Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The "big" stars are barely there in John Hyams' latest UNIVERSAL SOLDIER chapter

Have there really been six -- count 'em, six! -- movies in the oddly enduring, if not endearing, Universal Soldier franchise? US was the movie that paired martial arts star Jean-Claude Van Damme with Dolph Lundgren (see photo at bottom for a walk down memory lane), and after it spawned its first, and barely so-so follow-up, this movie-goer opted out. He hadn't realized that four more films had followed until he was invited to a screening of the latest -- UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING -- which is actually receiving a limited theatrical release. (Several in the series, I believe, went straight to video.)

From the looks of the latest addition to US, the franchise has increasingly devolved into a merely martial arts action free-for-all. Maybe it always was thus, but I dimly remember a little more plot on view.  US: DOR offers a stab at plot: the US-ers want to take charge of their own lives -- how sweet! -- but the damned government always stands in their way. Yet this plot, such as it is, is delivered in muddy shorthand. Well, maybe you had to have seen all six in the series to fully appreciate its subtlety. As directed by John Hyams (son of Peter), shown above, the movie does indeed have some very good action scenes. And that's pretty much all it has.

After a certain number or these scenes -- unless you are a die-hard action fan, of course -- the mind cries out for more, but is left, as something Biblical has told us, crying in the wilderness. So you might as well just get used to all the rough and tumble and go with it. And this is very rough and tumble.

It is also, shall we say, a tad misogynistic. Not only do a bunch of women get shot up in grizzly fashion early on, there is literally only one woman of any note as a character in the movie -- and she simply trails along to scream and flee and occasionally bop a bad guy on the bean. (Worse, she cannot be found in a single photograph on any of the sites I've explored.) No, this is a guy's guy movie in which females are simply "beards" to cover up the implicit homosexuality certainly found in an all-male, maximum-testosterone situation like this one. The unusual thing about the one major young woman on view (not the young lady above, but the attractive Mariah Bonner, a photo of whom, among the nearly 60 stills, I cannot find!) is that -- shock of shocks -- her breasts look real and relatively small. Good for you, Mariah: Stick to your guns!

As to the above-the-title "stars" of this film -- Van Damme (above) and Lundgren (at right, two photos up) -- the former has but one long fight scene (the least interesting in the movie) at the finale, while the latter has several very short scenes that are nearly dispensable. In one of these, he babbles a bunch of exposition and rouses his men to rant a bit; in the others, he all but disappears. If you've come to see these guys, save your money.

The real star of the show is a fellow named Scott Adkins, shown at left and evidently known to martial arts enthusiasts but not to me. He is young, cute and hunky (a huge improvement over the two "stars" who definitely should not be doing this sort of movie much longer), and he knows his way around martial arts moves. He is given a set-up "backstory" that we see taking place at the film's beginning and then over and over again throughout the movie until we're ready to send an emergency email to the filmmakers explaining that, yes, we get it, so enough already.

But they don't care. Nor does their core audience for all this blood and guts and heavy-duty, man-on-man combat. That audience will sit there, drinking it all in, waiting for the next big fight. Which is due any second now....  WHOMP! SPLATTER!

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning -- from Magnet Films and running 114 minutes, which is way too long -- has been available via VOD for some time now and opens this Friday, November 30 in Hollywood, New York and Austin, and on December 14 in Tucson. Click here to see specific theaters.

And now, as promised above: Remember these guys? Ah, time. It changes, and then obliterates us all, eventually....

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