feelings. Granted, that ignores the many people who make the films, most of whom probably do have feelings. But you get the idea.
There is one movie, however, that I always felt deserved an apology for my wiseacre dismissal. When I first saw Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning at Fantastic Fest 2012, my immediate reaction was to make fun of it. You can actually read a transcript of that here. But that wasn’t the end of it. I also wrote this.
Never before have I been more wrong about a movie. The optimal time for an admission like this has long passed, but I want to make it anyway. Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning has become one of my all time favorite movies. It’s a film that takes some rather large storytelling risks on faith that the audience will be smart enough to keep up. Instead, I thought I was smarter than the movie and called it stupid. It’s a small thing, but that haunts me because I always wish for movies like Day of Reckoning, and when one finally arrived I berated it. Publicly. Twice.
So what I’d like to do is tell you exactly why this movie blows me away. Part of this will require a rundown of exactly what it’s up to plot-wise. Fans of the film probably have all this stuff figured out, so this might bore you. It’s just that I know so many people who dislike the movie, and I have this very hard to ignore notion that maybe they didn’t get it. I shudder to write that because it’s both condescending and indicates that I just can’t handle people not liking my pet movie, as though something must be wrong with them. That’s all pretty ugly. But on the other hand, this is a very, very strange movie with flaws that confuse the issue even further. So if the article rubs you the wrong way, I will let you call me a prick just this once.
Part One: What is a Universal Soldier?
I’ve actually only seen three of these films: The first, Regeneration, and Day of Reckoning. I don’t even like the first movie all that much. It’s a relatively run-of-the-mill sci-fi action film about deceased Vietnam vets brought back to life as super soldiers. One is kind of heroic. One is a psychotic murderer. They fight.
There are some other movies that come after this but they do not matter. All that anyone needs to remember is this core premise. The Universal Soldiers are essentially zombies. In this first entry, their humanity asserts itself, so they are not totally there yet, but the idea still stands. Not only are they zombies, but they are action zombies, which means they can shoot guns and take a ton of punishment before succumbing to their injuries.
Part Two: Why Does Anyone with a Brain Care About this Stupid Series?
That’s all fine and dandy but wasn’t capitalized upon in a very interesting way in the first film, and - I assume because I probably would have heard about it - any of the sequels. But then John Hyams came along and made Universal Soldier: Regeneration.
Here’s how Regeneration works: Terrorists kidnap the children of the Ukranian prime minister and whisk them off to Chernobyl. They can pull this off because they have help from a Next-Generation Universal Soldier played by Andrei “The Pit Bull” Arlovski.
This guy is fucking terrifying. The US Army send in troops to kill him but he wipes them out. They then dust off four of their Universal Soldiers, and, in a scene that plays like a mini-slasher film, he takes them out too. Desperate, they call up JCVD’s Luc Deveraux, the best of the best of what’s left (stolen joke).
So far this is all pretty boilerplate. It’s extremely well-executed and almost frighteningly hardcore, but it’s still pretty much just an action film. And without the hindsight offered by Day of Reckoning, it sticks to those ambitions all the way through. But now that we know where all this is going (or going so far, anyway), we can start to see Hyams assert his view of Unisols as cold, emotionless, almost dead monsters, a view that will run rampant in Day of Reckoning.
No longer in the Universal Soldier program, Deveraux spends his days attempting to be a human being. But he can’t. We see him break into terrifying violence over basically nothing while eating at a restaurant. The doctor trying to help him believes he can be rehabilitated, and you kind of get the idea that he wants to, but rather see him as some tragic hero, Hyams presents him as a rabid animal medicated just enough to not kill everyone in sight.
Soon the Government comes calling. They need Deveraux to rescue those kids. But because this villainous Unisol is so strong, he only stands a chance if they inject him with some kind of super serum that will make him strong enough but will also rob him of any humanity he earned so far.
Van Damme goes in there and saves the day, but Hyams stands by the effects of this serum, and there’s clearly something terrifying about him as well. Now instead of a hero, we have yet another monster. While Deveraux stands as the film’s most obvious protagonist, we get the idea that we’d be safer without any of these wackos running around.
Meanwhile, a scientist clones another Dolph Lundgren Unisol. This is fun and allows us to see Van Damme fight Lundgren again, but the larger implication here is that Unisols can be cloned, a major cornerstone to what’s going on in Day of Reckoning.
I’m oversimplifying Regeneration. Tons of great stuff happens, it’s really good, and without it no one would really care about Day of Reckoning. But while its violent aesthetic and originality blew me away when I initially saw the film, it now surprises me for how standard and almost quaint it feels compared to it's sequel.
