Different for a Reason: John Hyams on Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning

The director explains why the latest Universal Soldier isn't an action genre movie at all.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

There’s been a lot of debate about what exactly the latest Universal Soldier movie is. Since it has played on VOD, a lot of reviews have argued about where it fits in the franchise. When Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning premiered at Fantastic Fest, director John Hyams said in his introduction that it is not an action genre movie. Since Fantastic Fest, Hyams has even cut his own trailer, which incorporates a quote from us, though not the “Van Dammage and Lundgrenergy” quote we coined. In Day of Reckoning, a new protagonist John (Scott Adkins) becomes involved in the pursuit of a very different Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren). The film opens in theaters this week, so take a look at our interview with Hyams at Fantastic Fest for some clarification, and only the mildest of spoilers.

CraveOnline: It’s interesting to hear you describe this as not an action genre movie, because it has more action than many so-called action movies. What to you defines the action genre?

John Hyams: Well, I think I make a differentiation between the action genre and an action movie. In this case, I think action genre, tonally, is referencing movies really from the ‘80s when we had a slew of action movies that starred the likes of Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, Steven Seagal, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Go down the line with all of them and what those movies had in common I think was a tonal thing in the sense that there was a sense of humor to those movies, there was a degree of not taking themselves too seriously or the story too seriously. Again, this doesn’t spread to any movie that is action. I think the Bourne franchise would be something that’s different and that is considered an action movie. But I think by selling this movie as straight up action, you could think, “Well, this could be along the line of The Expendables.” Again, The Expendables is a movie that I believe has a sense of humor and is embracing that. It’s embracing audience’s associations with these particular performers and their associations with their past performances, and all those things are kind of taken into account. To me, this movie is much more, in the most simple terms, a noir thriller ultimately. I think noir is more about mystery, number one, and noir is combining the elements of horror and mystery together. I think by describing it that way, it’s letting the audience understand that this is not a movie that’s going to begin with a car chase and then have its first big fight 10 minutes in, and then 15 minutes in you’re going to get another fight. In fact, the first pieces of action in this movie are not really mano a mano fights. They’re more attacks. In a sense it kind of becomes an action movie by the end, but that action is more the logical progression of where the story’s going.

I still think the first Dolph Lundgren fight, the car chase and the first Scott Adkins/Andrei Arlovski fight are still pretty awesome.

Oh good. I hope that everyone thinks they’re awesome. I hope that they’re enjoyed on the visceral level. You try to make the action as exciting as anything, but we also want to earn those pieces of action.

Is Day of Reckoning really about blowback, when our military assets turn on us?

Good one, yes. What we tried to do with Day of Reckoning was on one level have it be as standalone as it possibly can be. It’s a fairly mysterious movie as a standalone but it can exist that way. However, the way Universal Soldier: Regeneration ended was with Luc Deveraux basically taking off, knowing that if he returned back, he would be enslaved, he would be destroyed. Nothing good could happen to him if he went back. He also was, at the end of that movie, chemically set into a homicidal rage where his id had essentially been set wild. So again that was a genie that couldn’t be put back in the bottle. So when we began with the ideas of Day of Reckoning, we were saying, “Okay, this story and the story of this whole franchise begins with the protagonist of all these movies beginning on the lam. He’s either going to continue to run away or he’s going to create his own war.” The idea was that this character and what they had created was someone who if he wasn’t set on a mission to go fight a way, he was going to create a war himself. In this case, he’s creating a war with the government so that is quite literally what it is about.

Are you fighting the marketing with the trailer issues?

Yeah, I am. I felt like the trailer and some of the marketing materials were not embracing some of the things that make this movie unique. Instead I felt they were focusing on the things that made it similar to the other movies, I guess in an attempt to make the prospective audience feel like you’re going to get more of the same. And I felt like in my mind, the proper way to market this movie, or if I would, would be to highlight what sets it apart. Number one, because you want to prepare people for that. You don’t want to advertise something in a false way, but also it’s different for a reason. We did it different because we think that’s interesting. We think that the audience deserves to be told a different kind of story in a different way and to be challenged. Whether we succeed or not is up to the audience to decide but the point is to not simply just tell the same story and do it the same way.

Yet it’s not so different that it’s no longer Universal Soldier, right?

I believe that it is every bit as much about Universal Soldier and certainly our recent interpretation of the franchise. The ideas that we’ve been dealing with with this franchise is to really try and take the mythology as seriously as we can and try to really imagine how this is going to play out. It’s not realistic.  I don’t believe this movie’s realism but still we are trying to adhere to a different kind of thriller logic rather than using the term “action movie logic.”

You pointed out when you introduced the film that when the first Universal Soldier came out, it was the lighter sort of Terminator 2 approach. When you heard the idea, were you thinking, “Wait a minute, we’re talking about dead people coming back to life, that’s scary?”

