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John (Scott Adkins) wakes up from a coma to discover his wife and daughter were slaughtered in a brutal home invasion. Haunted by images of the attack, he vows to kill the man responsible, Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme). While John tries to piece his reality back together, things get more complicated when he is pursued by a relentless UniSol (Andrei Arlovski). As John gets closer to Deveraux and the rogue army of genetically enhanced warriors led by back-from-the-dead leader Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren), John discovers more about himself and begins to call into question everything he believed to be true. (From Sony’s official synopsis)

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning
I’ve said many times before – I am a fan of blending the arthouse and the grindhouse, even when it’s a bad idea. Especially when it’s a bad idea. I’m also fascinated by B-film franchise continuities that take on lives all their own. The Saw series, for instance, is pretty dismal when taken film by film, but its adherence to entirely unnecessary continuity between each film. It recalls the insane super-stories of classic slasher series. Trying to make sense of the narrative continuum of the Friday the 13th or Halloween franchises is a never-ending source of amusement. Recently, Roland Emmerich’s dopey zombie army blockbuster Universal Soldier, a generally forgotten franchise, was given new life as an occasionally avant-garde célèbre of ultra-violence. What’s especially fun about this series is that it includes three movies that have been reportedly retconned by fans and producers for a lack of quality. These started in 1999 with a failed attempt at a theatrical resurgence called Universal Soldier: The Return. It featured original star Van Damme. Before that there were two STV sequels, Universal Soldier II: Brother in Arms and Universal Soldier III: Unfinished Business. I haven’t seen any of these movies, but they are apparently terrible enough that fans were okay with someone saying ‘screw it’ and letting John Hyams (son of director Peter Hyams, who worked with Van Damme on Time Cop and Sudden Death) go nuts with the material.

Because I was only familiar with Hyams’ reputation, I needed a quick education before reviewing this latest installment in the series, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. My good friend Evan Saathoff helped by bringing me copies of Hyams’ recent gangland thriller, Dragon Eyes (a play on the Yojimbo formula), and his first Universal Soldier movie, Regeneration. Regeneration is a stripped-down action/horror hybrid with a simple story (somewhat cribbed from The Rock, plus sci-fi and slasher enhancements) and surprising dramatic weight. It works both as part of the franchise and as a standalone – kind of like an ‘80s Italian rip-off, only with director interest and a decent budget. It’s not a transcendent, ‘next-level’ masterwork, but it’s exactly what I wish I could expect from their lower-budget, (mostly) STV entertainment. The action direction in Dragon Eyes and Regeneration is very confident. Bigger budget filmmakers, like Olivier Megaton and Len Wiseman (who I pick on only because I just watched their movies), should really be embarrassed by how much more competent the action in these movies is compared to their fashionably shaky, over-edited monstrosities.

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning
If Regeneration is the franchise’s grim and gritty 21st Century reboot fans were clamoring for, Day of Reckoning is the Kubrick-meets-Tarkovsky-meets-Cronenberg sequel they didn’t know they wanted. There’s still plenty of the crisp, brutal action Hyams excels at, cranked to an even higher degree of insanity, but there are also long, break-away moments into dreamy surrealism and existentially-laced expressionistic shots that make little sense outside of their enigmatic beauty. I’m not gonna lie, sometimes Hyams overdoes it and finds himself lost in repetitive hypnotic imagery. The film’s overbearing bleakness is also a bit of a buzzkill, but this super-serious tone is a pretty valuable part of its ambition. The darker qualities make for a genuinely frightening experience as well. The violence here isn’t just more of Regeneration’s cool speed-ramping – it’s painful and even shocking. The bad news is that Sony has decided to release Day of Reckoning only in its cut, R-rated form here in North America. The original version, which premiered at Fantastic Fest (and is available on German home video), was rated NC-17 for graphic violence and some sexual content. Why Sony wouldn’t opt for an unrated version of a niche product like this doesn’t make any sense, especially considering promotional value of an alternate cut. Specific information about the cuts is available on the always valuable (yet impossible to navigate) Movie-Censorship.com (spoilers, obviously). I didn’t noticed any obviously truncated shots, but the gorier bat-to-head shot reportedly elicited a huge crowd reaction at Fantastic Fest.

