Universal Soldier – Day Of Reckoning

universal-soldier-day-of-reckoning

Universal Solider is arguably one of the last great films of the action hero era and surely one of Van Damme’s finest. The film was so successful that it spawned a number of confusing sequels, some which seemed to have little to do with prior entries, some which retconed other events, and which were all without exception drastically inferior to the original. You can imagine that when I took a gamble on this, I was hoping for (at best) some Van Damme on Lundgren action, with a few funny one-liners and nice kills. What I got was something I didn’t expect at all, and something much better than I could have ever hoped for.

Day Of Reckoning is a nightmare. I mean that positively. It is a horror movie with some genuinely shocking violence and powerful martial arts based action. The film veers into some surreal, dream spaces where the viewer isn’t sure what is real and what isn’t. Van Damme and Lundgren do appear, but are not the focus. Instead, star Scott Adkins and director John Hyams conspire to take the story in a completely different and new direction – removing much of the charm of the original, and instead crafting a snaking revenge movie where the seemingly tenuous links to the series mythology only become more clear and insidious towards the end.

vlcsnap-2015-04-24-11h59m47s199

Scott Adkins wakes from a coma to discover his family has been massacred. He has lost his memory, but with help from the FBI identifies the killer as none other than Luc Deveraux (Van Damme). So far so normal, aside from the twist of JCVD being a killer. It should be noted that the flashback scene of the family being killed is brutal and unforgiving. While Adkins searches for Van Damme, we see another series favourite Andrei Arlovski living a normal life but being suddenly ‘activated’ and going on a murderous rampage. It turns out that (most of) the people he kills are Universal Soldiers, and that Lundgren and Van Damme have been trying to free agents from the control chip or something by which the government has been controlling them with. They are recruiting and forming a separatist army to destroy the program once and for all. Then things get complicated with clones…..

There’s a hell of a lot going on here and it is never easily explained. Rather than finding all this confusing, I think the often dream-like or nightmarish nature of the movie (deliberately or otherwise) covers the flaws in this type of storytelling. We know it is still convoluted, but we are placed essentially in the character of Adkins – he doesn’t know what has happened, and only has the memory of his family being murdered to spur him on. As viewers it is that image which also keeps us watching – to get to the bottom of the mystery. Adkins does well in the role and while he isn’t the most expressive actor, he lets the more physical side speak for itself. And so we get some outstanding and vicious fight scenes – imagine a martial arts version of Saw and you’ll get the idea. The blood and guts flow freely, but it isn’t in a cartoon Kill Bill style or slowed down and stylized like 300. It feels real, even though the combatants are super strong and super fast, the punches, kicks, and everything else connect with a raw force – I was left gaping after a couple of these and wondering why other movies don’t follow suit.

universal-soldier-day-of-reckoning-main-review

It isn’t only the fights which are horrific. This is at it’s heart trying to be a horror movie, with Hyams at the very least emulating a Lynchian atmosphere. If you are aware of the series, then you will be aware of the loose political roots – dead soldiers are resurrected, have their memories removed, and are forced to do the Government’s bidding like robots. While the questions about patriotism and control over individualism have been clear throughout, there is a much more personal and angry vein of accusation here. We learn that the older model of soldier performed better when they believed they were fighting for their country, but that the newer models truly exceed when they think it is their family who is in danger. Warriors simply don’t respond to patriotism anymore, and the only way for a government to teach it’s soldiers to kill is to give them a more personal, devastating fear – it’s basically boiled down to kill the enemy or you family will die or even one step further – the enemy has already killed your family, so go do what needs to be done. Echos in current world politics are all too clear.

Day Of Reckoning is not for the faint-hearted. The violence is extreme, and I’m saying that as a seasoned gore hound. I loved it, but I’m aware that others with a low tolerance will be put off quickly. Gone are the japes of the original, and the half-assed crap of the sequels. This is a horrific movie which just happens to exist in the Universal Soldier universe, and it’s one of the most impressive action movies I’ve seen in recent years. Hell, it’s one of the most impressive horror movies I’ve seen in recent years. Let us know in the comments what you thought of the movie and how you rate it alongside others in the series!

The Storm Warriors

maxresdefault.jpg

The Pang Brothers have tried their hand at most genres in their time. With Storm Warrirors they create some sort of fantasy/comic based martial arts epic, but I had almost no clue what was happening the entire time and the whole thing feels like a bloated mess.

