'Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning' Hits VOD in the Brain
Action reboot revives the sci-fi action franchise as psycho-mystery
By Richard Whittaker, 1:30PM, Tue. Oct. 30, 2012
The whole point of Fantastic Fest is to be blindsided by films you don't see coming. Normally it's some unheard of director, or a microbudget genre piece with no buzz. You don't expect it to be the latest installment of the Universal Soldier franchise, available now on VOD.
The audience for the world premier of Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning probably wasn't expecting much. They were probably expecting more of what they got in 2009's overdue addition to the B-movie series, Universal Soldier: Regeneration. After all, it brings back director John Hyams, plus Regeneration's headline addition, MMA beast Andrei Arlovski, and the dual-headed powerhouse that made the original such a cult classic, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren. What they got was a surprisingly bleak, smart and multi-layered action fest, like Philip K. Dick's Apocalypse Now – with more punching.
The influences may be surprising: For Hyams, it was Gaspar Noe (who Hyams called "the master of subjective moviemaking), Michael Haneke, and the equally ambiguous narrative of Angel Heart. "There's a lot of Cronenberg," Hyams told the Fantastic Fest premiere audience. "I loved that kind of cross-genre film making that he did, and also how his movie can go from very hallucinatory, like Videodrome, to straight-up, like The Fly or Scanners."
Hyams explained that his plan was to build on the franchise by taking a whole new perspective on the original conceit. In the first film, Van Damme and Lundgren play the eponymous Universal Soldiers or UniSols: Dead soldiers resurrected through military technology as amoral, programmable killers. "What would have become of the Luc Devereaux character (played by Van Damme) if he had gone off the reservation? Basically, he would have started his own militia and he would be taking vengeance upon his oppressors." Hyams said, "The whole concept of this movie was, 'let's tell this story from the perspective of the monster.'"
In this case, that monster is John (Scott Adkins) who finds himself haunted by memories that can't possibly be his, damning evidence that he did things he couldn't have done, and visions of Devereaux. Rather than the flat exposition of the earlier films, Hyams treated this "almost like a detective story, like Marlowe or Chinatown. So we only know as much as our protagonist, and our protagonist is very confused throughout this entire movie."
That lead to the heavy use of POV – a key decision, considering the film was shot in 3D – and the heavy use of long takes. The culmination was an extremely complex chain fight, where Adkins clears a tunnel of UniSol aggressors. That kind of shot drags the audience into the action, but has huge consequences for how a fight sequence – or any sequence – is filmed. Hyams held up as an example the trip through the refugee camp in Children of Men. He said, "My understanding is that they would probably spend half a day resetting squibs, resetting all these things, and if that doesn't work, you probably start again the next day."
Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is on VOD now and will be on limited theatrical release on Nov. 30.