A special event. That’s the easiest way to explain the feeling of the night moments before the screening of the latest Universal Soldier film. It was a very charming Sunday evening as I spent some time outside following the screening of Lloyd the Conqueror, the first film I had taken in that day that was an enjoyable romp staring the likes of Brian Posehn and Mike Smith. Shortly there after, I took a seat in the balcony of the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema to enjoy a night of action care of the Toronto After Dark Film Fest. The screening of this film kicked off with a little theatrical presentation on stage as festival programer Peter Kuplowsky, after introducing Writer/Director John Hyams to the stage to introduce his film, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, dressed in the outfit Jean Claude Van Damme wore in The 1994 “Classic” Street Fighter, paraphrased his rousing speech to the troops from that movie to discuss the fall of the classic action film. What followed was a short film entitled Bio-Cop, a new movie from the mind of Steven Kstanski (Man-Borg) that spoofs the trailers of many cop-based action films of the eighties. This series of events created the perfect energy to watch a shlocky action film of the Universal Soldier variety. But instead of the shlock that I was expecting, we got something totally different.
Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is a continuation of the cloning storyline set up in Regeneration, the last Universal Soldier film that was released in 2009. But since the story of Luc Deveraux (Van Damme’s character) was wrapped up in the last film, this story presents us with a new protagonist: John, played by Scott Atkins, an amnesiac who remembers only that Luc Deveraux killed his family. He’s out for revenge and is set on the mission of finding Deveraux and killing him. This is no easy task as Deveraux has broken away and begun to form an army of his own comprised of UNISOL clones, including the one and only Dolph Lundgren. In what can only be described as a David Lynch style of storytelling, John must follow a very loose string of clues in order to hunt down Deveraux to take his revenge…..a revenge that may be hollow. There is more to this plot but not as easily summarized here. I never thought I’d say this about a Van Damme film but this movie is easier experienced than explained. The lines between protagonist and antagonist are blurred, focusing more on the themes of mind control, manufactured creation and authoritarianism. A character that is known as The Plumber (played by Kristopher Van Varenberg) is one such character that is not easily explained through simple good and evil tropes. A government UNISOL operative, he’s activated and brought into action to take out Devereaux and his crew. He’s then “awakened” by Dolph Lundgren, who shows him that Devereaux wants him to be free of government tampering. He then works for them and hunts John. He has no lines. He mostly stares and fights. I found him the most compelling character in the film and wished they had focused on him instead of the John character. Yet technically, he’s suppose to be the badguy? This genre bending and story manipulation is interesting, but only to a point.
The concept and plot for Day of Reckoning is solid. There’s fertile ground for a multitude of stories by the film’s end but it’s execution lacks any definitive choice. During the Q&A after the screening, John Hyams addressed this fact. He explained that he wanted a more ambiguous tale to be told where there are no real influences of the director on the audience. You as the viewer are left with the brutality of each scene with no manipulation. This is evident in the editing and the scoring of the film, most notibly in the action sequences. The rythm to the fights feels off, almost like one would expect the hits to fall before they actually do. The music is more ambient, used as background noise to fill the silence as opposed to lending to the visuals. It makes for a very disorienting film. Whether or not this was the intention of the filmmaker, the flow of the piece really hurts from this approach. Some scenes go on for far too long, including the fight scenes. With a running time of 1hour and 13 minutes, it feels more like it’s over 2 hours. This could’ve easily been fixed with a tighter editing job but may’ve gotten rid of the desired effect of the director. The disjointedness of the film is saved throughout by some stand out performances from two individuals: the afore mentioned Plumber character and Dolph Lundgren, reprising his role as Andrew Scott. Lundgren appears in 3 key scenes and seems to be the only one in this film who’s able to rise above the heaviness of the story and actually have a little fun. Hearing him say “That’s the spirit, soldier!” once again woke me up a bit after seeing Atkins take down nameless thug after nameless thug for what appeared to be an eternity. Unfortunately, Lundgren’s time is short in the film. For the most part, the action of the 3rd act is very repetitious. Even the fight scene with Van Damme is lacking in excitement. The attempts to transcend being just an action film caused the actual action to suffer for the most part.
While I am impressed that Hyams wanted to tell a more cerebral story ala The Manchurian Candidate, his approach in pacing outshown his actual story causing distraction more than insight. As I mentioned before, there are a lot of cool concepts here, which I’m sure will be better examined in future films should they decide to continue the franchise. However, I feel this film tries to do too much and tries too hard to do it. While I don’t think this film is for everyone, I will recommend it to those who are looking for an alternative to your typical action sci-fi film. But if you’re looking for a big, crazy, shlocky action akin to the the original Universal Soldier, you might want to steer clear.
For more info on Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, check out their website.
To check the schedule for the rest of film screening, go to torontoafterdark.com.
And if you’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!
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