The storyline is mostly a follow-up to Regeneration, though it appears to ignore a few minor facts and really goes its own way in terms of themes. The soldier-zombies are now united (sort of) and revolting against their masters in reaction to the inhuman treatment they’ve garnered in the previous films. This is a pretty standard character trope for similarly self-aware sci-fi genre robots/clones/artificial life forms (Hyams even paid homage to Blade Runner’s eye-gouging scene in Regeneration). Meanwhile, a seemingly unrelated storyline about a seemingly innocent guy trying to piece together a personal tragedy encroaches on this purer plotline and occasionally veers into territory that can only fairly be described as boring. Eventually, this uninteresting character, John, ‘awakens’ and we’re treated to further martial arts badassery, including a show-stopping beat-up in a sporting goods shop that may be the coolest fight of 2012. Either that, or the extended journey through the soldier-zombie stronghold that makes up the film’s extended third act. The second act is still a problem, though, and a sure sign of over-indulgence on Hyams’ part. But, even when it flops Day of Reckoning is such a unique, impeccably filmed failure that is infinitely more interesting than boring failures like Taken 2 or The Bourne Legacy (again, movies I’m picking on simply because I watched them recently). Regeneration is the tighter, more palatable experience, but I ended up enjoying Day of Reckoning more and am likely to revisit it again in the near future (though I may employ the fast-forward button).

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning
Lundgren and Van Damme’s limited involvement is disappointing, but not unexpected. I have to give Hyams and his co-writers, Doug Magnuson and Jon Greenlagh, credit for finding an interesting way to include the franchise’s stars in on the action. Van Damme’s place is to look menacing and Lundgren’s is to make rousing speeches – though neither role is required to propel the narrative. Like much of the film’s primary elements, they are expendable. The duo’s final fight sequences with lead Scott Adkins, on the other hand, are worth every minute of screentime wasted on the amnesia subplot (despite being similarly expendable in terms of story). The Van Damme/Adkins fight leaves the similar climatic skirmish between Van Damme and Stallone at the end of Expendables 2 in the dust. Adkins is a strong physical presence, despite playing an uninteresting character. He’s been a martial arts stunt mainstay for a while now, including roles in Danny the Dog, Undisputed 2: Last Man Standing, and The Bourne Ultimatum, but he’s usually best when he’s not required to emote. Hyams pulls something close to a good performance out of him here by not demanding too much – he mostly just has to be confused by and slightly afraid of the stuff happening around him. Well, until his awakening, at which point he’s mostly meant to kick ass. Secondary lead, Andrei ‘The Pit Bull’ Arlovski (a holdover from the previous film), makes a much more interesting protagonist as an audience-surrogate ‘new inductee’ into the ‘freed’ soldier-zombie fold. It doesn’t hurt that he never speaks. Unfortunately, he’s treated more as a speed bump for Adkins on the way to the bigger stars.

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning

Video


Universal Solider: Day of Reckoning was originally shot to be shown in 3D on Red Epic cameras. From what I understand, it got such a small theatrical release that this was a bit of a waste of cash, since Sony isn’t including a 3D version on this Blu-ray (though the uncut German release does have a 3D version). That fact aside (I don’t really like 3D, anyway), this 2.40:1, 1080p transfer is pretty fantastic. The fact that Hyams and cinematographer Yaron Levy have made an incredibly beautiful movie certainly helps. Regeneration embraced digital grain, despite also being shot on Red, but the name of the game here is ‘clarity.’ The level of detail here is intense without appearing gritty or losing the softness of certain natural elements. Every nook and cranny of the frame is impeccably reproduced, including all of the complex, realistic textures and busy background patterns. Based on what I watched previously ( Dragon Eyes and Regeneration) Hyams appears to prefer working with highly stylized, nearly monochromatic palettes (his father John acted as cinematographer for Regeneration). He likes to colour-coat locations and de-saturate cool environments so that the bright red blood and gore will pop. Day of Reckoning is a little different. The palettes here are still quite stylized (and there are plenty of mostly monochromatic sequences), but usually more eclectic and closer to natural. This time, he embraces the expanded possibilities afforded by the Red format, which can create some incredibly vibrant, yet subtle hue blends, along with sharp colour distinctions. On a few occasions, mostly along monochromatic backdrops, do these otherwise consistent colours feature any banding effects. The transfer’s only other notable shortcoming is some minor edge enhancement, specifically in the starker background patterns (a checkered hotel floor scheme, for example). Otherwise, compression artefacts are basically nonexistent.

