The Daily

On Film

Masterpiece Theatre: Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning

December 24, 2013 | by

Jean-Claude-Van-Damme-in-Universal-Soldier-Day-of-Reckoning-2012-Movie-Image-600x398

All this week, we are bringing you some of your favorite posts from 2013. Happy holidays!

My favorite movie of last year—the best movie of last year, I would argue—wasn’t nominated for any Academy Awards. It wasn’t even part of the conversation. That’s because the movie is Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. You might think I’m just being ironic, that I’m taking pleasure in saying what no one else is saying. The latter may be true but the former is not. This movie is a secret masterpiece.

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is a movie Werner Herzog, David Lynch, and Shivers-era David Cronenberg might make if they teamed up to shoot a Bourne knockoff in Louisiana on a shoestring budget. This thought experiment works even better if we imagine Gaspar Noé dropping by the editing room later on.

The actual director, John Hyams, has a distinctive voice and style. He and his cinematographer, Yaron Levy, create a nightmare-scape of blighted semisuburbia through which the hero drifts like a damaged samurai, occasionally getting sucked into maelstroms of berserk, finger-hacking, foot-severing violence. The compositions are beautiful. The cheapness of the sets only enhances the lush and lurid atmosphere; everything seems hypnotic and dreamlike. Interiors look like Gregory Crewdson photographs and exteriors look like William Egglestons. This is not your standard VOD action movie.

Day of Reckoning is the sixth installment in the critically disregarded sci-fi/action franchise that begins with 1992’s Universal Soldier. The original starred Jean-Claude van Damme and Dolph Lundgren as reanimated military men with stony expressions, superior combat skills, and the ability to absorb tremendous amounts of punishment. I have never seen it. I did see Universal Soldier: Regeneration, the fourth sequel, which John Hyams also directed. Regeneration is not as deliriously weird and memorable as Day of Reckoning, but it does have a terse, haunting Dolph Lundgren monologue (really) that precedes his character’s excellent death scene.

In Day of Reckoning, which is only distantly related to the other Universal Soldier movies, a man named John wakes up to find a trio of black-clad thugs in his home who brutally assault him and murder his family. The entire opening sequence is shot exclusively in John’s POV, creating the disquietingly immersive sense that awful things are coming and when they do, you will be forced to look right at them. Maybe Noé dropped by the set, too.

Once he recovers, John searches for the killers, but at every turn, he encounters baffling irregularities. Strangers seem to know him, even hate or fear him for mysterious reasons. He gets an ominous, rambling phone call from an unfamiliar voice: “They’ve been calling ... I don’t know what it’s about ... I think they’re watching me, man, I don’t think I’m safe ... ” A bearded, silent plumber stalks him with an axe. At one point, he has a traumatizing strobe-pulse vision in which the plumber transforms into Jean-Claude van Damme. Audience members with epilepsy, consider yourselves warned.

This is less an action film than a horror film. The fight scenes unfold not to the usual pulse-pounding score but to a low, queasy drone, like background noise from Twin Peaks. The primary sounds are the wild, guttural bellows of the combatants as they hack and bludgeon and lunge at each other like beasts. These are not exciting scenes. They’re grim and mesmerizing.

But the movie is more than just a feast for connoisseurs of composition and atmosphere. It both invites and supports a close reading. Eventually (and unsurprisingly) John learns that his past is not as he remembers it, and his motives and actions are not entirely his own. In Day of Reckoning, the history of the individual is an alterable commodity, subject to manipulation by both the state and those who oppose it. There is no such thing as free will, the movie suggests; the closest thing to it is the self-delusion that you have achieved it.

At the same time, John’s search for his family’s killers folds back on itself to become an investigation into his own identity and then a radical recalibration of his moral code; in addition to being a political parable, the story is a subtle and elegant portrait of a consciousness maturing from psychological childhood to adulthood. When he realizes his memories are untrustworthy, he faces a climactic choice (much like the one faced by the hero of Park Chan-wook’s revenge classic Oldboy, with which Day of Reckoning shares certain themes and directorial fetishes) about the most fundamental of human questions: Who am I? How should I live? Which fiction should I embrace, and how much truth can I tolerate?

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is the most exceptional movie of 2012 in part because it has no right to be as good as it is. I begrudge nothing to films like Silver Linings Playbook and Django Unchained (which I loved and saw three times) when I say that, given their extraordinary pedigrees and healthy budgets, they had at least a fair shot at being excellent. On the other hand, all John Hyams had to do was get van Damme and Lundgren in the same place at the same time and string together a few coherent fight scenes, and he would have exceeded expectations. Yet somehow he made a strange, haunting, sometimes even beautiful odyssey that lingered with me more than any American movie in recent memory. Despite a few surprised critical notices (like this and this), it was too disreputable to be talked about during awards season, but that’s okay. Anything this unusual deserves its own conversation.

