There’s always going to be – for lack of a better term – a stack of films we’ve been meaning to get to. Whether it’s a pile of DVDs and Blu-rays haphazardly amassed atop our television stands, or a seemingly endless digital queue on our respective streaming accounts, there’s simply more movies than time to watch them. This column is here to make that problem worse. Ostensibly an extension of Everybody’s Into Weirdness (may that series rest in peace), The Savage Stack is a compilation of the odd and magnificent motion pictures you probably should be watching instead of popping in The Avengers for the 2,000th time. Not that there’s anything wrong with filmic “comfort food” (God knows we all have titles we frequently return to when we crave that warm and fuzzy feeling), but if you love movies, you should never stop searching for the next title that’s going to make your “To Watch” list that much more insurmountable. Some will be favorites, others oddities, with esoteric eccentricities thrown in for good measure. All in all, a mountain of movies to conquer.
The sixth entry into this unbroken backlog is the surrealist DTV action/horror freak out, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning…
If you came of age during the '80s and/or '90s, there’s a solid chance you consumed several beefy, lunk-headed American action pictures. Of course, there were the unattainable mainstays – Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Russell –handsome Gods possessing bulging physiques who toted guns and spat one-liners with uncomplicated vigilante charm. However, during the Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus reign, the Cannon Group were the groomers of a particular bullet fest variation, delivering one everyman armies like Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson, who cleaned up the planet while peddling despicable right wing politics. Near the end of the Golan/Globus era came Jean-Claude Van Damme, who transitioned from shitty Albert Pyun pictures* to starring in his own clunky adventures that continued past bankruptcy of the disreputable house that bore him. With each movie, JCVD’s acting got slightly better, and his commitment to working with Hong Kong auteurs such as John Woo (Hard Target) and Tsui Hark (Knock Off) ensured that the chaos remained cathartic for the genre’s die hard admirers.
Like all popular filmic forms, commercial success came and went for the mainstream American action movie, as the works of these explosive heroes no longer drew big bucks at the box office. From the late '90s to mid-'00s, there was a mild drought within the form. The occasional bombastic spectacle would capture our collective imagination, but even James Cameron began tweaking technology in service of stories revolving around famous sinking ships and goofy blue people living on fantastic planets. B-movie marquee names like Seagal and Van Damme began working in the Direct to Video (DTV) realm, dragging iron jawed cohorts like Dolph Lundgren along with them. Eventually, these antiquated men of action became punchlines even to themselves, later gathering in throw away group outings like The Expendables - glorified in-jokes that treat the genre as nothing more than ironically enjoyed matinee fare. It was a bummer for anyone whose parents brought home stacks of dollar tapes from the local mom and pop video hut, each filled with perverse ultraviolence utilized to waste away rainy weekends.
Nevertheless, a fresh batch of auteurs and stars began to emerge within this newly fortified DTV action arena. Isaac Florentine resurrected the thought dead Undisputed franchise, using the title and basic premise of Walter Hill’s Wesley Snipes/Ving Rhames prison boxing picture as a jumping off point to craft characters for bright-eyed bruisers Michael Jai White and Scott Adkins to play. That revival resulted in three separate sequels (with the super fun Florentine-produced fourth entry, Boyka, recently screening at Fantastic Fest for passionate supporters). Florentine and Adkins also teamed for two Ninja movies, which are probably the closest thing to Cannon Films this generation has been gifted**. Those movies are throw backs to the Michael Dudikoff/Steve James-starring American Ninja schlock fests, as a Caucasian man tosses on the trademark black pajamas and performs a few spin kicks. Even Van Damme (who had been churning out his own DTV vehicles for years) resuscitated an old property, starring in the first Universal Soldier film produced in a decade (2009’s Regeneration). The cable box became a mayhem delivery system, beaming quality kill ‘em all mini-marvels straight into enthusiasts’ living rooms.
