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From the Wire: The Undying Power of the 'Universal Soldier' Series

Criticwire By Matt Singer | Criticwire November 16, 2012 at 3:51PM

A deep examination of the inexplicable endurance of a very bad film series that gets better with each installment.
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"Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning."
"Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning."

With my schedule as busy as it is, I rarely get to see a new movie more than once. According to my nerdishly obsessive records, I've only seen three 2012 titles twice this calendar year: "Haywire," "Cloud Atlas," and "Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning." The former two titles were both for work: "Haywire" to write a piece about its hidden political subtext, "Cloud Atlas" to refresh my memory before leading a discussion in the film class I teach on weekends. The latter was the only one I rewatched for sheer pleasure. I kind of love this movie.

I saw "Day of Reckoning" for the first time at Fantastic Fest, where I reviewed it and interviewed my man-crush its star, Scott Adkins. At that point, I liked the film "for what it is" -- the latest installment in an inexplicably long-running franchise. On second viewing and additional reflection, I like its hypnotically strange vision of a universe where life, death, love, and identity are all utterly meaningless even more. All the bizarre off-putting choices -- an incoherent plot, ploddingly deliberate pacing through the first and second acts -- felt more deliberate, and more in keeping with director John Hyams unsettlingly lysergic imagery (they also make a bit more sense once you know the film's twisty ending). I've heard people compare "Day of Reckoning" to David Lynch -- and how often can you say that about a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie? Other than that one time I got super-drunk and tried to connect "Replicant" and "Dune," not too often.

One of the people comparing "Day of Reckoning" to Lynch is Grantland's Alex Pappademas, who has penned a truly outstanding piece of criticism about the film, and about the "Universal Soldier" franchise as a whole. Tracing the franchise's hilarious knotty chronology, Pappademas makes a case for the two most recent "Universal Soldier"s as a powerful statement about the creeping mortality of its stars, Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren:

"Basically, the 'Universal Soldier' franchise now exists in a state of perpetual reboot. It's a series of movies about unstoppable machines with fuzzy memories of their own past that is itself an unstoppable machine with a fuzzy memory of its own past. 'Reckoning' is either the fourth installment or the sixth one, but it doesn't really matter. When Lundgren and Van Damme finally square off at the end of 'Regeneration,' this sense of lost time gives their conflict an existentially tragic dimension. They have to kill each other, but they don't remember why. Lundgren's only in the movie for a little while — you get the sense that both these films have been constructed so as to not unduly tax the stamina of their fiftysomething stars — but he's great in it; the flicker of self-awareness in his eyes recalls Roy Batty's 'Tears in rain' speech at the end of 'Blade Runner,' at least until Van Damme spears Dolph's veiny forehead with a lead pipe and then fires a shotgun through it."

Technically I think 'Reckoning' is either the third installment of the sixth one -- but that's sort of the point. This franchise's continuity is by now so head-scratchingly confused that any attempt to make sense of it gives you a taste of what it feels like to be a brain-wiped undead killer. The longer the franchise endures, the more poignant its central conflict becomes. In each new installment, Van Damme and Lundgren show up to kill one another -- and succeed, only to be regenerated for yet another older, sadder day of reckoning. It fits perfectly with the sort of fatalism that characterized a lot of Van Damme's recent projects, which carry ominous, depressing titles like "In Hell," "Wake of Death," and "Until Death." To be clear, the last two are two different movies -- as different as two direct-to-video Van Damme movies can be, anyway.

I'm always in the bag for the sort of criticism that takes disreputable action movies and finds the subtext that everyone else misses but this is a fabulous piece. It made me want to go watch "Day of Reckoning" for a third time.

Read more of "Kickassualties of War."

This article is related to: From the Wire, Jean-Claude van Damme


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