‘Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning’ Is a Direct-to-Video Masterpiece
An action movie premise with the heart of a horror film
by MATTHEW GAULT
When filmmaker James Cameron turned Ridley Scott’s horror movie classic Alien into an action movie franchise, critics and the box office rewarded him with praise and cash. When filmmaker John Hyams turned action film franchise Universal Soldier into a horror masterpiece, no one much paid attention.
Which is a shame. Aside from a few stellar stories at The Paris Review and The Atlantic, Hyams’ film slipped under the radar back in 2012. Let’s change that. Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is an excellent movie and an action-horror classic.
This isn’t a joke.
Roland Emmerich’s 1992 Universal Soldier stars Jean-Claude Van Damme as Luc Deveraux, an American soldier at the end of his tour of duty in Vietnam when he and his squad leader gun each other down. The Army retrieves the bodies but reports the men missing in action.
Years later, a shadowy Pentagon group uses their bodies to jumpstart its Universal Soldier program. Mad scientists strip the two men’s memories, turn them into super soldiers and send them to fight terrorists. Things go to Hell in typical action movie style, and Dolph Lundgren and Van Damme proceed to tear ass through four movies.
Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is the last and best film in the franchise. It follows a guy named John, who is awakened in the middle of the night by his daughter’s plaintive plea to search the house for monsters.
He finds them. Luc Deveraux and a pair of balaclava clad thugs execute John’s wife and child, then leave him for dead.
John wakes up in the hospital nine months later, unable to walk without a cane and full of questions about the mysterious thugs who beat him down and murdered his family. It’s a standard action movie setup that tricks the viewer into thinking they’re about to watch a revenge thriller with a satisfying beat-down ending.
Day of Reckoning does have a satisfying beat-down ending, but it’s so much more than that.
As written, the script is standard stuff: (1) Bad guy fridges the hero’s family, (2) hero goes on a killing spree to avenge family and (3) get answers. But Day of Reckoning is far weirder in its execution than it needed to be.
The perspective of the film is important, and the opening plays out almost entirely from John’s first person perspective. Cuts to outside shots are brief — just enough to display his horrifying treatment at the hands of his captors.
It’s as if the audience is witnessing a memory. The lighting is off, the music is too loud and the screen flickers in way that hurts the eyes. It’s all designed to discomfort the viewer. When the camera finally pulls back, giving the audience a wide view of John healing in a hospital, we feel as if we’ve been traumatized with him.
That discomfort lingers throughout the film and sets a tone that’s not like a normal action flick … but more like a horror movie. When Lundgren gives an inspirational speech to a group of zombie soldiers early in the film, he finishes on a high note then turns around, his face full of despair and confusion.
A strip club and a brothel — typically beautiful, clean and sexy in action films — are grotesque and uncomfortable in Day of Reckoning. Zombie soldiers choke women during sex neither seems to enjoy. A heavy sheen of sweat covers them, making them seem sticky to the touch. It’s so sweaty and filthy I thought I could smell the place.
The music cuts staccato spikes into the listener’s brain. Parts of the movie strobe uncomfortably. Fluorescent lights buzz and flicker like the viewer is on LSD. Every color is just wrong. Characters communicate in looks instead of dialogue, and much of the plot doesn’t make sense until the end — and even then only barely.
Day of Reckoning’s plot reminded me of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, where the story ambles through mysterious twists until both the audience and protagonist have no idea what’s going on. And much like Chandler’s novel, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning leaves the protagonist and viewer to make their own conclusions.
It’s as if a soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder wandered into Silent Hill.
Van Damme haunts the film rather than stars in it. He and Lundgren barely feature — they’re monsters at the end of a psychologically torturous maze. Day of Reckoning holds only a tangential connection to the wider franchise. It has Deveraux, zombie soldiers and nightmarish action scenes … but that’s about it. And there’s a good chance this Deveraux isn’t our Deveraux.
Despite director Hyams dedication to doing something different, he still delivers on what most people come to this franchise for — bad-ass action sequences. Day of Reckoning’s action scenes are so brutal that the MPAA rated the initial cut of the film NC-17. I tracked down an unrated cut and it’s easy to see why.
Day of Reckoning doesn’t go in for the up-close shaky cams of Jason Bourne and Nolan-era Batman films. Hyams pulls the camera way back and lets the audience experience the full weight of zombie soldiers ripping into each other. And oh how they brutalize each other!
Soldiers lose precious body parts. Blood arcs through the air and baseball bats connect with skulls in a satisfying, crunching thud. Imagine if a ’70s grindhouse thriller had an expert fight coordinator and a competent director.
Unlike a lot of other action films, the fight scenes in Day of Reckoning have a weight I can’t describe. Maybe I’m jaded by the rubbery, CGI enhanced madness of the latest run of superhero films, but when John punches someone in Day of Reckoning it has a substance and a sound I attribute to action classics such as John Wick and The Raid.
The beat down in the sports store is a particular favorite. Watch out for flying bowling balls.
Hyams also peppered his movie with visual references to dozens of other films. Van Damme looks and acts like Marlon Brando’s Col. Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. David Lynch’s sense of place flutters in every shot of the dirty, rural South.
The plot echoes The Manchurian Candidate and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It’s crazy how packed tight the two-hour film is.
Oh, and it’s only got 500 words of dialogue … tops. It’s a weird, wonderful wild trip and I’m glad I sat down to watch it. Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is a masterpiece.
Will someone please give Hyams the cash to make another film?