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning

Audio


All three of the films I watched on this epic Hyams-fest featured pretty intense sound design, most of which match the eerie abstract tones of a horror movie more than the bombastic punch of a typical action movie. The sound design on Day of Reckoning is at its most creative during the POV sequences, where we experience the terrors of the film’s world from inside John’s head, or similarly subjective effects dancing through the heads of soldier-zombies as they are ‘activated.’ It’s also notable that Day of Reckoning utilizes a lot more silence, partially due to its long stretches without action, but also in an effort to create a more dynamic experience between the ambient and aggressive bits. The show-off moments include a bone-crushing truck chase wirh whip-pan directional effects, intricate embellishments, and plenty of LFE bombast, along with a few standout mano-a-mano fights with lots of whoosh and impact. All three of the Hyams movies I watched also featured musical scores by Michael Krassner, who tends to blend typical electronic rhythm and bass with creepy symphonic ambience. All three scores take a break for some heavy walls of semi-melodic sound that overtake every other element on the soundtrack. This particular score is definitely the most memorable of the three, including a few guitar motifs I actually recall after the fact. The soldier-zombie brothel scene features an aggressive throbbing beat that fills out the stereo and surround speakers nicely.

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning

Extras


The extras begin with a commentary track featuring Hyams and Mr. Dolph Lundgren, who acted as a creative consultant throughout the making of the film. This is a brisk, information-stacked track with Hyams taking point on its subject matter and Lundgren holding back for amusing anecdotes and typically intelligent quips throughout. The content doesn’t usually match the on-screen action so much as it covers the film’s concepts and themes while breaking to discuss a technically specific moment or two (usually during the more scandalous sequences). Hyams also does a fine job explaining some of the less, shall we say, ‘well-stated’ plot elements, making the occasionally nonsensical film more understandably enigmatic (though it doesn’t necessarily forgive some messy plotting). Lundgren’s honest assessments of the film are also welcome and help keep Hyams moving along his somewhat stream of consciousness approach. There’s basically no empty space or real content downtime here (aside from giggles during Lundgren and Adkins’ big fight). The only disappointments here are a lack of censorship acknowledgement (either they’re watching an uncut version or their commentary itself has been censored, because the only time the track goes entirely silent is during the bat-to-head moment).

Up next is an occasionally overly arty, multi-part, making-of documentary (1:20:20, HD). Coming into Focus starts with raw behind the scenes footage and discussion of the screenplay, casting, make-up, physical effects, stunts, and car crashes. There is No End covers the film’s climax, including concept, production/set design, choreography, props, and working with Van Damme. Production Wrap covers Van Damme’s other shooting day (which includes the complex POV shots at the beginning of the film and all the effects it entailed), and charming footage of Arlovski and Lundgren clowning around/learning choreography. Interview subjects include Hyams, make-up artist David Atherton, SPFX supervisor Everett Byrom III, second unit director Chuck Picerni, foreman Craig Byrom, production designer Nate Jones, fight choreographer Larnell Stoval, stunties David Buglione, John Ashker, and Chelsea Bruland, set dresser Roy Harrison, and actors Adkins, Dane Rhodes, Mariah Bonner, Michele Jones, David Jennsen. The extras end with trailers for other Sony releases.

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning

Overall


Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning comes genuinely close to being a B-action masterpiece. Even its shortcomings are fascinating. I’m so excited by the possibilities that I’m already fan-casting director John Hyams in my mind. Sure, it’s exciting to know he’s going to be making another Universal Soldier movie, but what about the future? They’re trying to pump life into the Terminator series again, so how about John Hyams’ Terminator: Retcon the Last Film? Marvel’s always on the lookout for affordable directors with a unique voice to bring their characters to screen, how about John Hyams’ Black Panther? He’s never made a straight horror movie either, maybe an original franchise. Perhaps Expendables 3 directed by John Hyams, rather than a hack on the level of Simon West? Whatever, I’m ready for more. This Blu-ray release is a rousing success in terms of A/V quality and features solid extras, but loses major points for only containing the censored, R-rated cut of the film.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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