On this week’s episode, I’m running down a quintet of action movies that feel like comic book movies, but without existing source material. I had a great time putting this list together and a lot of fun watching these movies. I hope you do too!
I’m making my way through the Universal Soldier franchise in a very non-chronological way. After being completely blown away by the latest installment in the franchise, the amazing Day of Reckoning, I looked at the second film The Return which was just kind of whatever. I’ve been a little lax in getting to my Netflix discs lately, but I did my best to get to the 1992 original directed by Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, White House Down) in a timely manner which meant it took me three or four days to get through. Again, it has nothing to do with the film and more my inability to stay up past 11:30PM anymore.
The film stars Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren as Vietnam soldiers who killed each other only to be rejuvenated in modern times by the Universal Soldier program which is supposed to create ultimate killing machines from dead soldiers. JCVD’s going along alright until a reporter stumbles upon the truth behind the program and is about to get executed by Dolph. At that point, Jean-Claude remembers some of his protective past and runs off with the woman to rescue her. From there, it’s a series of chase and fight scenes as Dolph and the other UniSols are sent to get their brother in arms back. While watching the film, I realized it was a combination of RoboCop and the Terminator movies, but with guys who can actually fight.
This movie definitely delivers on the action promise you expect from looking at the above poster. You’ve got two of the greatest action actors of their day not only teaming up, but facing off. You’ve also got a pretty epic assault on the Hoover Dam, a bonkers truck chase and all kinds of cool looking sci-fi military tech. The movie’s packed with action fun and Emmerich did a pretty stellar job making a great looking movie for what was reportedly a fairly modest budget. On the acting side of things, both of the leads do a great job. JCVD does a pretty good job playing the conflicted solider while Dolph just jumps full-on into his role as the psychotic vet.
I watched the Blu-ray of this film and was impressed with how good it looked. As I mentioned, Emmerich did a great job the first time around and the LionsGate presentation looked pretty great. There were also a few special features that I checked out and really enjoyed, one is a small behind-the-scenes type featurette featuring JCVD, Dolph, Emmerich and his writing partner Dean Devlin. The real bonus jewel for me, though, was a piece where JCVD and Dolph each talk about how they came up in the business juxtaposed against each other. I realized I didn’t actually know anything about either actor, so it was an education, but it also proved something I’ve kind of half-known for a long time: Dolph Lundgren is one of the most fascinating action actors around and deserves a documentary about his life. Anyone working on that?
After being so impressed with Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning, I wanted to go back and check out the other movies in the Soldier franchise, just to remind myself of what had happened. I didn’t expect them to be as good as the latest installment, but I was curious to see what had been done in those other films and how the mythology had been handled. The first movie isn’t on Netflix Instant and neither is the third, but The Return was, so naturally, that became the next one I watched. Turns out it wasn’t terrible, but definitely has a very 90s vibe to it.
What was so 90s about it? Well, one of the central figures in the film is a computer called Seth (or more likely S.E.T.H., though I don’t feel like looking up the reason) who spends the first part of the movie existing as a cube in a ball at the end of some kind of robot construct. He basically looks like a Trapper Keeper from the same year, but sounds like Michael Jai White. There’s also a character named Squid who plays the hacker in the movie. He has blue hair, fancies himself some kind of cyber anarchist and makes every character in Hackers look GQ. Oh the 90s.
