Review: Toronto After Dark Film Festival – Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning
Even though it was released in the early 1990s, Universal Soldier (1992) has all the hallmarks of an over-the-top 80s blockbuster: manly stars, excessive violence (which is sometimes uncomfortably sexualized), and a ridiculous premise. The film concerned the cryogenically frozen bodies of Vietnam veterans being reanimated thirty years after they were killed in action as a near-unstoppable programmed task force. Among these soldiers, called UniSols, were Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren). Deveraux and Scott had confronted each other before in Vietnam–Scott had become psychologically traumatized and had taken to torturing and killing innocent civilians. Deveraux attempted unsuccessfully to stop him. Their latent memories begin to resurface during a hostage crisis, and they eventually continue their conflict.
It is somewhat surprising that the first official sequel (not counting the rip-off Canadian TV movies) didn’t appear until 1999; Universal Soldier was a significant hit when it was released. With Universal Soldier: The Return (1999) a relative failure at the box office and amongst fans, it would take another ten years before Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009) would be released direct-to-video and reunite stars Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren. While that entry was closer in spirit to the 1992 original, the latest chapter, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012), feels as if it could have emerged from the 1970s; director John Hyams has attempted to create a gritty, film noir-ish action movie that intends to challenge audiences as much as it entertains them–imagine, say, the child of Universal Soldier and Taxi Driver (1976). While admirable, Hyams’ attempt hasn’t exactly succeeded.
The story is compelling: John (Scott Adkins) witnesses Luc Deveraux murder his wife and daughter. He sets out to find Deveraux, and along the way discovers the truth of the murders and himself as well. While interesting, the direction of the plot is easy to predict if one has seen Universal Soldier: Regeneration. Because Hyams tries hard to create a genuine mystery at the heart of his film, the predictability of it undermines his efforts. Hyams also makes use of some annoying techniques to achieve a sombre, mysterious tone. During dialogue scenes, characters tend to speak and move as slowly as possible. I suppose Hyams is trying to give his film a significant thematic weight. While I don’t deny that Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning raises some interesting questions as to the fluid nature of identity, there aren’t any aspects of the story that are particularly “deep.” And so the deliberate pacing (and Adkins’ single stoic facial expression) renders the material pretty ridiculous–one is compelled to chuckle rather than contemplate. Furthermore, the series of pseudo-portentous dialogue scenes makes the film rather boring at times. A few more interesting twists in the plot could have livened up the proceedings considerably.
Given that Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is a low-budget production, it is quite an achievement on Hyams’ part that the action sequences are as well-executed as they are. They are the film’s saving grace–well, except for the lame, uninteresting car chase. And truth be told, the repetitive slow motion during the most intense moments also becomes somewhat tiresome. But for the most part, Hyams has engineered some great action set-pieces that are primarily concerned with intense visceral impact. Characters don’t simply walk away from fights with bruises–they lose entire appendages or have implements jammed into their bodies in extremely gory fashion. The bloody special effects are excessive and grandiose. Truth be told, they feel like they should have been in a film with a slightly lighter tone. That being stated, each set-piece earned a rousing cheer from the Toronto After Dark crowd at the screening, so the gory effects do seem to work, and they are very convincing. What isn’t as convincing is the film’s so-called grit. While Hyams has attempted to make a film with what can be described as a “dirty” aesthetic, his efforts are undermined by the digital cinematography. It is simply too crisp and sharp to support Hyams’ desired tone effectively.
Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning ultimately doesn’t work. It’s tone clashes with its overt gore, and its thematic depth is sorely lacking. The saving grace of the night was an extended trailer for Astron-6′s new schlock film Bio-Cop. It was even gorier than the main feature, but it knew exactly how to balance that excessive violence with a good-natured sense of fun. In just five minutes, Bio-Cop likely ended up being everything Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning should have been. I can’t wait for that full feature. And I’ll probably avoid any further Universal Soldier movies if the same filmmakers are responsible.
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