Fair enough, this is actually sequel – something I didn’t realise when I first watched. That would go some way to explaining why I didn’t really know what the balls was going on half the time, but I suspect that even if I had seen the first movie – Storm Riders – I still wouldn’t have been able to follow everything. I can’t possibly describe the plot, except to say there is some sort of vicious Martial Arts Warlord who wants to rule the world. He tries to recruit other famed fighters – either join him or die. Most die, but a few plot to bring him down while facing inner struggles and squabbles within their group. The warriors all have names like ‘Cloud’, ‘Nameless’, ‘Wind’, ‘Earth’, ‘Sky’, and they each have their own skills, but none really stand out from any other. There are a bunch of fights and montages and lots of talking and staring and sitting and then it ends.

It’s rather odd that a talented directing duo and a pretty good cast could create something so crappy. Some of the fights are well done, but it’s all ultra stylized rather than focusing on the athleticism of the performers. There are some good effects, but nothing you won’t have seen in other productions. I’d recommend watching the first film first, obviously, and if you are a fan of the Pang Brothers you’ll want to see this eventually but keep your expectations low.

storm-warriors

Let us know in the comments if you thought I was too harsh and if you enjoyed The Storm Warriors!

Drug War – DVD Reviews

*Originally written in 2013 based on a free copy provided by Amazon.

Drug-War

It has been a while since I’ve seen a new Johnnie To movie which really impressed and excited me – Drug War brings him almost back to his best with a tense action thriller which draws many comparisons with Michael Mann’s Heat. This has a large case of famous faces, inspired set pieces, numerous explosive gun-fights, and a weaving cat and mouse plot as a criminal mastermind and fierce Detective do battle. There are plenty of stylish visuals and violence, but at the core is a cold story with few easy answers and fewer happy endings for the characters.

Zhang is a no-nonsense Detective who pulls out all the stops to catch notorious Drug Lords, and during the course of the film we see him become more dangerously close to the edge, almost reckless, in his pursuit of taking down the bad guys. Sun Honglei plays Zhang with a lot of skill, morphing seamlessly from zero-emotion cop to jolly criminal impersonator. Equally, Louis Koo, playing the captured drug baron Choi is impressive at conveying grief, desperation, charm, and deadly cunning. Much of the film is a game of wits between this pair, and along the way we interact with a variety of cops and criminals, each with their own story to tell and part to play.

For those who like their action, we do get a few highlights – a factory attack and the final showdown outside a school are directed flawlessly – they serve the plot and do not seem over the top in a John Woo style but are more grounded yet no less exciting or adventurous. This is definitely one for fans of Hong Kong, Asian, or action cinema to enjoy.

Last Action Hero

Last Action Hero

This is quite an underrated movie, even amongst Arnie fans, and one which few people understand, or try to. Last Actio Hero is a spoof of action movies, primarily those starring Arnie and Stallone, ones which director McTiernen has made a living from: The films that have loose plots built around stunts, explosions, fights, and spectacular and over the top set pieces. That said, the action, stunts, and effects are good; the cast, especially Arnie, ham it up as much as possible, the cameo appearances are witty and accurate, and the plot is pretty clever.

Arnie plays Jack Slater, a ficticious cop/action hero who lives in movie land- a place where everything is super sized, and hyper real (a little punch in the gut of Hollywood). His daily routine, usually involving chasing bad guys, and wrecking huge portions of cities is disturbed- mid chase, by the mysterious appearance of a teenage boy called Danny. Danny is from the real world- our world, the world which gorges itself on the exploits of such larger than life characters as Jack Slater. Danny is just about Slater’s biggest fan, and no-one could be happier than he to be meeting his hero for real. Slater, naturally is less than pleased. Danny explained how he was given a magical golden ticket which opens a gateway been the real world, and the movie world, and tries to convince Slater that his life is a movie. This leads to some inspired jokes about the film industry, and Arnie’s own career- the ‘I’ll be back’ scene and the scene where Danny tries to make Slater swear. Meanwhile, Big Bad (English) guy Benedict hears about the golden ticket, and sees the potential for chaos, and the psychotic Ripper plots more carnage against Slater.

Tons of in-jokes make this an entertaining film, and I’ll admit that’s all it is. But that’s all it is trying to be. There is no need to criticize it for lacking artistic merit, character development, internal meditations on life etc. It’s an action movie, where the bad guys are supposed to die, cars are meant to explode when scratched, the good guy is untouchable, and it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. The soundtrach, featuring AC DC adds to this thoroughly enjoyable throwback to 80’s action classics.

Extras unfortunately are light- a trailer, a music video, and a short featurette. The nineties was a revisionist time for movies, and this film was one of the best examples of the movement- self referential, self mocking, while pushing the boundaries of what was expected from the genre. A documentary discussing this and the making of, or a commentary or interview with cast would have been great.

As always, feel free to leave your comments on the movie- was this one of the better 90s Arnie efforts?