Why I Am Not A Film Critic: Universal Soldier IV Was Probably The Best Movie I Saw Last Year
Picture the scene: John Hyams, fresh of the unexpectedly fabulous Universal Soldier III and son of the rather awesome Peter Hyams (he who made Outland and had the stones to follow Kubrick with 2010), is at some trendy restaurant in LA, with two studio execbots.
You see, they’re happy with John: John has been a very good boy. John has just made them some money.
John was brought on board to direct Universal Solider III, a sequel to a forgotten film franchise of almost two decades ago, a franchise killed by a piss poor sequel (even by Van Damme’s standards). This was a franchise that had — for leading men — two aging action stars who are sort-of like waxwork models of themselves from twenty years ago.
But The Expendables was being made, and Van Damme had pulled his finger out his arse and made JCVD and HOLY FUCKING TITTY BURGERS, THE MAN CAN ACTUALLY ACT. So Van Damme was back in the spotlight somewhat, and Stallone was showing that there was still money to be bled out of a load of geriatric action stars that were looking increasing like 250 pound slabs of fried shrimp. Meanwhile, these execbots had this Universal Soldier franchise that was lying dormant.
Now, these execbots have probably cycled through all the A-Listers that wouldn’t touch this with a barge pole (“yeah, give Jim Cameron’s agent a phone, he’s not had a hit in a while”), gone through all those B-list directors destined to direct the next Jason Statham DTV movie, tried Sam Firstenberg (no-can-do, he’s currently working on American Ninja 6), and finally settled on Hyam Jr, who’d been shooting episodes of TV shows.
And so Hyams Jr ends up behind the camera on a film that should have been fucking dreadful. This is a film that no one really gave a shit about, and actually sneered over, and a film that looks like it was shot on only two locations in Eastern Europe to save money. You can even see the Execbot check-list for this movie: “Hey you know John, oh by the way, I loved that episode of NYPD Blue you directed — masterful — anyway we should get one of those MMA guys in, y’know, like the ones that the kids love? Like that Brock Couture guy, the one that has been cast in The Expendables, yeah. A new character for the franchise. And it’s gotta look cool, with like, loads of Special Forces guys doing their thing and we can be close in on the action, y’know with shakey-cam and shit, really feel the grit. The kids love the grit. Oh, and your budget is going to be five dollars.”
Anyway, Hyams took what money he had, shipped himself, his Dad (who was cinematographer), JCVD and Lundgren of to Bulgaria, and shot this movie on (what looks like) digital video. And — you can probably guess where this is going — it’s a tremendous little action movie, beautifully shot, taut, with none of that winking-at-the-camera BS “witty” one liners of The Expendables or Die Hard With A Zimmer, or callbacks to the action movies of the Precambrian age. U.S. III hits the beats it’s supposed to hit but did it very well. Hyams really worked with a limited palette and (what I imagine was) a tight shooting schedule, brought in some new blood to the franchise, and really put things back on track. Andrei Arlovski — the new addition to the cast — comes across as absolutely merciless and adds a nice counterpoint for JCVD and Lundgren (both of whom have somewhat modest appearances to the movie).
And the nerds sat-up and took notice. I remember coming across reviews of this on the internet, and almost disbelieving what I was reading: a lot of the critics I respected, either liked, or didn’t hate, this movie. Indeed, it passes the greatness test for me: it’s a film that I want to watch again with my friends, a movie that I will enjoy watching again through their eyes.
So, let us get back to our hypothetical meeting between Mr Hyams and Studio Execbot #1 and Studio Execbot # 2. U.S.III has not set the box office on fire, but it has been a modest critical and financial success. There will be Blu-Ray royalty dollars to be had. Execbot # 1 and Execbot # 2 are completely colorblind to anything like aesthetic worth, but they do know that their Masters are pleased, and they get to keep their jobs for another day. And so they live to schmooze again, and Hyam’s has successfully resurrected a franchise and opened up the possibility of more money to be made.
And so now, sitting over a carb-free lunch, to the matter at hand: what does Mr Hyam’s want to do for a sequel?
Having seen Universal Soldier I.V., I can only imagine the conversation went something like this:
“Well, I’ve been thinking, Studio Execbot # 1 and # 2, that the Universal Soldier movies haven’t really tapped into the nightmare-ish quality of being a genetically engineered killing machine. I mean, what’s really going on under the skin of Luc Deveraux and Andrew Scott? What does it mean to wake-up one day, a re-animated or regrown soldier? What’s it like from the inside?”
Execbot # 1 and Execbot # 2, fixed grins on their faces, are starting to shoot looks at each other across the table. Inner feelings? You can’t blow that shit up! How do you fucking shoot that with shakey-cam?