Anyway, the film follows Jean-Claude Van Damme’s character from the first film, Luc Deveraux. For some reason he’s not a UniSol anymore, though I don’t know if they every explain how or why. I remember almost nothing from my first viewing of that movie, so this was a curious development. He does hang out with and train UniSols, though, with a few pals. Everything’s going okay until one day — a day when a news crew is in the building, of course — SETH figures out that the program is going to be shut down. He then unleashes all of the Soldiers from the military’s command and sets them against Deveraux and company. The local General wants to just blow the building up, but Luc can’t allow that because, yup, you probably guessed it, Seth kidnapped his daughter. SPOILER WARNER, the following video is the final battle from the movie, so watch at your own discretion:
Hokey, contrived and over-used plot lines aside (what do you really expect from a 90s action movie?), I had a pretty good time with USTR. In his prime, Van Damme was one of the best action guys around, not the greatest actor in the world, but able to play concerned father while kicking ass at the same time. I was also impressed with both White and Bill Goldberg’s performances. Why didn’t either of these guys really hit in the film industry? They both cut imposing figures — Goldberg is like sculpted meat in this thing — and can handle themselves in a fight scene, so what happened there? Anyway, if you’re in the mood for a mostly fun action romp, give this movie a look, but don’t expect the greatness seen in Day Of Judgement which gets better and better in my memory the more “just alright” and downright-bad action movies I watch.
For me, JCVD’s movies are like potato chips or whiskey and sodas, I can’t have just one. While clicking through Netflix Instant I saw that Sudden Death had been added to the list of flicks. I have trouble remembering which of these movies is which and it doesn’t help when Netflix claims the film takes place in a baseball stadium (it’s a hockey game).
Van Damme stars as the difficult to kill Darren McCord, a firefighter in Pittsburgh who had some bad luck with a blaze. After that, he’s having a hard time of things and has taken a safer job as the fire marshall of the Civic Arena. Or something. There’s a lot of details in this movie that seem way too complicated, but we’ll get to that more in a bit. McCord takes his son and daughter to the last game of the Stanley Cup finals between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Chicago Blackhawks, game that the Vice President is also attending. Powers Boothe takes this opportunity to kidnap the VP and hold him for ransom. That’s the simple version. There’s more about unfreezing bank account numbers and setting the time table of the caper to the game itself, but all you really need to know is that Powers Boothe is the bad guy, something that becomes eminently clear the moment you look at this guy. Have you seen him on Nashville? He’s gotten more evil looking as he ages. I think he’d make Hannibal Lecter uncomfortable at this point.
Because he’s awesome and because his daughter gets dragged into things — what is it with JCVD’s kids movie getting involved with villains? — McCord has to face his fears and fight…ahem…fire with fire (ie violence with violence, sorry, couldn’t resist the pun). This leads to a series of fights with individuals in various parts of the arena including my personal favorite, one with a woman in the penguin mascot costume. It sounds goofy, but it actually makes sense given the plot.
What I really liked about this movie is that it took full advantage of the setting, one that you almost never see in films. Even the above penguin-lady fight is unique even though it takes place in a kitchen. I like that kind of ingenuity used in designing the fight scenes. There’s also a nice flow from confined to dangerously huge as not one but two battles take place on the dome of the Civic Arena. It’s nowhere near a perfect film because there are some goofy moments and the occasional bad effect (the showcase one at the end of the film looks 15 kinds of bad), but overall I had a really fun time with the movie and think you will too if you’re jonesing for some vintage Van Damme.
Color me impressed because I keep getting surprised by action movies. First The Raid not only lives up to but surpasses my expectations and now Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning comes out of nowhere and proves to be a masterful piece of next level action film making.
I first started seeing bits and blurbs about this movie because I follow both Dolph Lundgren and Magnet Releasing on Twitter. It seemed like people really enjoyed the film and that it might be doing a few different things with a franchise I’m somewhat familiar with. Still, I figured it would be a capital A awesome movie with lots of cool fight scenes and probably a little romance here and there with references to the other films I might not catch because I’m far from a super fan.
But this movie is really something different and you understand that immediately thanks to the way director and co-writer John Hyams starts the film. Immediately just by the visuals, you can tell you’re not watching some straight to video throwaway because this film looks great (more on that below). In addition, the tone is set to be both unnerving and disturbing by doing a first person POV shot of a dad played by Scott Adkins looking through his house trying to prove to his daughter that there are no monsters lurking about. “No monsters,” he repeats several times until he gets to the kitchen where masked thugs are waiting to attack him. Things get worse from there. A lot of these kinds of movies try to make an emotional impact, but you can tell right off the bat that you’re dealing with an excuse to string fight scenes together and kind of check out on that level, but that does not happen with Day of Reckoning. Yes, there’s some emotional terrorism to get me invested, but I’m a husband and father now, so it worked like it was intended to.
