Thursday, March 21, 2013

Movie Review: Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning

Devout family man John (Scott Adkins) is awakened from a peaceful sleep to find armed invaders in his home.  He confronts them in an attempt to protect his family, but is savagely beaten into a coma.  He eventually awakens, only to discover that his wife and young daughter were brutally murdered during the attack.  Plagued by nightmarish flashbacks of the event, he embarks on a mission of vengeance.   Every answer he uncovers along the way only begets a plethora of ever more frightening questions.   His quest ultimately leads into the very heart of a volatile separatist group populated by Unisols (Universal Soldiers).  John may just find the truth that he seeks, but is he equipped to face it?

Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning is the fourth “official” entry in the long running franchise (The two direct-to-video films from the late 1990’s notwithstanding).  It’s also the first such entry not to feature either Jean-Claude Van Damme or Dolph Lundgren in starring roles.  Writer/Director John Hyams again takes the reigns, just as he did with 2009’s Universal Soldier: Regeneration.  Tonally, he takes the series into much darker waters than before.  In doing so, he delivers a wholly different film than longtime fans might be expecting.   

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is essentially a feature length nightmare.  Yaron Levy’s crisp cinematography often feels obscured by slight translucent haze.  Like the main character, the viewer is made to feel as though they are wandering through a frightening dreamscape.  Many filmmakers would try to achieve such an effect through annoyingly flamboyant means.  Director John Hyams and cinematographer Yaron Levy keep things simple, using basic tricks and tools to maximum effect.  The color palette occupies the most sedate portions of the color spectrum.   This effect is accentuated by contrasts between extreme light and darkness.

Most of all, the film proves to be a superb showcase for stunt/fight choreographer Larnell Stovall.  In star Scott Adkins, Stovall has an able bodied avatar through which to push the boundaries of his craft.  There’s a wonderful clarity of purpose to each set piece.  There’s also an old school, improvisational feel to the way that weapons of various kinds are incorporated into the fights.  Every blow is infused with emotion, so as to look as if it were delivered with lethal intent.  Not a technique feels wasted, showy, or extraneous.  Even the most elaborate moves feel as though they just might work in an actual fight.  Most importantly, Stovall isn’t a slave to any particular style.  Speed ramping is employed sparingly and deceptively.    The camera remains on the periphery, as though a frightened onlooker.  Yaron Levy maintains a reasonable distance from each skirmish.     John Hyams and co-editor and Andrew Drazek treat each action sequence like a choice cut of meat.   The cinematic fat is trimmed, while the sustenance and nutrients remained intact.

Most refreshing is the overall approach to the material.  While earlier entries in this series had more of a sci-fi bend, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning veers much closer to horror and suspense.  It emanates the paranoid feel of such classic thrillers as The Manchurian Candidate and the Bourne films.  It also borrows similar elements from science fiction romps such as Total Recall and 12 Monkeys.  John doesn’t merely embark on the classic hero’s journey, hitting all of the required stopping points along the way.  He endures a full on descent into Hell.  The climax echoes that of Apocalypse Now, with Vann Damme donning face paint similar to that of Martin Sheen’s character in that film.

The film’s finale proves to be well worth the wait.  Adkins fights wave after wave of opponents while making his way through the caverns of an underground layer.  The sequence feels as though it was done in a single, unbroken take, though that is clearly not the case.  It flows together so smoothly as to feel like an extended, uninterrupted note of music.

As mentioned above, Van Damme and Lundgren are relegated to supporting roles this time out, if only to maintain fidelity with earlier entries.  Adkins is the protagonist.  While his acting chops are only marginally better than that of his costars, he compensates for any perceived shortcomings with the sheer intensity of his physical presence.  He’s believable during the quieter stretches of the film, where he’s required to project vulnerability and confusion.  That’s no small feat for someone who is considered a B-Movie action star. 

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning merits comparison to The Raid: Redemption.   While it’s neither as ferocious nor as groundbreaking, it displays the same manner of boldness.  It doesn’t hesitate to take action filmmaking into the darker recesses of the human imagination.  It portrays the titular hero’s journey as less of a thrill ride than a hellish ordeal.  The world it creates is neither fun nor enjoyable.  John Hyams and company turn the proverbial screws as tightly as possible, resulting in a surprisingly sturdy piece of work.  Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is much better than I could ever have expected.   

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