Saturday, March 30, 2013

Universal Soldier

Like most friends, I saw the first Universal Soldier (1992) and ignored all subsequent sequels, including the official ones (three after 1992) and two TV movies. However, intrigued by some of the critical traction that Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning got in 2012, I decided to see both of the Universal Soldier films directed by John Hyams and revisited the first film to put everything in context.

Universal Solider (1992, Roland Emmerich)
Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009, John Hyams)
Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012, John Hyams)

Universal Soldier starts off in the Vietnam war, a starting point for many cinematic stories over the years, where a fight between two soldiers Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and Scott (Dolph Lundgren) results in both of their deaths. Both dead bodies are indoctrinated into a US military program and brought back as Universal Soldiers or UniSols, android fighting machines. The concept of UniSols follows the Robocop pattern in reanimating a dead character to fight justice. In Robocop, Murphy is meant to fight crime on the streets and keep civil justice. Whereas, UniSols are meant to safeguard nationalistic interests. Both Murphy and Luc are also united by their desire to return home. Despite the efforts of scientists to erase both Murphy & Luc's memories, a tiny portion of their past lingers on and manages to guide their moral compass. This makes both of these characters heroes, who try to do some good despite being programmed to kill without question. At the end of Universal Soldier, Luc does reach home. But a happy ending in Hollywood is never a guarantee for conclusion and Luc was called into action in 1999’s Universal Soldier: The Return.

Two TV movies filled the gap without JCVD and Dolph Lundgren until John Hyams resurrected the series in 2009. Hyams rightly decided that both JCVD and Dolph Lundgren are not as young as they once were and instead made Andrei Arlovski’s UniSol the central character. Arlovski’s character is a pure representation of what a Unisol was originally meant to be as he has no moral compass and is free to kill without any filters. Regeneration is certainly a major improvement over the 1992 movie and takes the series into a much darker territory. Still, the 2009 film cannot predict the direction that Day of Reckoning jumps towards.

If Regeneration showed shades of darkness, then Day of Reckoning is a full blown nightmare that is only connected to the Universal Solider series in name. The 2012 film does feature Luc Deveraux and Scott but Luc is nothing like the past films. He is more like Tony Todd's Candyman character who appears either inside John’s (Scott Adkins) head or in his house. The Candyman sequence is shown early in the film and follows a point of view nightmarish start reminiscent of Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void. Day of Reckoning then stitches a David Lynch feel and mood throughout the film and includes nods to conspiracy stories and a few horror films along with the way, such as the famous axe breaking door scene of The Shining. It is impressive how many diverse ideas and sub-plots Day of Reckoning incorporates and it might have been better if the film had shed the Universal Soldier tag. As it stands, the UniSol reference will prevent others from checking out the film. The open ended nature of Day of Reckoning suggests a future possibility of another film but more importantly, it will be curious to see what John Hyams directs next.

Related Reading

The following three articles played a big part in my viewing these films.

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky's excellent mubi review.
Ian Buckwalter's review in The Atlantic.
Bilge Ebiri.

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