Nick Antosca is a novelist and screenwriter living in Los Angeles.  His story collection The Girlfriend Game will be published this summer and a novella, The Hangman's Ritual, will be published in the fall.

 

16 COMMENTS

12 Comments

  1. GZ | February 15, 2013 at 11:56 pm

    I doubt I could love this film as much as our critic but I found his review very refreshing and hope to see more like it on TPR blog.

  2. Todd Grimson | February 16, 2013 at 9:55 am

    Scott Adkins as John, in Day of Reckoning, with a minimum of dialogue, is in this offbeat movie more existentially or even “soulfully” expressive than any rational viewer ought have any reason to expect. It’s possible some of the effects here are accidental, or because of rushed or unusual circumstances on the set or in the editing.

    Yet somehow this ends up the kind of movie in which a visit to the Red Room in Twin Peaks would not be out of place, John meeting The Man From Another Place (played by Michael Anderson), who would speak once again in his twice-reversed language before dancing off to the slow Fake Jazz of buried eternal swingers, while the lights begin to strobe — signaling a slippage from one plane of existence to another — yes, this kind of scene would fit right into this odd Louisiana which resembles a backwoods Bulgaria where fingers cut off soon grow back onto their hands.

    David Lynch once said about the Red Room: “It gets slippery in there.” He didn’t then know he might also be talking about the seventh film in a little-noticed action franchise which in this instance deals with how our memories comprise the artifacts we cling to and desperately hope to save as the cinematic “stuff” of dreams out of which we week to compose our last flickering gasps of self.

  3. Nigel | February 17, 2013 at 11:54 pm

    I’m very grateful to you for bringing this to my attention. I’m eager to see it immediately. I agree with GZ above – this is exactly the kind of review that’s needed in the world, and I’m stoked to see it on the Paris Review blog.

  4. Fernando | February 18, 2013 at 1:34 pm

  5. HORHAY LOUISE BORHAZE | February 19, 2013 at 10:22 am

    A bad, overrated film. This chap thinks he is clever for picking this, but a lot of writers on genre film had this tapped as a classic. It sounds cool to apply Lynch sauce to crappy direct-to-video action, but…watch it. Try to. Not so good!

  6. Tony | February 19, 2013 at 10:51 am

    It’s unfortunate that grammatical errors have become so commonplace in articles published online. I was thoroughly enjoying this otherwise engaging and well-written review until I hit this bump in the road:

    “the history of the individual is a alterable commodity”

    “A alterable?” Really? Aaargh!

  7. GZ | February 19, 2013 at 1:01 pm

    ‘Borhaze’ and I agree, Day of Reckoning is not for us. Having said that – objects mistaken for art, trash that fascinates, is most worthy of critical analysis.

    Many current classics once belonged to the former category. I doubt Reckoning worthy of such resurrection but there is a danger and a tedium in sticking to the acceptable set.

    Lynch is universally overused as a point of comparison but even he has produced trash and glop. Let’s not neglect the inverse – that fonts of glop can yield worthy objects (for study if not veneration).

  8. CTRL-ALT | February 22, 2013 at 12:52 pm

    This is the fourth or fifth ecstatic review I have read of this film. After the third review I decided I should check out the film and see for myself. I can now, with a clean conscience, report that this movie is garbage. The acting is atrocious, as is the script. Yeah, Hyams has a few aesthetic tricks up his sleeve, but so what, so do lots of hacks. I think a lot of critics are creaming their slacks because of the Euro-stylistics Hyams has cribbed, as if nodding to Herzog and Noe and God knows who else is enough to elevate trash above its station. It’s not.

  9. Gabbi Lane | April 14, 2013 at 12:12 am

    I am a huge JCVD film and looked forward to this movie. I was completely disappointed. To say that it was dreadful is being kind. Please don’t waste 2 hours of your precious time on this.

  10. Gabbi Lane | April 14, 2013 at 12:13 am

    *fan not film lol sorry about my typo

  11. David Dionne | May 6, 2013 at 11:14 pm

    Loved it, purely mesmerizing. Also loved Django.

    Fantastic review, thank you for posting it.

  12. Argh | June 6, 2013 at 11:29 pm

    Quite the pretentious responses here, well I liked this review. I am able to see this movie for what it is, yet it still stuck with me afterwords. I’m sure I like all the same things plenty of readers do here, but the responses will unfortunately keep me away from the rest of this website.

4 Pingbacks

  1. […] a talent which has as yet remained under the mainstream's radar.  Discerning critics have compared his work on the "Universal Soldier"-series with that of influential cult directors like John […]

  2. […] Paris Review reviews Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. Favourably. That’s the sixth movie in the Universal Soldier franchise, if you’re […]

  3. […] that I think has been unduly praised by the movie’s otherwise totally justified champions (like this one and this one). However, I would level the same charge at a movie like Holy Motors that enjoyed a […]

Leave a Comment