It’s been almost a year since I last typed up a movie review. Mostly because I haven’t seen anything that stirred me enough to do so. That changed last night, and I’m as shocked as anyone the movie was a Universal Soldier sequel.
I know. I know.
The original Universal Soldier didn’t define the Carolco/’80s action genre, but it was paradigmatic of it. (Thanks to Chuck Klosterman for writing that same sentence about Skid Row so I knew how to phrase what I wanted to say.) The only thing it really had going for it was that it had two action stars of the day starring in it. It was an answer to one of the great debates we always had as kids: who would win in a fight between…? This was an era of comics and video games such as RoboCop vs. Terminator, Batman vs. Predator, the seeds for Alien vs. Predator were planted by a piece of set dressing in 1990’s Predator 2. And kids my age constantly debated who’d conquer a battle royale between Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Van Damme, Seagal, and Lundgren. The “vs.” and video game mentality was so prevalent, I remember Roger Ebert’s complaint about Universal Soldier on his show with Gene Siskel essentially being, “The fight at the end was just with an evil version of himself, rather than a big boss fight.” Boss fights are a video game convention, but it was everywhere in pop culture! Just to give you an idea how silly/wonderful the era was to grow up in.
But I digress. The point is, in an era that could be defined by action movies, Universal Soldier was noteworthy but not great. It spawned two straight-to-video sequels that were intended to start a television series. I can imagine where that would have been broadcast. Then, in 1999, Universal Soldier: The Return was released in theaters. It ignored UniSol 2 and 3 as a direct sequel to the first movie, and it’s difficult to put into words just how bad it is. I saw it in theaters, it had a budget of $45 million, and to this day I can’t figure out how they spent that much making it. The movie was so bad, it basically killed Van Damme’s already waning career. It would be ten more years before he’d see a theatrical release (in JCVD, which was honestly wonderful).
Basically, a movie that didn’t deserve a franchise in the first place had one that was in really bad shape. Then John Hyams got Van Damme and Lundgren back together for Universal Soldier: Regeneration. A direct sequel to the original film, it ignores the other entries and updates the franchise. It cost a third of The Return (even less, accounting for inflation) but looks better, has a decent plot, really good action, and was basically just better than it should be. It wasn’t great, feels like it was made in Prague, but it was at least as good as the first film and that was good enough. It was a solid action movie.
In Day of Reckoning, things just got way out of control. How does a bad franchise wind up making a great film? The first two paragraphs of this review make a strong case for considering Reckoning to be a secret masterpiece. The reviewer states, “Reckoning is the most exceptional movie of 2012 in part because it has no right to be as good as it is” and “it was too disreputable to be talked about during awards season, but that’s okay. Anything this unusual deserves its own conversation.” Both statements are dead-on accurate. Heh. I just said “dead-on” discussing a franchise about reanimated dead soldiers. Even The New Yorker liked it.
I’m not sure if Day of Reckoning is a sequel, or a re-imagining of the entire franchise. Lundgren and Van Damme have about 5% of the screen time each, despite their lead billing. The real star of the movie is Scott Adkins. His best known role is likely Deadpool/Project XI at the climax of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but after seeing him in Reckoning I’d like to see him replace Karl Urban in every role Urban has ever played except Bones. Reckoning is part detective story as Adkins tracks down Van Damme for killing his family, but then it has turns of horror, questioning reality, and even subtext about fate vs. free will. When the action finally starts happening, it is incredible. None of the shaky camera work to hide bad choreography like the Bourne film series- the fights are well done, and the filming techniques highlight how hard they’ve worked at it. This is some of the best action I’ve seen since Tony Jaa burst on the scene with Ong-Bak. Most notable were the car chase, fight in a sporting goods store, and the entire finale after the head-drilling scene. The beginning and head drilling are horrific, the other scenes make you cheer…
It should be a dumb action movie. It should be a bad straight to video crap-fest. But it winds up being so, so good if you give it a chance. Does Adkins’ character take Van Damme’s place at the end? Are they really free, or do we always fall into a fated balance of power? If something’s not real, does that mean it doesn’t matter?
The horrific parts make this something I can’t recommend to just anybody. It’s very R-rated, and some scenes aren’t for the squeamish. But kind of like Drive, if you can handle an odd mashup of action and art (or if you like David Cronenburg movies), I think you’re the perfect audience for this flick. It may be a narrow scope of appeal (and I could be wrong about that), but within that audience this will be seen as a great movie.