Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Universal Solder: Day of Reckoning (B-)

Replete with plot points involving cloning, mind control, false memories, superhuman soldiers, shady government dealings, screwdriver lobotomies, underground brotherhoods, and regenerating limbs, it's an accomplished feat that John Hyams' fourth sequel to the unlikely "Universal Soldier" franchise doesn't come off as a hastily assembled, ludicrous jumble of insanity. A series packed with as much visceral energy and intensity as offbeat sci-fi elements, this installment pushes usual protagonist Luc Deveraux (most commonly portrayed by Jean-Claude Van Damme) off to the sidelines, and chooses to focus on a new recruit to the Universal Solder program, played by Scott Adkins. Also returning is Dolph Lundgren as St. Andrew Scott, the initial antagonist of the original film. With the two reigning champions of direct-to-video action flicks reuniting for an over-the-top, testosterone infused, gore extravaganza, all director Hyans essentially needs to do is shoot a couple of well choreographed fight scenes, and call it quits to deliver the grindhouse masterpiece college frat boys will inevitably be able to quote verbatim. And while the film doesn't necessarily reach such great heights when compared to ordinary Hollywood action pictures, it certainly crosses this low bar with flying colors.

The greatest triumph of the movie surprisingly isn't its grandiose, gore splattered action sequences, but rather the screenplay of John Hyams, Doug Magnuson, and John Greenhalgh. While admittedly some elements of the film are clich├ęd and corny beyond belief, for every one generic writing choice, there're at least five narrative curveballs to make up for it. Juggling all of the ideas listed in the opening sentence  while still allowing time for multiple fight scenes is pretty incredible, and can be considered an even greater accomplishment when realizing that exposition needs to be filled in for newcomers, and even more time must be set aside for character development. Besides a small writing credit for Hyams, and a sole TV writing credit for Magnuson, none of the writers had any official experience writing screenplays before now. If a reunion was put into place for Hyams' next picture, hopefully this team would be able to soar to even greater heights than the already lofty ones featured here.

When regarding the action sequences, it's difficult to think of another film as bipolar with its visual style and fight choreography. It opens with its, by far, most memorable scene: An unbroken take of a home invasion with gruesome consequences, shot entirely in the first person perspective. It's a brutally realistic, unrelentingly dark, slap-in-the-face way to start the film; seemingly a direct statement from the director that this installment will be the "Christopher Nolan-ification"of the franchise. Out with the old 90's style dumb action, and in with the new hyper realism technique of modern action filmmaking. However, after this opening sequence, the new style is slowly dropped in favor of a vision far closer to Zack Snyder. The violence gradually becomes more stylized as the film progresses, until the final fight, which more closely resembles a Boss Battle from a video game than anything else. It's ADHD directing and editing: Quickly growing tired of one filmmaking style, and then moving on to another.

The acting isn't all together very noticeable, other than a memorably loony performance from Lundgren as one of the leaders of an underground legion of Unisols. Though he only has around 15 minutes of screentime, he gives one of the most berserk acting jobs I've ever seen. Also, despite his huge presence on the film's cover Van Damme is only on screen for approximately 10 minutes, but probably less. Deveraux is seen only in brief flashbacks, and a final scene toward the conclusion.

While the action flick doesn't necessarily deliver anymore than it would based off its title, a more than solid script and some memorable action sequences make it more than worth anyone's time. Though I doubt it will have very much success in its brief theatrical run, it should provide solid entertainment for those who inevitably stumble across it when on DVD.

Grade: B-

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