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, falling in love with movie-making, Hyams originally embarked on a successful post-art-school career in New York as a painter and sculptor. But film lured him.
"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—which Hyams had only a passing knowledge of 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 DTV 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 cell agents. Hyams's 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 that 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" that 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, "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 are also 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 punchline," 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."