“You know, to us on the outside, we see an action movie, but I bet if we really made a movie exclusively from the perspective of a Universal Soldier, it would be a horror film, full of Kubrickian slo-mo shots and David Lynchian weirdness. I mean, these are undead soldiers right? With fractured memories, and P.T.S.D. — I mean reality to them would be like a bad dream.”
By this point Execbot # 1 has to cover his right hand with his left hand, to cover the twitching. David Lynch? Wasn’t that the guy who directed Dune? How much fucking money did that lose? And Kubrick — he was that weird dude living in England whose last movie had our blessed Thetan overlord pretending to have sex with that woman he shared a marriage with, and that didn’t make any fucking money!!!
“Yeah, but John, but John, we’re going to have, like, fighting in it, right? Like, gritty fighting with shakey-cam and shit?”
“Sure sure, in fact, I’m going to start the movie off with a guy having his entire family murdered in front of his eyes, and I’m going to shoot it from his P.O.V., as he watches Jean Claude Van Damme murder his child.”
Studio Execbot # 2 chokes on his mineral water. Studio Execbot # 1 slaps the table a little too hard, nervously laughing, before saying:
“Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you said for a second there that the hero of the franchise was going to execute a child.”
“Oh I did, I did, but get this. For whole chunks of this movie, there’s going to be no action at all. No Van Damme split kicks. In fact, JCVD has some great ideas about this — he wants to play Luc like Kurtz from Apocalypse Now — he’s going to spend most of the movie walking around looking miserable in the jungle.”
“But Andrei, Andrei will fight right? He was a pretty mean bad ass in U.S. III”
“Yeah, we’ll get Andrei to fight. But I want him to put on weight and grow a beard and we won’t have him do any karate moves — just walk around with an enormous shotgun killing hookers in a brothel.”
By this point Studio Execbot # 1 is started to drool a little; his robotic little mind has performed an illegal operation and is now shutting down.
Execbot # 2 is still holding out hope.
“John, John, you gotta throw us a bone here. If Devereaux is your bad guy then who d’ya have in mind to play the lead character, the one who, y’know…”
“The one whose child is executed in cold blood at the start of the film.”
“Oh, that’ll be Scott Adkins.”
Phew. Not a total clusterfuck for the Execbots. This is something they can work with. Adkins was that British guy who was like Jason Statham with nicer hair, crossed with a gymnast, who could do his own stunts, a guy who’d been on the cusp of bigger things for years, but who was still a shitload cheaper than Statham.
The Execbots breathe deep — that crisp, L.A. air — it’s okay, we can still do this.
“Yeah, Scott Adkins, Scott Adkins. Phenomenal in Ninja, phenomenal. You see him doing all those crazy flips? He shoulda got an Oscar for that — it was a crime that he wasn’t nominated.”
But Mr Hyams has in something else in mind. He wants to stretch Adkins in a different way:
“But here’s the interesting thing that we’ll do with Scott. Let’s cripple him. Let’s have him spend two thirds of this movie limping round on a stick, or driving in his car across American freeways. Y’know, the great expanse, the great frontier, representing his own inner turmoil. But when he does eventually start fighting, we’ll get him to do all that crazy Wu-Shu acrobatic stuff, just to please the action junkies. But this film really needs to be about the inner turmoil, man.”
Execbot # 1 looks at Execbot # 2. Hyams has already signed as director. The money is in place. Dolph, JCVD, and Andrei are signed and locked.
“So, uh, just to clarify John, in the total running time, how many minutes do you envisage as having any sort of action?”
“Well, it’s hard to say, Studio Execbot # 2. Maybe around 20 minutes?”
It is at this point that, in normal Hollywoodland, the meal would end, everyone would go there separate ways, and then a load of script-notes would come down for Hyams telling him in no uncertain terms that the movie he had just pitched would probably end up as career suicide for him and the Execbots, and here are some suggestions from Execbot # 2’s Dentist.
At least, in my imagination, that’s how I imagine things would have played out.
But this movie got made. And it is really really great, a movie that pushes — no rallies against — the tropes of the genre. This is a film that snarls at the viewer, is full of rage and loss, and doesn’t pander — at all — to the audience. You accept this film on it’s terms, or not at all. Hyams and his editor employ a whole host of tricks to make the viewing experience uncomfortable for the viewer, from the incredibly brutal opening sequence of the movie (especially if you’re a parent), to some of the most extreme strobe-lighting I have ever seen employed in a movie, put in service of altered consciousness.
As it turned out, this was my movie of the year, 2012: which is why I am not a Film Critic.