That Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning emerged late last year as something of a critical darling should have surprised exactly no one. Its aesthetic influences, which range from David Lynch to Gaspar Noé, all but guaranteed the film’s elevation from the slums of B-movie obscurity to some kind of vulgar-auteurist master class, where a surrealist action niche nobody asked for could suddenly be filled. The idea of a Lost Highway for a post-UFC world is an appealing proposition, at least in cinephilic circles where high-art and exploitation flicks freely intermingle. And the cognitive dissonance generated by seeing Lynchian surrealism applied to what’s still essentially a Jean-Claude Van Damme action vehicle, replete with elaborate martial arts bouts and their attendant swaths of blood, makes for a pretty compelling viewing experience, particularly if the stylistic friction remains unexpected going in. There’s an element of “seeing it to believe it” built into the presentation: Expectations based on the history of a mostly direct-to-video franchise, an aging action-hero cast, and a patently absurd premise so conspicuously contradict the art-house sensibility of the film itself that you can hardly blame the first wave of audiences for feeling wowed by the shock.
But when this initial sense of surprise dissipates, one is left to contend with the film on its own terms, and Day of Reckoning simply doesn’t have the substance to justify its own formal grandiosity. It’s worth remembering that the aesthetic tendencies of somebody like Lynch, however striking or fascinating they are in practice, aren’t in and of themselves sources of depth or substance; his style is a consequence of the emotional logic of his films, not the other way around, which is to say that his idiosyncrasies of form are warranted by the material. Day of Reckoning appropriates those qualities for the simple reason that they look cool; their presence adds a palpably Lynchian atmosphere that gives only the illusion of substance. It obscures or altogether elides important narrative information to the same end: Obscurity and elision are the tools of art-house filmmaking, and adopting them lends the work de facto art-house credibility. Unabashedly exploitative fight scenes are thus bestowed the prestige of a high-art sensibility. The effect is a bit like when a cool indie band slathers a pop song in a thick layer of noise and distortion; something perceived as frivolous or facile is newly coded in one gesture as palatable to a more serious audience.
This, it probably goes without saying, warrants a great deal of skepticism. And there’s still something to be said for the film’s supremely well-executed action sequences, of which it contains a hefty number. Though John Hyams is a somewhat dubious appropriator of difficult conventions, he excels at clean and simple fight choreography, as many of these skirmishes prove; he treats a good movie fight in the same way the director of a musical might treat a movie dance, training his camera on the elegance of his players’ physicality and grace. The two major fight sequences—the first and best in a sports store, the second in an armory—are well shot and unfussy in a way that none of the film’s more laboriously “moody” or contemplative sequences are, which suggests that a better film might have been made, ironically, had Hyams’s vision been scaled back. Day of Reckoning, simply put, is a solid B movie bogged down by its own art-house aspirations. And while that problem, almost in and of itself, makes it a more interesting failure than the bulk of its contemporaries, it’s nevertheless a source of justifiable frustration, as the film’s capacity to enthrall as a largely traditional action film seems somehow intruded on by half-baked surrealist trimmings, flirtations with a more serious cinema whose substance lay beyond the reach of this material.
Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning serves as a good case study for the best and worst qualities of high-definition digital photography, both of which this practically flawless 1080p transfer brings into relief. On the one hand, the image's immense detail and sharpness is often gasp-worthy, which is particularly evident during close-ups (check the sweat on Dolph Lundgren's neck during the nightclub raid for proof); one the other, however, the image is clear and high-gloss to the point of transparency, which makes it feel rather sterile and cold. In a technical sense, then, the movie looks superb, but I for one sorely miss the texture of 35mm. In any case, Sony's Blu-ray does a top-notch job of preserving the original look of the film, er, video, and fidelity is paramount. Likewise, the DTS-HD Master Audio delivers precisely the depth and richness a film with this many hard-hitting foley sounds needs.
Misleading feature-listing alert: The back cover of Sony's Blu-ray indicates the inclusion of "3 making-of featurettes," but it's really just one hour-long EPK doc divided via on-screen title cards into three segments. The production of Universal Soldier, given its strange history as a franchise and the apparent idiosyncrasies of this new iteration, is well-worth exploring in detail, but, to that end, a talky commentary track from John Hyams and co-star Lundgren provides more substantial context and on-set anecdotes than anything in the stand-alone featurette. Hyams and Lundgren wax nostalgic about old-school movie fights and the giddy violence of exploitation cinema, and Lundgren, after a little prodding, talks at length about his experience working on Rocky IV, which is a treat.
Essentially Lost Highway for a post-UFC world, Universal Soldier: Days of Reckoning is an intriguing but ultimately rather empty experience.