With a new age comes a need for deconstruction and the smuggling of subversive material, and none of this latest line of DTV action have been as revolutionary as John Hyams’ Day of Reckoning, the fourth film in the Universal Soldier franchise. A horror movie wearing the skin of a low budget smash ‘em up, Day of Reckoning is more spiritually linked to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now than it is to the three films it shares a title with. Hyams’ second take following the rather straightforward (but no less entertaining) Regeneration isn’t remotely interested in delivering the fist-pumping thrills the genre is known for. Instead, Day of Reckoning is a surreal dive into the nature of identity and the untamable beasts war yields. By the time Van Damme paints his face like a two-toned Frankenstein and channels Brando’s Colonel Kurtz, it’s clear we’re knee deep in the trenches with a crew of militant monsters, all humanity sucked from their souls thanks to a life devoted to death. “Horror has a face, and you must make a friend of horror,” Kurtz famously uttered to his assassin, and the leader’s words act as an ethos for these regenerated foot soldiers of the same callous government.
For those who weren’t keeping up with the series all along, Universal Soldiers are the reanimated corpses of fallen fighters, reprogrammed by the government to be unstoppable cyborgs. Think: Terminators draped in the American flag. Roland Emmerich’s original film is pretty unsophisticated. There’s a good UNISOL, Luc Deveraux (Van Damme), and a bad UNISOL, Andrew Scott (Lundgren). At first, they’re both perfectly engineered products of a classified experiment. Alas, much like Officer Alex J. Murphy, their memories begin to slowly trickle back, and Deveraux recalls that Scott was a total psychopath who loved to make necklaces out of innocent humans’ ears. Of course, they battle to the death, and there’s a hay baler involved, just for good gory measure. This is an Emmerich joint, so don’t go digging for deep subtextual meaning beyond bloody violence. The sequel, 1999’s The Return, is even sillier once you write it down on paper, as Deveraux has to do battle with a massive supercomputer named SETH (you can’t make this shit up) that’s been put in charge of the UNISOLs. Once the project is terminated, SETH will unsurprisingly not go quiet into that good night, and transplants its consciousness into Michael Jai White (thus inadvertently connecting the movie to a DTV action movie “movement” it predated by a decade). Unless you’re a big Bill Goldberg fan (as he throws down with Van Damme as one of SETHs henchmen), there’s not a whole lot here to cling to, quality-wise.
Enter John Hyams, whose Regeneration is a rather routine action film that hints at the genre-mashing weirdness the writer/director would later bring to Day of Reckoning. First off, Hyams views the UNISOLs as really nothing more than emotionless monsters; death machines who, when given a mission, carry out carnage with clinical efficiency. Terrorists recruit one of these Next Gen UNISOLs (Andrei “The Pit Bull” Arlovski) in order to kidnap the Ukranian Prime Minister’s children and flee to Chernobyl. The US Army is called in, but the small unit sent to try and rescue the tykes is done away with in the blink of an eye. Desperate, four older UNISOLs are reactivated, but The Pit Bull tears their throats out in a sequence that plays like a paramilitary slasher. This is when Hyams shows his true colors, as he’s rebooting the Universal Solider brand, but doing so by leaving a coldly sadistic thumbprint. There’s zero joy to the way the old school UNISOLs are murdered – they’re merely meat suits standing in the way of the Pit Bull’s main objective. Perched atop the remains of one of the greatest nuclear disasters in history, this new technological marvel is committing his own atrocities, all in the name of potentially profitable terror.