Part Three: What’s the Big Deal About Day of Reckoning?
Day of Reckoning breaks a lot of rules. Its biggest is choosing to forgo the continued narrative we actually want to see and instead reveal its story as a series of discoveries made by a totally new character (Scott Adkins). This is doubly troubling. While this character and his mystery don’t really compel us as much as it should, it also acts as a weird diversion from the film’s real story which revolves around the mostly unseen Luc Deveraux and arrives almost totally through implication.
That strikes me as seriously bold, and I can understand why it turns people away from the film. It’s as though Hyams is so taken with the ultimate place he wants to take this Universal Soldier concept that he totally skips a movie to get us there. Here is a list of everything that happens in this mystery sequel we never got to see:
*Luc Deveraux escapes Government control.
*Luc Deveraux discovers that by extracting some controlling device in the back of the neck and administering some kind of serum, he can free other Unisols from government control.
*At some point Dolph Lundgren gets cloned again, Deveraux frees him as well, and they totally bro-down.
*Luc Deveraux starts building and army and wins deflected Unisol scientists to his cause. They are very close to building their own Unisol cloning machine. This will allow them to infiltrate the Government from the inside with Unisols that look like Dick Cheney.
*The Government starts to fight back by creating Unisols specifically to hunt Luc Deveraux and his crew. They look like Scott Adkins. But some of them look like Andrei Arlovski.
*The Scott Adkins Unisols have an untold number of run-ins with Luc Deveraux, each one failing to assassinate him.
Instead of telling this story, Hyams just assumes we’ll pick it up as we go, which is asking a lot on a first viewing but enriches the overall story the more you understand it. When we pick up with Day of Reckoning, we’re witnessing the journey of the Scott Adkins Unisol who actually succeeds at killing Luc Deveraux. Instead of just making him super strong or whatever, they give this one the false memory of having a cherished wife and kid, both of whom are fictitiously murdered in cold blood by Luc Deveraux. So the mission of revenge we’re supposed to be rooting for is actually just the Government’s manipulations coming to fruition. Deveraux did not become a murderous villain between films as 99% of this movie asserts. He’s not the nicest guy or anything, but the film’s plot changes significantly when we see it from his perspective - he tried to rebel, but they finally won. You even see him resign himself to weary defeat just before Adkins murders him for a crime he did not commit.
Of course, in doing so, the Government also created the monster who can finally take them down, and based on what we see of Unisol culture, they are not going to have much trouble turning the world into a horrific war zone. If these guys looked intimidating in Regeneration, they are ten times that here. Through Andrei Arlovski’s subplot, which lets us follow a Unisol as he transitions from Government tool to Deveraux freedom fighter, we witness some of the most frightening and primal displays of masculinity I’ve ever seen in a movie. It’s almost humorous. From the brothel where these guys pay women to hammer nails into them, to their ape-like barracks brawl over a stolen drink of booze, these Unisols are absolutely terrifying, stripped of everything except their desire for violence and equipped with bodies capable of delivering massive quantities of it.
I don’t really care much for horror films, but when the violence displayed in an action movie crosses into horror territory, I tend to fall totally in love for some reason. The Raid movies are like this, and John Hyams’ Universal Soldier entries are like this as well. There is something absolutely sickening about the way Hyams shoots his violence. These gigantic slabs of meat take brutal punishment and hardly seem fazed. Rather than look cheap or silly, it invokes a feeling of abject numbness that’s hard to shake.
I don’t love Universal Solider: Day of Reckoning because I think it’s some slam dunk perfect movie. In fact, much of what I love about it exists almost peripherally to the film itself. No matter how many times I watch it, Scott Adkins’ mission to learn who he is continues to strain my patience. But it does get better. And cooler. Silly as it sounds, there’s a real sense of tragedy surrounding not only Luc Deveraux’s character but the other Scott Adkins clone as well (yes, there are two Scott Adkinses in this movie).
Dismiss it if you want, but there are a lot more interesting things going on here than I, at least, assumed. You have a zombie army, clones, regenerating body parts, bad guys who aren’t bad guys, good guys who aren’t good guys, and probably the end of the world - all delivered in a way that flies in the face of many of our movie axioms. I know a lot of people who complained that the film doesn’t make sense. I can’t make you enjoy what Hyams tried to pull off, but I can tell you that it all makes total sense. And once you connect those dots, you end up with an extremely rewarding picture. If nothing else, we now have an absolutely brutal artsy-fartsy action film to write term papers about. I love it more each time I watch it.
(If this makes makes you want to watch the movie, you can do so here. This is the director's cut. Sometimes director cuts don't matter. This one does.)