In a year that has brought some films of the most damning levels of "self-seriousness" for some (Cloud Atlas, Prometheus, Compliance), John Hyams' Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning – a hyper-violent action-horror hybrid awash in portentous musical cues, self-conscious provocations, and totally earnest frauds of arthouse filmmakers – has curiously received a pass from a healthy dose of critics. Hyams' film, the sixth in a direct-to-video franchise dating back to 1992, takes the idea of pushiness to a pummeling extreme: every fluorescent light flickers and occasionally strobes out in an epileptic fit, every gesture is accented by a bellowing drone or a shrieking synth, and every time a person is killed we must see them shot three, four, five, or six times. There's a brutal intensity to the film, part of which is genuinely expressed in the material and part of which is layered on egregiously. It's the frequency with which Hyam's oppressive direction undermines the flickers of originality that makes the film such a frustrating viewing experience.
And, truth be told, Hyams' definitely has originality, if not at least a proficient command of aesthetics. Day of Reckoning is littered with extraordinary fight sequences, all shot with a respect for geography and the physical relationships of the actors – a trait that looks particularly unique amongst a contemporary preference for nearly abstract spectacle. Instead of chopping up his action into chaotic shards of movement, Hyams favors wide-angle lenses that capture the full picture of the fighting as well as the larger space it's existing in, as in a boxing match. A great deal of the violence inflicted is done so with miscellaneous objects or bare hands; a pivotal fight scene takes place in a rural sporting goods store with the two men wielding anything in their vicinity (weights, baseball bats, steel bars) to club their enemy, knocking over shelves of athletic equipment in the process. The organic choreography between camera and performer, accentuated by an ingenious integration of speed ramping effects (altering the frame rate between slow motion and fast motion mid-shot) and subtle barrel distortion (the convex image warping achieved through wide-angle lenses), gives these fights a tremendous sense of gravity and stylishness.
However, for every scene in which Hyams reveals his bravura singularity as an action director, there's a competing moment of outright kitsch. The film's opening scene features the horrific murder of protagonist John's (Scott Adkins) wife and daughter, a senseless tragedy that sets up the nasty spiral of vengeance and disorientation that comprises the plot. Kicking off with a "blinking" POV shot of John's wife in bed and maintaining a perspective through his half-asleep eyes as he heeds his daughter's guileless warning that someone's in the house, the scene is – stylistically speaking – a shameless rip-off of the drug trip sequence that opens Gaspar Noé's Enter the Void, and Noé's powerfully queasy filmmaking techniques continue to exert a strong hold on Hyams' impulses throughout the film (see: fluorescent strobing, seedy underbelly of prostitution and potentially non-traditional sex practices, scene of pummeling head stomping). But there's more than just Noé emanating from the unsavory surface of the film: with its creepy digressions and inclusion of exaggerated noir elements, the narrative is conspicuously Lynchian, while the escalating madness, the bald, painted head of a Brando-esque Jean Claude Van-Damme, and the third-act travel upriver are all lifts from the Apocalypse Now playbook.
Not all of Day of Reckoning's arthouse allusions are quite so blunt though. The ultimate trajectory of the narrative towards interrogations of vaguely outlined authoritarian conspiracies and unexpected detours into cloning and body horror invoke Cronenberg, but the film's thematic groundwork, rather than pulling from any specific film or concept, seems to both blend various ideas from the Canadian filmmaker's work and mesh naturally with Hyams' story. The film's dark and brutal worldview – expressed throughout in the emphasis on cruel and sudden death – is tied to a narrative about a hero seeking justified revenge who grows more distant from the audience as the film progresses, fracturing into doppelgängers and darker selves in conjunction with the revealing of new enemy forces (an underground army of evil-seeking "universal soldiers" led by Van Damme's character Luc Deveraux, a dissenting group of killing machines lorded over by Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren), and even the ominous suited men seemingly working to defend justice, all manufactured by a largely unseen and duplicitous government entity). What is finally revealed to be their shared motivations is the stuff of cerebral science-fiction – eerie, multifaceted, carefully developed, and not at all what's expected after the movie's sensationalistic opening moments.
Whatever strange power the film achieves by its conclusion, however, is still undermined to some degree by Hyams' heavy-handed directorial gestures, as well as some of the unsettling implications of them. The final act yields a virtuosic single shot ass-kicking that tracks from behind the body of John as he slaughters the many foes who emerge from the universal soldiers' swampy underground labyrinth. The idea behind the mise-en-scène here is to submerge the audience into the experience of shooting and killing as in a third-person video game, to essentially provide a cathartic release for all the pent-up feelings of revenge unresolved throughout the narrative. On one level, it's an ironic maneuver, because John has just realized how fruitless his pursuit of individuality and free-will is, but on another, it still flatters the simplistic desires of hardcore action-heads seeking a "badass" comeuppance. This sequence threatens to place the audience on the same level as Lundgren's minions, who, in a goofy but humorless shot earlier in the film, shouted and growled unthinkingly in response to his vague proclamations. All of this speaks to a directorial inconsistency on Hyams' part that treads into overstatement when ideas are not obvious on the surface. It's as if Day of Reckoning is unwilling to let the inbred intensity of Adkins (a hell of an actor who manages his convoluted character arc with conviction), Andrei Arlovski (the meaty Russian opposite Adkins in the sports store brawl), Van Damme, and Lundgren do all the talking.