Loading...

Why Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning's John Hyams Could Be Our Best Action Film Director 

Thursday, Nov 29 2012
Comments
8376168.t.jpg

If David Cronenberg and Luc Besson had a mutant baby, it still wouldn't be able to make a movie quite as hypnotically badass as Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, a fact that might be surprising to those who reasonably assumed that the Jean-Claude Van Damme–and–Dolph Lundgren–headlined franchise had died some time during the Clinton administration. It did not, spawning a few unmemorable sequels until it was brought back to kickass life, 17 years after the original, with 2009's Universal Soldier: Regeneration, a direct-to-video work of blistering action intensity and sneaky depth courtesy of John Hyams, son of respected Hollywood director Peter Hyams (Running Scared, The Presidio, Timecop), and now, on the basis of his two Universal Soldier installments, a leading candidate for the title of Best Action Director Working Today.

Melding creepy, Cronenbergian inquiries into the nature of self with full-throttle, rock-'em-sock-'em set pieces indebted to both musical showstoppers and video game boss battles, Day of Reckoning delivers excitement without insulting the intelligence, in the process proving to be — James Bond and Jack Reacher be damned — the season's finest heady aggro offering.

Hyams the younger didn't expect this career — nor the resurrection of Universal Soldier, which, in a grand meta-twist, is a franchise fixated on the ceaseless revivification of cloned characters. Despite growing up around his father's film sets and falling in love with moviemaking, Hyams originally embarked on a successful post–art school career in New York as a painter and sculptor. But film lured him.

Related Stories

"I was particularly attracted to guys like Jim Jarmusch and David Lynch, coming out of the fine-arts background," Hyams recalls. Over a few years, he made One Dog Day, an avant-garde-ish saga, only to discover that "the parts that garnered the most attention by anyone were the action scenes that I'd packed in. It wasn't really an action movie, but we had a few set pieces, and I really did those because that's what my brother and I did when we were shooting Super 8 movies."

Melding action with abstraction, however, wasn't an easy sell, and it wasn't until a decade later that Hyams snagged his big break with Universal Soldier: Regeneration, a sequel/reboot of the Van Damme/Lundgren series — of which Hyams had only a passing knowledge before coming aboard — about an army of soldiers brought back to life and turned into unstable supermen by the U.S. military. Regeneration was a relatively low-budget affair shot in Bulgaria, and it featured headliners thought past their box office prime.

But Hyams recognized it as his shot at a legitimate directorial career. "I thought, 'If I can make the best direct-to-video movie anyone's seen, then maybe that will get more notice than if I make a so-so theatrically released movie.' "

Having been consigned to "the ghetto of direct-to-video," Hyams was immediately dropped by his agents for taking the project. But his plan worked, albeit slowly, as a gradual wave of positive reviews and word-of-mouth spawned a cult following and led to the birth of an even more ambitious follow-up: Day of Reckoning. Instead of the best direct-to-video movie ever, Hyams is aiming for an uncompromising masterpiece.

Day of Reckoning picks up some years after Regeneration, with once-heroic Luc Deveraux (Van Damme) now a fearsome Colonel Kurtz–style messiah — often materializing amid buzzing TV static, like a Videodrome specter — driven to liberate his universal-soldier brethren, a race of zombie-clone warriors spread throughout society as sleeper agents.

Hyams' story charts the efforts of another universal soldier, John (impressive physical specimen Scott Adkins), to recover his memories and exact vengeance on Deveraux for killing his wife and children, an atrocity that kick-starts the story and is shot in visceral first person influenced by Gaspar Noé's Enter the Void. What follows is, even more than Regeneration, the type of arty, actiony hybrid that Hyams was born to make, blending an introspective "horror noir" vibe with fisticuffs, car chases and shoot-outs. The result puts to shame most of his behind-the-camera blockbuster-making counterparts.

"Usually action movies begin where a problem is introduced in the first 10 minutes, there's a bunch of exposition, and then the rest of the movie is spent trying to solve that problem," Hyams says. "And in this movie, I thought, 'Let's have the problem not fully reveal itself until we make our way through the story.' " The result is a twisting, turning narrative "about self-discovery, wrapped in the cloak of a revenge story," which demands constant engagement, even as it knocks viewers about with some of the most impressive action of the new century, including a climactic, single-take rampage through subterranean caverns that thrillingly assumes the fixed-camera perspective of a third-person-shooter video game.