Yeah, exactly. I think that that was back to Regeneration when they first asked me if I was interested in directing it and if I had come up with ideas that could take the script that they had to a place where the actors would be interested in working on it. So that was the first thing I thought about, was you can either move forward with this thing. I’m not saying this is the wrong approach, you can either take the approach of this is a movie about zombie soldiers working for the government, and you accept that and it’s almost a funny concept and then you tell a story as if that’s just a very matter of fact thing. There is something really funny about that and that could be done, but I thought let’s take the other approach of saying, “Holy sh*t, these are zombie soldiers. That is an incredibly f***ed up scenario and this is about a Frankenstein myth.” Regeneration was again taking the construct of the story that they had, which is: well, the prime minister’s children are kidnapped and a separatist group has taken over Chernobyl and they’re making demands and they want their people to be freed. I guess in the original script, that was really the story. To me, that was sort of the MacGuffin. The real story was that the separatist group was not a true villain. The true villain was the Dr. Frankenstein.

Well, after 20 years, being a re-animated zombie isn’t fun anymore.

Right, it gets old, exactly. The idea of that movie is that yeah, when you’re not working, they put you on ice and then they take you off ice. It’s kind of a miserable existence, and not an existence that anyone chooses. Now, I understand some people have said to me, they reference Universal Soldier: The Return, that Luc Deveraux was human in that one. As I’ve said before, I was told and was happy to oblige that we were not making a sequel to The Return.

There’s an amazing line in The Return where Van Damme says the scientist reversed the process. The “process” is being dead, so I’d like to know more about how they reverse that.

Right, I’m alive. [Laughs]

Could Andrew Scott have called John a traitor in their confrontation? That would’ve been a nice callback.

It would, and Dolph could’ve called him a traitor except in fact he wasn’t a traitor because he wasn’t a soldier. In his mind, he never was a soldier. Again, that’s a spoiler but that’s the idea.

Do the Unisols not still need to be kept cool?

No, I think not and that was again a place that once we took it from re-animated soldiers to straight up clones, the need to keep them cool didn’t seem to be necessary anymore. The idea of this whole movie was that the technology had gotten to a place where they had created sleeper agents. So the idea that we were interested in was almost the Manchurian Candidate type of thing where these guys have been created, have been released, have been put out into the world sort of working menial jobs. They’re living amongst us and then they can be activated. So being on ice would not really work along with that so they would have to have gotten the technology to a point where you no longer need to be on ice. To me being on ice goes hand in hand with being dead.

Do you ever miss the tongue in cheek action movies? Even your dad made some like Sudden Death and Timecop.

Oh, I think there’s room for the tongue in cheek action movie. I think humor is great and I’m not saying I would never do something that wasn’t tongue in cheek to some degree. In the context of this particular one, certainly after what we did with Regeneration, there was no way we were going to go back that other way. It would just be not right to what direction I was going with this. I certainly think it has a place.  People enjoy it. It’s fun. Movies are supposed to be fun. This movie’s supposed to be fun, even though it’s very dark, but horror movies are dark so this movie is not about literally talking about starving orphans in the Ukraine. It’s about f***ing cloned soldiers.

Your father likes to use available light. What is your view on lighting?

Well, I think he would argue that he doesn’t. I know he’s been tagged as a guy who uses available light, but whenever I mention that to him he contradicts that. He disagrees with that idea and the truth is his thing isn’t available light. He is into source lighting and he’s certainly into a kind of lighting where he has a light source. Let’s put it this way, he doesn’t believe in over filling things. So he will go with a light source and really commit to that light source and let things fall in and out of shadow. That’s an area he likes to explore. To me, I would say our aesthetics have some similarities but they have a lot of differences. I think this movie actually looks quite different than Regeneration but out of necessity. That was a kind of washed out looking movie and this one was more high contrast, but it’s actually quite colorful in that there’s a reds and greens in this movie, whereas that one was really washed out blues, blacks, grays. It really just comes down to what the particular story calls for, but I would say the main difference between him and I is that he certainly has a fascination with the place where light and dark meet, and seeing how far he can push the darkness. I think that’s what he’s really interested in.

What’s your next film?

Don’t really know just yet. I have a few different things that I’m developing and a few different things I’m meeting with people about, but I don’t really have a particular project set up yet so waiting and seeing.

Would you do Universal Soldier 5?

Well, I don't think that would be the next project I do. I wouldn’t think so. Would I do a 5? I guess I would never say never. Those kinds of things happen if people want them. If people want to see it, then you start to think okay, is there a way to take this story somewhere? I think certainly there are plenty of compelling places to take the story, so it’s just whether or not there’s demand for another one.

Was there ever a chance in your life you would not go into filmmaking?

Yeah, for a while I was interested in being a painter and a sculptor. That’s actually what I studied in college and that’s what I was doing for a little while. I at first thought that was the way I was going to go. I always loved film and worked a lot on movies growing up, so it wasn’t that strange when I decided to get involved in it, but I got involved with it probably earlier than I thought I was going to.

Follow Fred Topel on Twitter at @FredTopel.