As a last ditch effort, Deveraux is called in. Yet Hyams’ take on JCVD’s UNISOL is skewed from the character presented in the first two films. Where those movies had him actively working toward reclaiming his humanity, Regeneration features a bombed out shell of a beast, engaging in public violence at the drop of a hat. Now Deveraux’s receiving treatments in order to repress these explosive tendencies, but the medication is barely holding this mask of order in place. Essentially, Hyams sees Deveraux as a walking representation of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; a ticking time bomb thanks to a life devoted to viciousness. Once the government calls, Deveraux is given a choice – he can reject the mission and continue on with these inadequate cures. Or he can receive a super serum that will make him as strong as the Pit Bull’s Next Gen model, but run the risk of never being able to return to a remote façade of normal human existence. Being a tragic hero, Deveraux accepts the gambit and does battle with not only the Pit Bull, but a newly cloned version of Andrew Scott. So while we’re given a character to root for as an audience, Hyams has made his stance clear – every single one of these soldiers is a grotesque result of the planet’s perpetual war machine.
Day of Reckoning doesn’t pick up right after Regeneration. In fact, it seems to be a sequel to both that film and a movie we’ve never seen, as there are several plot points built into the narrative that we need to infer from events currently transpiring on screen. Since the finale of the last film, Deveraux is no longer being controlled by the government, but is instead leading a movement to free other UNISOLs from their controllers’ tyranny via an erasure serum. Andrew Scott has been cloned again (after having been pummeled into oblivion for the second time – alas, no hay baler present in Regeneration), and is now Deveraux’s right hand, delivering grandstanding speeches to their army about how they must toss off the chains of their oppressors. Deveraux has even recruited decamped UNISOL researchers, who are working to create a pirated cloning system for the resistance. Meanwhile, the government has dispatched numerous assassins to try and strike down the Colonel of this growing militia. Like Kurtz at the end of the Nung, Deveraux has crafted his own culture, built around the rejection of ingrained doctrines.
The ballsiest aspect of this new world is that it’s all happening in the background as John (Adkins) is searching for answers as to why Deveraux broke into his home and, with the aid of accomplices, coldly executed his wife and child before bludgeoning the man unconscious with a crowbar. It’s a jarring, horrific opener – all shot in roaming slasher POV that places us in the shoes of Deveraux’s helpless victim. But why is this formerly good man doing this? Has Deveraux finally gone completely over the edge? Awakening in a hospital days later, John can barely remember who he is, as fragments of his misfortune come back in abrasively strobe lit waves. Concurrently, there are outside sources who want answers just as badly as he does, leading to numerous interactions with shady Agent Gorman (Rus Blackwell), who almost seems to be pulling strings and leading John toward a predestined showdown with Deveraux. It’s a journey into a newfangled heart of darkness, filled with UNISOL torture brothels, a plumber Pit Bull clone, and a bevy of brutal batterings that make John realize he may be just as murderous as the behemoths he’s pursuing.
Hyams’ experimentation behind the camera is what marks Day of Reckoning as being so viscerally thrilling, even when it aims for cruel discomfort. Gaspar Noe has been credited as a primary influence (which can certainly be felt in the director’s fluid usage of POV and otherworldly neon lighting), as well as David Lynch (Lost Highway’s meditation on identity is mirrored quite closely). The fight scenes are vicious in a way the picture’s DTV peers don’t usually attempt, focusing almost exclusively on the bodily and structural mutilation these flesh machines cause when they clash. Hyams often switches to overhead shots (a la Brian De Palma) either after or even during a battle, allowing the audience to survey the rubble even as it’s being produced. Collateral damage in the form of naked innocent bystanders during a sex parlor shootout further emphasizes how unfeeling the UNISOLs are when they square off, as buckshot is unloaded into backs and rips off the top of skulls. Limbs are lost via axes and other sharp blades before being regenerated, a reminder of these beings’ cyclical existence of live, kill, die, repeat. Even a car chase near the movie’s midpoint climaxes in cringe inducing vehicular destruction; an SUV rolling over in speed ramped slow-mo, letting us take in every shard of flying glass and beam of twisted metal. Sure, there’s an ostentatious long take during the movie’s climax (which has become something of a DTV action mainstay, crossing over to the big screen in London Has Fallen), but the buckets of blood and shattered bones turn your stomach even as Day of Reckoning doles out genre staples.
