[30 November 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
See! They’re everywhere!
—Sergeant Andrew Scott, Universal Soldier
Once upon a time, Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren) was a Marine sergeant in Vietnam. Back then, in 1969, he was mad, stringing human ears onto a necklace, psychotic or traumatized, conveniently opposed to his designated archenemy, the very nice Marine Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme), Upon their deaths in This opposition blossomed after they were both killed in country, their carcasses zipped into body bags and sent back to the States, where they were re-engineered into Unisols, soldiers who feel no pain and do what they’re told.
Until they don’t. Even if you haven’t seen Universal Soldier, you might guess how this plot goes, how these perfect workers rebel, and then, in subsequent theatrical releases, return and regenerate. Now, in Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning—in select theaters and on demand—Luc and Scott come back, again, sort of. Scott is most recognizable, still mad, still sure that he’s surrounded by enemies and that his only recourse is to annihilate all of them. This time, though reunion with Luc is considerably less antagonistic than it has been previously; in fact, he’s become a believer in Luc as a savior for ex Unisols.
At least this is what Scott tells Magnus (Andrei Arlovski), a fellow Unisol who’s been programmed by the government much as Scott once was. Now, as Magnus rampages through a Unisol facility—complete with shadows and hookers and soldiers hard at it—Scott stops him and, rather than blowing his head off, offers a “gift.” Magnus’ zap-zappy vision screen turns staticky as Scott looms before it and promises, “You will be free. You will serve him from this moment on. You’re no longer a slave to the government, from this moment on, your mind is your own.”
Except that it’s not. You won’t have to think too long about Scott’s speech here to spot its contradictions, its delirious allusions to Orwellian doublespeak. Scott is much the same as he ever was, here again spewing what he’s been programmed to spew, where he has the capacity to believe it or not. Magnus—who doesn’t have much to say at any point in this film—blinks a couple of times and falls in, following along after Scott over to another (or maybe the same) facility, where he meets Luc.
Sort of. Luc at this point isn’t someone you meet so much as you observe. He appears variously in Day of Reckoning, more or less embodying that titular concept, looming, odious, bald in an expressly Kurtzian way. He looms and menaces, he’s Van Damme post- JCVD, wrecked and respected, gloomy and absurd. At one point, Luc even appears with his head made up so it is split into black and white halves, top and bottom. If the 1992 Luc was full of hope and yearning, determined to recover his past and proclaim his own identity apart from his engineering, the Luc two decades later is all too aware of what’s in store for him, that no identity will save him, that he’s a cog in a system that shape-shifts to ensure his usefulness. Luc now isn’t disappointed or desperate or even bitter. Luc now is tremendous, an idea that even he can’t grasp.
Appropriately, Day of Reckoning delivers this mess of a non-man’s story in preposterous, diverting fragments, beginning with the first time you see Luc in this movie, as a member of a home invading crew. They’re all three wearing black, they’re all three hiding their faces with ski masks, And then, just before he kills the innocents who matter here only as motivation, blond wife and child to yet another soldier, John (Scott Adkins).
This introduction to John establishes this film’s remarkable thinking about its generic conventions. Apart from the usual POV limits—you see what John sees as he makes his way through his home in the middle of the night, guessing he’s not going to find the “monsters’ his daughter has sent him to find—it sets up John’s relationship to Luc, a victim in pursuit of his own monster and figment.
John wakes up following this scene in a hospital, where he’s debriefed by an Agent Gorman (Rus Blackwell), claiming to be with the FBI. You don’t believe him for a second, but follow along as John might, because John is the emotional focus of Day of Reckoning. This means, as it always does in the franchise, that he performs the action scenes. The Universal Solider movies, like so many action titles before them, develop character by violence—ferocious, bloody, wily—and here again, John delivers and endures lots of it, with Magnus, with Scott and Luc, and even with himself.
As John comes to see what you already know, he’s advised explicitly (Scott reveals the plot that most appeals to him, that the ex Unisols are now infiltrating humans, like replicants or body snatchers: “We live among them like ghosts,” he snarls, “Biding our time, waiting for the moment when our oppressors will be forced to kneel before us and pay for their sins”) and indirectly (Luc, like Agent Gorman—could his name be more obvious?—invite him to seek personal vengeance).
But John’s value is not his thinking. His value is his dead-on articulation of each emotion in a kick or a thwack. Action stars may gesture toward individual personalities and even entertain, but they’re always ways to get to car chases and shootouts and explosions, they’re interchangeable and replicable, like Unisols. Day of Reckoning knows that and it knows you know it too, which helps the movie seem minimally meta even as its more impressive brilliance lies in the fact that it is maximally well constructed.
From scene to scene—in a strip club, on a highway, in an abandoned cabin, in a secret headquarters, and, my favorite, in a sporting goods store—the movie offers one instance of major mayhem after another. These are set pieces, of course, and the film might be described as a string of plot events that lead you from one to another. But more than that, these set pieces are terrifically choreographed, perversely composed, sometimes nonsensical, always noisy. John makes his way from one to the other slowly—you’re unfailingly a step ahead of him—but this makes the structure that much more striking, as you might contemplate each moment, the long, long tracking shots in hallways, the low angles on bumpers, the nostalgic flashbacks and the disturbing close-ups of drills into bloody skulls, not to mention all the shotguns and pickup trucks and boats on bayous.
Day of Reckoning is an action movie that’s as much about each frame as it is about each punch and thwack and gunshot, not to mention that devastating black and white makeup job on Luc’s bald head. That doesn’t make it unique. But it does make it remarkably fun to watch.