Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross

The direct-to-video market’s reputation has never been much better than poison; it is, at best, a home for decent dramas, and, perhaps more notoriously, a place where rip-offs and franchises suffering diminishing returns go to make one last dent in a profit margin before winking out of existence.

Having not seen any previous films in the Universal Soldier series,  I can’t say with certainty how much Day of Reckoning honours or dishonours its forerunners (though I have been assured that they are neither worth my time nor necessary to understand this entry). But it certainly doesn’t wink out of existence.

The film begins with an overt gesture to its hard-R action-cum-arthouse aspirations, an extended POV shot that rips off the opening of Gaspar NoĆ©’s Enter the Void to terrific effect. John (Scott Adkins) is woken by his daughter, who insists that there are monsters in the house. When he goes to investigate, he is brutally beaten by home invaders, led by the merciless Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme), who kills his wife and daughter and leaves John in a coma, which he wakes from in a hospital room. Other than snippets from his family life, he remembers nothing clearly except for the home invasion. The first-person perspective is a bizarre, conspicuous choice, one whose full purpose and meaning on both a plot and thematic level slowly reveal themselves as the film moves forward into an identity quest.

That is the fundamental narrative of Day of Reckoning: John’s hunt for the people responsible for his family’s death, and for his hidden role in the whole affair. He begins to hunt for Deveraux, who is building a small army out of former American super soldiers. They have either been brainwashed once and saved by Devereaux, or brainwashed by Devereaux, or merely transitioned from being brainwashed against Devereaux to being brainwashed for him. If it sounds like Van Damme must get a lot of screen time, he doesn’t; until the climax he is mostly seen in short, cryptic hallucinations. His shadow militia’s more frequent on-screen leader is Andrew Scott, played by Dolph Lundgren in a role that thankfully never asks nor requires him to do any acting.

The bulk of the narrative is John’s search as he moves from one clue to the next and survives assassinations by an anonymous bearded super soldier. Eventually he drags along his half-remembered stripper friend Sarah (Mariah Bonner, whose purpose here is clearly no more than requisite eye candy). John’s grasp on reality takes a very
Apocalypse Now-inspired turn for the murky, and the answers to his questions — who did this to him, why, and where are they — only seem to move farther out of reach.

The search for these answers is the spine of the movie, and it is as emotionally chilly as gorefest gung-ho action movies can get. Hyams circumvents his actors’ dubious performance pedigrees by creating a neo-noirish atmosphere where no one lets their guard down long enough to emote. It makes the characters harder to empathize with, but it also positions them more clearly in a harsh and untrustworthy world, and anyway, the magnitude of John’s loss goes a long way to making us care. That way, Adkins’s acting doesn’t have to.

Interspersing all of this are a handful of action scenes that are in the absolute highest rank that direct-to-video can offer. Hyams, who proves himself a brilliant action stylist, uses judicious cutting, camera placement, and use of slow motion, to make
each blow count, most viscerally in the sickening chops of the endgame machete fights, and most admirably in a car chase whose budgetary limitations are handily effaced by careful editing and clever action beats. If the action doesn't reach the heights of something like The Raid: Redemption, at least Day of Reckoning shows consistent care for storytelling in the downtime between action blowouts.

In those in-between moments, John slowly realizes that memories are untrustworthy, and that the actual reasons for his condition are far more machiavellian than he imagined. It all leads to a “twist” of sorts, as John’s true role in the hunt for Devereaux becomes clear, and the motives of his alleged benefactors come into sort-of clarity.

But the truth of the matter is that the particulars of Day of Reckoning’s plot are more or less unimportant, both to its themes and to its protagonist. When he learns the truth, John becomes more totally insane than any sympathetic action hero in recent memory. Rather than choosing to reject either the reality of his personal memories, or the truth about his puppeteers’ motives, he chooses to fully accept both versions of reality as true, and to condemn all parties as guilty of his family’s killing.

And though most of the action in Day of Reckoning shows John in a very personal fight for survival, he becomes an uncaring agent of nihilism and death in the ensuing climax, unwilling to take the chance that the right target may go unpunished. He is an indiscriminate murderer, one who takes aim at vengeance with a handful of darts. Neither he nor his targets (Deveraux included) seem to value their own lives, or much of anything, for that matter. This final turn of madness was anticipated and prepared for by his unseen masters, who in the denouement make one last tweak to John’s perception of reality.

The whole conclusion is a shockingly despairing one. It suggests that our impressions and memories have more currency to us than truth (hence the POV opening: no matter what we are told after the fact, it was real to us). John ultimately leaves the film a thoroughly insane man, one who is prepared to do anything to avenge nothing.

The problem with all of this is that for such despair to really register, there have to be humans of identifiable depth with whom we can sympathize. But Day of Reckoning spends too little time investigating the feelings and motives of either John or of his quarries for us to fully register the loss of their humanity. Each and every character enters and leaves the film an already-broken human being.

But if Hyams’s strategy of emotional chilliness errs a little too far on the side of caution, and if John doesn’t have enough of a personality for us to fully invest in his psychological arc, at least there is some thematic reasoning behind it all, and exciting, inventive filmmaking to keep us interested in the material. That’s a rarity in all of action cinema, let alone in direct-to-video cash-ins made on a dime.


Shayri said...

It was good to Jean back on screen!!.. Pretty good movie, good action, good play.. Go for it, it is good one-time watch

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