To be frank, Scott Adkins isn’t much of an actor, but he’s getting better with each picture. The problem is, Adkins isn’t that great at playing an everyman – he needs to be given something over the top in order to compensate for his oft wooden delivery (Undisputed’s Yuri Boyka being the best example of this). Just look at rogue outlaw Colton MacReady in Close Range, as opposed to the complete cypher that is Casey Bowman in the Ninja movies (or even Wes Baylor in Hard Target 2). One has him chomping into a character, while the other is the post-Cannon equivalent of a white boy Norris archetype circa The Octagon. That said – he’s never less than an absolute joy to watch as a fighter, his moves so fluid that it takes a sure steady hand (and wide, balanced frame) to catch all of Adkins’ lightning quick punches and kicks. There’s no cutting around his bouts in order to make him look better. He does it all in frame. For Day of Reckoning, Adkins is actually the perfect lead – a man without any sense of personality, who is slowly regaining his own consciousness and coming to terms with the fact that he may be an inhuman death dealer, too. Putting him front and center and then tearing everything John has away in the opening scene is a genius move on Hyams’ part. We need him to be an empty hunter on a quest to discover just what kind of human being he may or may not be. This isn’t “everyman” Adkins. It’s “no man” Adkins; purposefully nothing but a blank, searching stare.
Jean-Claude Van Damme became quite the performer as his career progressed, possessing a handsome face that’s been weathered and dismayed by time. In Day of Reckoning, he almost resembles a depressed Buster Keaton; grimacing as he watches the UNISOLs he deprograms continuing to fight one another during his group’s underground rallies. Where John is a man now searching for his purpose after having everything stripped away, Deveraux is sitting on the train tracks, waiting for war’s freighter to finally run him over. There’s even a resignation to the way Van Damme fights once he’s confronted with an enemy— mechanical movements merely in service of self-preservation so that his cause may be furthered another day. Like the aforementioned great silent film star, there’s expressiveness to the way JCVD uses his body within the frame that’s come from being an action veteran and knowing that hand to hand combat can convey just as much emotion as a three-page monologue. Watching this legend share the frame with Adkins (who is now arguably the greatest fighter working in Western action movies) is a true joy to behold; a meeting of generations working to make Day of Reckoning something truly special within they genre they’ve both devoted their passion to.
“Your mind is not your own.” This warning is relayed by several UNISOLs to one another throughout the course of the film’s runtime, and works as both a cheeky reference to the sci-fi/horror foundation that Day of Reckoning is built upon, as well as a larger thematic undercurrent Hyams has unsubtly layered into both of his Universal Solider pictures. In a literal sense, these half-men/half-machines are instruments of destruction, programmed by their creators for one purpose: to kill everything their masters’ desire before retiring to a state of perpetual patience. But if we completely remove the genre trapping, both Regeneration and Day of Reckoning become metaphors for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and how many soldiers are robbed of their identity thanks to the combat they’ve either volunteered (as the original UNISOLs did during their human days in ‘Nam) or been recruited for. War is Hell, but the survivors of combat often have it worse than those who fell on the fields of battle. Luc Deveraux has built an insurgent support group, dedicated to not only rehabilitating these proud debased warriors, but also overthrowing their oppressors. Just as Kurtz had a bullseye placed on his back by the state he once served, Deveraux knows he will forever be hunted by his government. When faced with a potential assassin he simply says “there is no end”; a grim acknowledgement of his endeavor’s futility. In this world, war does not produce heroes, only senseless animals. As long as the perpetual cycle of chaos is kept in motion by profitable regimes, men will be chewed up, spit out, and left by the side of road – zombified dogs on the shoulder of history’s highway.
*Hey, I love Cyborg and Nemesis, too…but they’re that good trash.
**Though, to be fair, they are far better crafted than any of those movies.
Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is available now on Blu-ray and to stream.