Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: We look back on highlights of the DTV action craze—some of the coolest, wildest, and most entertaining action movies to skip theaters entirely.
The chronology of Universal Soldier has gotten somewhat snarled since the franchise launched in 1992. The timeline was first complicated six years after the fact by the release of a pair of made-for-TV sequels sticking former Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Matt Battaglia in the central role previously occupied by Jean-Claude Van Damme. The Muscles From Brussels reprised his performance as killing machine Luc Deveraux in 1999 with Universal Soldier: The Return, righting the ship and erasing the events of the small-screen installments. One decade later, the sequel Regeneration retconned even further, overwriting The Return and positing itself as the real sequel. When Day Of Reckoning, the latest and greatest chapter in this epically convoluted saga, came to video on-demand services in 2012, warring factions of purists took it as the third, fourth, and sixth film in the canon. None of that matters.
Though director John Hyams was settling back into the director’s chair after having cleared the slate on Regeneration, he used Day Of Reckoning to start from scratch yet again. The film sidelines Deveraux, ceding lead status to the newly introduced John (Scott Adkins), who’s really just some guy. In an opening sequence shot entirely in first-person POV, we’re awoken as John, in the middle of a home invasion, and dragged into the living room to watch the intruders execute our family. The perpetrator unmasks himself and it’s none other than Deveraux, having gone rogue and turned terrorist for reasons that, like almost everything in this wondrous, baffling movie, go unexplained. Characters drift in and out of the narrative. The previous film’s baddie, Magnus (Andrei Arlovski), goes by The Plumber now. John’s murky backstory contradicts itself. Clones figure prominently. Don’t worry: None of that matters either.
Hyams works in tones and textures, forging some sadistic new surrealism from a mélange of oneiric atmosphere, mannered performance, Google Translate dialogue, and hysterical violence bursting forth in constant, pitiless torrents. The character of Deveraux takes on a Kurtzlike otherworldly quality, materializing at random, hallucinated by our man John during bouts of stroboscopic madness. Dolph Lundgren rejoins the cast as the deranged sergeant Andrew Scott, once a foe of Deveraux, now a partner in a plot to liberate the Universal Soldiers that’s secretly a plot to create more Universal Soldiers so that they… actually, nope, never mind, doesn’t matter. Hyams conjures a bestial ferocity from Lundgren, pushing his aura past macho and into the inhuman. A deafening drone score reinforces the lurching sensation that something foundational to the cinematic medium has been mutilated. The only way to render this any more intense would be to shoot in 3D, which Hyams wanted to but sadly couldn’t afford.
The film shakes off its default of dark wooziness in the expertly choreographed action sequences, so vivid and visceral that they verge on body horror. The savage, vicious, blood-crazed fights put veterans at the top of their field through their paces, every single blow aimed to kill. Limbs take on the structural sturdiness of carrot sticks; skulls, the integrity of mid-November jack-o-lanterns. It’s all a bracing testament to how much raw gore can be gotten away with under the lack of oversight afforded by low-budget DTV filmmaking—the rare instance of an artist truly taking a disinterested executive’s instruction to “just do whatever” to heart.
This odd specimen has already been championed as a difference-splitter between the dollar bin and the hardcore arthouse, earning comparison to Haneke and Lynch, “secret masterpiece” status from The Paris Review, and glowing write-ups from such legacy publications as The Atlantic and GQ. But it still has the sui generis volatility of an outsider object, a rabid feral panther that no amount of mainstream praise can tame. Watching it feels like finding it.
Availability: Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning is currentl streaming on Fubo, Roku, Showtime, and DirectTV. It can also be rented or purchased from Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, Microsoft, Fandango, and VUDU.