With the opening weekend of the 2012 Toronto After Dark Film Festival now at a close, we continue our coverage with looks at the action sequel Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (which played on Sunday night) and an advanced look at the Canadian thriller In Their Skin.
For a full list of features, showtimes, and more information, head on over to torontoafterdark.com or for a look back at our previous fest coverage go here (for our look at Grabbers) or here (for looks at American Mary, After, and the yet to come Resolution and Wrong).
Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning
More major film franchises should try making entries as potentially alienating to their core demographic as John Hyams has with this fourth instalment of the Universal Soldier franchise. Those looking purely for brain dead thrills and things that go boom every few minutes will come away shocked and disappointed by what they’ve just seen, but those going in knowing to expect something a bit headier with a deliberately slow pace and purposefully confounding plot will find a lot to like. Yes, it is kind of a mess and still probably best relegated to short theatrical runs before finding its real cult following on VOD and DVD, but Hyams (who also helmed the previous entry in the series, the far lighter Regeneration) deserves a healthy amount of congratulations for trying something as daring as this.
The last thing a family man named John (Scott Adkins) remembers after being beaten into a coma with a crowbar during a home invasion is the brutal murder of his wife and child at the hands of Luc Deveraux (Jean Claude Van Damme) and a band of similarly rogue regenerated soldiers back from the dead. Not remembering much else about his life aside from the incident, John goes on a mission of revenge and a quest for answers to the motivation behind their seemingly senseless killing. Meanwhile, Luc and his former enemy Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren) are amassing a militia to overthrow the very system that created them.
The series continuity here seems minimal since Deveraux wasn’t 100% evil at the end of the previous entry, so Hyams begins disorienting his audience right off the bat. The opening sequence takes place almost entirely through the use of POV shots that only underline how grim the remainder of the film is going to be. Day of Reckoning isn’t designed to be fun at all. It’s designed to be blunt force brutality, which is a bold choice in this era of video game styled violence and shaky cam kinetics. Hyams’ film is slow and save for a few incredibly well staged action set pieces (including a stellar car chase that leads directly into a fight in a sporting goods store between Adkins and the film’s main villain, a hulking behemoth simply known as The Plumber and the film’s climactic compound storming that’s largely done in long takes) the focus here instead gets placed directly on the characters and their own sense of dread and longing.
Adkins shows he’s more than just your average tough guy who can rock a tank top better than the rest of them. Since he’s on screen for 95% of the time, it’s good to see that he’s up to some existential heavy lifting and not just some ass kicking. In the film’s unabashed cribbing from Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and to the second half’s awkward, but not ineffective lurch into Lynch’s Lost Highway, Van Damme seems to be simultaneously playing Colonel Kurtz from the former and Robert Blake’s character from the latter. Similarly, it’s nice to see Lundgren hamming it up while playing a composite of Dennis Hopper’s twitchy photographer and Henry Rollins’ guard. The similarity between these projects seems pretty undeniable and subversive even though the concepts brought on by these comparisons can get lost in the studio mandated machismo that’s necessary to make the film at all sellable to audiences.
But the very macho nature of the film is what makes it even more interesting on a thematic level. Hyams doesn’t mine his film’s sense of ultraviolence for laughs all of the time. Certainly, there are moments designed to be crowd pleasing and cathartic, but he also keeps a keen eye towards the tragedy of it all. The inciting act that opens the film stays with our hero and keeps coming back as an inescapable waking nightmare. It might seem a bit like a filmmaker having his cake and eating it too, but it works surprisingly well, making the more brainless and fun elements of the movie far more welcome. Hyams doesn’t want to make the audience feel too comfortable with what they’re watching, especially in some Gaspar Noe inspired strobing sequences involving Van Damme’s character appearing as visions to UniSols that are flat out designed to punish the audience’s eyeballs as if they were looking directly into the face of pure evil. Hyams, for better or worse, has made machismo threatening again.
It still isn’t perfect. The budget seems strained, and it’s obvious that Lundgren and Van Damme probably only shot for two days. There’s one female character that’s front and centre, and her purpose, like so many other things in the film, is purposefully abstract. It’s also far too long at 114 minutes and in definite need of some pruning for redundancies, but as far as this type of fare goes its festival scene hype is well warranted and hard earned.
In Their Skin
If the above review of the fourth entry to a 90s action movie franchise was too long, I promise not to take up too much of your time here, since In Their Skin proves far more difficult to talk about without spoiling any of the film. There also isn’t very much that can be said about it in general. It’s a decent home invasion thriller and pretty much the definition of the phrase “it is what it is”.
Following the tragic loss of their daughter, Mark (Josh Close, who also provides the screenplay), his wife Mary (Selma Blair), their son (Quinn Lord), and their dog, all take a therapist suggested vacation to a rental property to get away and recharge. While there, they meet up with another local family, headed by the perfection obsessed Bobby (James D’Arcy), and things get weird and intense from there.
It’s low key in the same way a filmed stage production of the same material would be, and director Jeremy Power Regimbal mounts everything in ways that are appropriate for the material. A midpoint dinner sequence that drags out over a series of increasingly awkward questioning proves to be far more chilling than the shocks that are to follow once the movie settles into a more conventional groove.
The twist can be seen pretty far off, but saying it directly spoils the entire movie since that’s all it really is. The plot itself gets explained in the twist, and it used to be explained away in the film’s original title, Replicas. Still, it’s not a bad film by any stretch, since Close and D’Arcy put in some great work as dramatic foils. It also gives Blair the best role she’s had in years. The only thing that really comes close to almost sinking it would be the lacklustre explanation of the villain’s motivation, but over all it’s a suitably intense entry into the quickly overcrowding home invasion subgenre.