(John Hyams, 2012)
He may not get the respect or acclaim he deserves, but make no mistake; with Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, John Hyams fully announces himself as one of the most interesting directors currently working in American genre cinema.
His action chops have long been evident; he shoots fight scenes with a fluid mix of shots and approaches - slo-mo, fast-cutting, classically clear compositions, handheld fluency - but those scenes are always visceral and cohesive. The fight scenes here are remarkably brutal, even gory - axes take fingers and toes, the hero John (Scott Adkins) knocks the top of a mans head clean off with a baseball bat - yet Hyams ensures that the gore is always clear in its origin and thats the dimensions of the violence are generally physically defined. One move flows into the next and from the one before, and the editing choices are dictated by the dynamics of movement, of action and reaction. This is most relevant during the last twenty minutes of the film, a quite brilliant rolling action scene depicting John infiltrating the lair of villain Luc Devereaux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and battling his way, one at a time, through his army, much of it done in a single, extraordinary take. There is also a fantastically destructive fight between Adkins and Andrei Arlovsky in a sporting goods store which would be good enough to climax the majority of martial arts films.
But Hyams' sensibility is increasingly fascinating too. This film is a bizarre genre hybrid - if it surrenders to its basest action instincts in the last reel, in the first two it establishes a singular mood and worldview unlike just about anything else, ever. It has a mood of sustained dread which makes it feel nightmarish - tellingly, the first shot is from the point of view of John as he is woken from sleep - and much of the action occurs in a depopulated netherworld of hookers, strippers, mercenaries and grotesques through which John stumbles, as confused and ignorant as the audience.
It follows John as he wakes from a coma after witnessing his family murdered by Devereaux in the gruelling opening scene. As he tries to discover more about who he is and what has happened to him, a parallel story details Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren) and his attempts to recruit an army of the genetically-created "UniSols" from the other films in this franchise, to serve under the command of Devereaux, here depicted as an enigmatic Col. Kurtz figure. Meanwhile John is discovering that he may not be quite "normal", as his past acts are revealed and strangers try to murder him.
In a film like this, the acting barely matters, but Adkins has a vulnerability to him that suits his character until he remembers what he is capable of and starts to rack up a ridiculous body count. Van Damme and Lundgren have little to do but Hyams makes good use of the icon each represents.
The many ambiguities contained in the story work beautifully - the more John learns, the more complex his situation becomes - and feed into the brilliantly bitter ending, which allows for the catharsis of a final confrontation and then upends it with a vicious little coda.
It may be a little cheap and clumsily written in parts, but this film is as challenging and cynical as action cinema gets. I can't wait to see what Hyams does next.