The story itself revolves around Adkins who slowly realizes he’s a Universal Soldier sleeper agent thanks to the events in the aforementioned opening. As he goes into the world it becomes clear that he’s not the only one. We also discover that Jean-Claude Van Damme is still around, finding activated Soldiers and giving them the ability to think for themselves. His pal — and fellow star of the original 1992 film — Dolph Lundgren is kind of the den mother of the wild bunch of “freed” Soldiers, treating the whole thing like a religion. Speaking of JCVD and Lundgren, these guys are fantastic in the movie. Van Damme looks scary as hell both in face and deed. Some of these 80s and 90s action movie guys still do these kinds of movies but look like 20 pounds of sausage in a ten pound leather casing, that’s not the case with Van Damme though, dude’s still got it. He could play a comic book supervillain easy after this role. Meanwhile, Lundgren gets to do his loud, boisterous thing and have fun chewing some of the scenery, but he also looks good in his fight scenes.
Speaking of the fight scenes, they’re rad, realistic depictions of super fighting. The scene in the sporting good store is ridiculously awesome. Fighting with bats is one thing, but throwing bowling balls at each other and hitting the bad guy with a bench press weight all with this super fast, kinetic filmmaking that doesn’t rely on shaky cam nonsense is incredibly refreshing. You’ll also notice that our hero becomes a better fighter as the fight progresses and his muscle memory takes over. This is where he begins to figure out who he is.
Part of what sets this movie apart is the way its filmed, cast and set. I watched it on Blu-ray so it looked fantastic on that level, but there’s also a lot going on in just about every frame. Places like the strip club and sporting good store look like they would in real life: colorful and filthy and colorful and dull respectively. Then you’ve got the cabin seen a little over halfway through the film. These are places that could have been made to look overly produced and fake, but that’s not the case.
All of that adds to the idea of this film being, essentially, a real world based superhero film. The Universal Soldiers are essentially Captain America-like super soldiers running around doing their thing, so they’re not just peak humans, they can do amazing things like throw bowling balls around like tennis balls and take obscene amounts of punishment. We’ve seen incredibly good super-fighting in movies like Iron Man and The Avengers, but this is a much more down and dirty version that I think would work better for street-level heroes. Don’t be surprised if Hyams gets tapped to do a franchise superhero film in the next few years. Maybe something with Moon Knight or Nightwing?
I want to talk a little bit about the reveal that comes a little towards the end of the movie, so let’s call this paragraph a SPOILER ZONE. We learn along with Adkins that, not only is he not the only guy who looks exactly like him in this world, but that he’s only a few weeks old, meaning that his memories aren’t really his own. He was grown and given these specific memories in an attempt by the government to make a living weapon designed to specifically hate and kill JCVD’s character. I didn’t mention it above, but JCVD was the guy who kills Adkins’ wife and daughter right in front of his eyes. But, as it turns out, he didn’t really do it. It was all a ruse. I slowly figured this one out as the movie went along — it seemed weird that he was in such a strange hospital with no one else around — but I think I only really put it together because I paused the movie halfway through last night and finished it today. Anyway, this is an interesting idea because our hero discovers that his main motivation for going after JCVD isn’t actually real even though he has dealt with all those motions and memories. Essentially, it feels real even though it wasn’t. How that gets dealt with is a really interesting aspect of this film.
As you can probably tell, I really liked this movie. I’m having trouble accurately comparing it to anything. It’s serious and psychological like a Christopher Nolan film, it’s got grittiness and superhero elements, but also fight scenes that blow plenty of others out of the water. All those things combined into something like this, to me, is next level. It also makes me want to go back and check out the previous Universal Soldier movies. I know I’ve seen the original and maybe 1999’s The Return (which is on Netflix Instant), but not Hyams’ previous entry in this series Regeneration. Time to update my queue!