Note: This post discusses graphic violence.
A Second Note: This post contains spoilers for both Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning and Green Room. Proceed with caution.
There are a lot of reasons to love John Hyams’ Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning and Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room. Day of Reckoning blends clean, clear, creative action with the complete and utter collapse of Scott Adkins’ life as he understands it. Green Room turns its title location into a crucible for rapidly executed, high-grade character work from an ensemble whose quality begins with Sir Patrick Stewart and the late Anton Yelchin and extends all the way out to lesser known players like Brent Werzner and Eric Edelstein. Day of Reckoning has Dolph Lundgren going full-bore cheerful maniac and gives Jean-Claude Van Damme the opportunity to play a demon on par with Black Phillip. Green Room has impeccable tonal balance – Macon Blair’s vacuum cleaner pops up at precisely the right moment for it to have a major impact on the audience, as do Yelchin’s brave, terrified “Odin himself” speech and Stewart’s horrifyingly calm “Let him bleed.”
They’re fantastic movies, both among my favorites of their years (2012 and 2016 respectively), but it’s fair to say they’re wildly different films. Day of Reckoning is a surrealist martial arts extravaganza – the (currently) final mutation of a franchise that began when its stars were young men working with silly headgear and a pre Independence Day Roland Emmerich. Green Room is a realist thriller, one whose action never extends to flying spin kicks (the martial arts that do get shown off are a good deal less flashy – grappling and jujitsu that ultimately prove useless against a machete) and was based in part on its writer/director’s experience coming up in the DC area punk scene.
But, as different as they are, Green Room and Day of Reckoning share two key commonalities. Both films understand the great paradox of human physicality – we as a species are both incredibly durable and incredibly fragile. And both give their violence weight and consequence. The care with which they engage with bloodshed makes them marvelously unsettling. They are, in their own quiet ways, really, really scary movies.
The human body can, under the right circumstances, bounce back from a truly massive amount of punishment. And under a different set of the right circumstances, it can also crumple like a lawn chair under a pickup truck. It’s a paradox and a delicate balance, and it’s an easy one for a filmmaker to get wrong. When that happens, you end up with an inane nothing of a movie like this year’s Ben-Hur, where bodies fly this way and that with no consistency as to what sent them there, while star Jack Huston never truly registers as someone in danger.
But when a filmmaker understands the paradox and works it into the violence of the story, they have an opportunity to create truly great filmmaking. Day of Reckoning’s fight scenes are striking because Scott Adkins is a superb athlete and martial artist, and John Hyams knows how to use space. Hyams takes Universal Soldier’s premise of borderline indestructible semi-zombie super soldiers and uses it to push bodies well past the point where they should stop. As gloriously ripped as Adkins is, and as much as “Dolph Lundgren” is the only proper adjective needed to describe Lundgren’s physicality, they are, by outward appearances, ordinary human beings. So when Adkins takes a machete to the arm and then uses that arm to shield himself from the rest of the strike, or Lundgren gets a knife through his hand and reacts with downright good cheer, it registers as wrong. The unnatural durability of the Unisols does not invoke quite the same sensation as the Uncanny Valley, but it is certainly similar. It takes a real trait of the human body – its toughness - and pushes it just far enough past reality to create something abject. The characters in Day of Reckoning do things that should not be possible, take blows that should kill them and just keep on going until they are finally overwhelmed. It’s both thrilling and terrifying.
Where Day of Reckoning emphasizes and exaggerates human durability, Green Room focuses on how physically fragile we can be. Yelchin’s maimed arm in the beginning of the movie’s siege section, even once he gets it wrapped up, is useless for the remainder of the film. Joe Cole may play the toughest of the Ain’t Rights, the world’s unluckiest punk band, but once he has a nasty run in with a machete, he’s dead, even if that death comes sometime later in the night. Patrick Stewart personifies a hardcore evil convinced not only of righteousness but normality. Yet however charismatic he may be, however ruthless, at the end he is an old man whose enemies get the drop on him. Death in Green Room often arrives suddenly and always free of pomp and circumstance. Saulnier keeps the focus tight and emphasizes the physical consequences of his story’s violence. Survival in Green Room a matter of luck as much as skill, and violence can come at any moment from almost anywhere within the film’s secluded club, a colossal trap that tightens around the protagonists until Yelchin and Imogen Poots flip the script on the skinheads.
Day of Reckoning and Green Room may take different approaches to how their violence engages humanity’s paradoxical strength and fragility, but they both grapple with it. Where they move from being just well-made to great lay in their shared commitment to exploring the consequences of that violence. This isn’t to say every film should be as bleak and sorrowful as Sicario – that would get tiresome quickly. Both Day of Reckoning and Green Room are thrilling movies with moments that land massively. Scott Adkins has made his share of disappointing films, but the man himself is always an absolute joy to watch in action – his rampage through Van Damme’s base in Day of Reckoning features some of his finest moments, in particular a series of impressive short grappling duels that swiftly transition into close-range gunplay. Green Room’s siege builds dread and despair until Poots and Yelchin, facing their doom, get really creative really fast.
But both movies keep an eye on the consequences of their carnage and understand that violence must bring change for their characters. Scott Adkins sees his entire reality fall to pieces over the course of Day of Reckoning and ultimately chooses transform that pain into rage to fuel Van Damme’s rebellion. He’s left with the comfort of memories he clings to despite knowing they’re a lie. His fate is genuinely haunting. If Green Room is less bleak, it is no less engaged. The Ain’t Rights are not trained killers, and fighting back against the skinheads is genuinely traumatic for them – Cole’s almost in tears when he tries to choke Edelstein’s Big Justin. Poots and Yelchin are left numb and tremendously bitter as the sole survivors of the siege. Macon Blair, forced to witness the inevitable end of the hateful lifestyle Patrick Stewart has sold him, chooses to go to prison and try to atone for what he has done. And Stewart himself? He and all his cronies are dead, brutally undone by their very commitment to brutality. The survivors are left to reckon with what they have seen, what they have done and who they were just a day before.