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Masterpiece Theatre: Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning

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On Film

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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.