Working with a story about the agony of physical and psychological warfare, he says, "My thought was, 'What if you had a movie where it was like Superman fighting the Incredible Hulk, but they bleed?' If there were blood in Superman, it would be horrible. To see what would happen if he punched someone in the face — it would pulverize them."

Consequently, Day of Reckoning boasts a jarring ferocity and in a variety of sequences that — like a musical — are defined by their diverse tone and construction. These signature scenes also are marked by a welcome spatial and geographic lucidity that Hyams says is born from two simple directorial decisions: using medium lenses to shoot his mayhem, which creates more intimate proximity to the action, and adhering to basic principles about screen direction (i.e., the camera moves logically from left to right and vice versa, rather than in Michael Bay–haphazard fashion).

There would be no Day of Reckoning, however, without the intimidating menace of Van Damme (whose "reptilian intensity" Hyams compares to that of Klaus Kinski) or the scary-funny charisma of Lundgren as Deveraux's evangelical right-hand man — who, as always, suffers a gruesome final fate. That recurring gag "has certainly become a great punch line," Hyams says with a laugh, though he admits that, after a while, Day of Reckoning itself plays like the grimmest of comedies.

"We were going for a very serious, very grave tone, which at a certain point to me becomes completely hilarious — when you're in the last act of this movie, and our hero is literally covered head to toe in blood like Carrie. By the time you get to the fight with Dolph, it's like the theater of the absurd."

Related Content

Now Showing

  1. Wed 16
  2. Thu 17
  3. Fri 18
  4. Sat 19
  5. Sun 20
  6. Mon 21
  7. Tue 22

    Find capsule reviews, showtimes & tickets for all films in town.

    Sponsored by Fandor

Box Office

Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes

Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, concert and dining info & more!

Slideshows

  • Nicolas Cage's 10 Best Movie Roles
    As video-on-demand continues to become the preferred route of distribution for a certain kind of independent film, much is being made of Nicolas Cage's willingness to slum for a paycheck, with recent examples including already-forgotten, small-screen-friendly items like Seeking Justice, Trespass, Stolen, and The Frozen Ground. (His character names in these projects -- Will Gerard, Kyle Miller, Will Montgomery, and Jack Halcombe -- are as interchangeable as the titles of the films.) Aside from citing the obvious appeal of doing work for money (a defense Cage himself brought up in a recent interview with The Guardian), it's also possible to back Cage by acknowledging the consistency with which he's taken on "serious" roles over the years.

    David Gordon Green's Joe, which hits limited release this weekend (more details on that here), marks the latest instance of this trend, with Cage giving a reportedly subdued performance as an ex-con named Joe Ransom. In that spirit, we've put together a rundown of some of the actor's finest performances, all of which serve as proof that, though his over-the-top inclinations may make for a side-splitting YouTube compilation, Cage has amassed a career that few contemporary actors can equal. This list is hardly airtight in its exclusivity, so a few honorable mentions ought to go out to a pair of Cage's deliriously uneven auteur collaborations (David Lynch's Wild at Heart, Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes), 1983's Valley Girl, 1987's Moonstruck, and Alex Proyas's Knowing (a favorite of the late Roger Ebert).

    --Danny King
  • Ten Enduring Conspiracy Thrillers
    With the approaching release this week of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, many critics, including L.A. Weekly’s own Amy Nicholson, have noted the film’s similarities (starting with the obvious: Robert Redford) to the string of conspiracy thrillers that dominated American cinema during the 1970s. With that in mind, we’ve compiled a list of ten of the most enduring entries in the genre -- most of them coming from the ‘70s, but with a few early-‘80s holdouts added in for good measure. This is by no means an exclusive list, and more recent films like Roger Donaldson’s No Way Out (1987), Jacques Rivette’s Secret Defense (1998), Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State (1998), Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana (2005), and Redford’s own The Company You Keep (2012) speak to how well the genre has sustained itself over time. Words by Danny King.
  • Behind the Scenes of Muppets Most Wanted
    "The endurance of the Muppets isn't just the result of the creative skills of Henson and collaborators like Frank Oz, or of smart business decisions, or of sheer dumb luck," writes this paper's film critic Stephanie Zacharek in her review of Muppets Most Wanted. "It's simply that the Muppets are just ever so slightly, or maybe even totally, mad. Man, woman, child: Who can resist them? Even TV-watching cats are drawn to their frisky hippety-hopping and flutey, gravely, squeaky, squawky voices." Go behind the scenes with the hippety-hopping Muppets with these images.

    Read our full Muppets Most Wanted movie review.

Now Trending