Showing posts with label old school. Show all posts
Showing posts with label old school. Show all posts

Oct 4, 2020


[The below interview originally ran on Cut Print Film in October 2013 to celebrate Commando's thirtieth anniversary. It is reprinted here with only minor updates.]

Commando, written by Steven E. de Souza and directed by Mark L. Lester, turns exactly thirty-five years old today, and yet enthusiasm for the film has never diminished. Perhaps that’s because fans who worship Commando are smart enough to know that John Matrix is not the only bad-ass worth celebrating. It is the film’s array of henchmen and the ensemble of character actors who gave them life that elevate Commando to new heights of pure enjoyment.

Joining me for a very bad-ass discussion are three of the greatest henchmen to have ever worked incongruously to exact the scheme of the evil main bad guy: the big Green Beret Cooke (Bill Duke; Predator, Action Jackson), the very mellow Diaz (Gary Carlos Cervantes; Scarface, Wild Wild West), and funny guy Sully (David Patrick Kelly; The Warriors, John Wick). These three men graciously took the time to reflect on their Commando experiences, including their (death) scenes, their memories of the departed Charles Meshack, who played fellow henchman Henriques, and what the film has come to mean to each of them.

So get ready, Commando fans: all hell is about to break loose.

Let’s party.

Q: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you end up working on Commando?

BILL DUKE: I auditioned. Joel Silver saw my work. He knew me from my film Car Wash and he liked what I did, so they took it from there. And after that, we worked on Predator together. He liked what I’d done on Commando, so that’s how that got started.

DAVID PATRICK KELLY: The producers were my guys, Joel Silver and Lawrence Gordon, who had done The Warriors and 48 Hours with me. So Joel called me up and asked me to do it, and that’s the way it happened. It was a great deal of fun.

GARY CARLOS CERVANTES: It was a question of perseverance, and making the right connections and having the right friends. A friend of mine, Luis Contreras (Last Man Standing), is an actor. We did about ten things together. He’d been up for the part of Diaz and he called me up one night, drunk as a skunk, crying. “I think I blew it. The producer, Joel Silver, doesn’t like me. But you should go after the part.” So I sat there thinking about it, and I got a picture from my scene in Scarface – of me and the other guy in the Babylon Club and we’re shooting up the place. I sent it to [Jackie Birch] the casting director [for Commando] and I wrote, “Dear Jackie, You’re my favorite hit – Carlos.” The next day my agent called me and said, “They want to see you for Commando.”

I walk into the office and Jackie Birch says to me, “I got your picture, it’s clever. We’re still looking for Diaz.” So she read me for Diaz right then and there in the office, and then [after a couple hours] I met Mark Lester, the director and read for him. He said, “Thanks very much,” and I walked out. I didn’t hear anything for two weeks, and then my agent called me – something about them wanting to know if I can put some kind of toupee on or something to match the stunt guy. And I’m thinking, “What the hell is that? You don’t get an actor to match a stunt guy, you get a stunt guy to match an actor.” But my agent said they wanted to see me again, so I go in, and Jackie’s there, and she says, “Carlos, I want you to meet the stunt coordinator.” And he asks, “Have you shot machine guns and guns?” I go, “Yeah, I was in Scarface,” and this and that. And he nods to Jackie. And just then the director walks in and says, “Carlos, what are you doing here?” And I said, “Well, you guys called me and said you wanted to see me again.” And he said, “No, no. I saw fifty guys. When you walked in, you had the part. You got the job.”

So right then and there I had the job.

Q: What was it like working with Arnold?

DUKE: He’s a great dude, man. No ego. Totally professional. Prepared. Just committed. It was one of the best experiences I’ve had, on both Commando and Predator. He’s a good person.

KELLY: Arnold was really great. He was a wonderful guy who gave me a lot of advice about stuff. He was very humble about his acting. He would go to the dailies and then he’d talk about the different scenes [with me]. I remember he used to talk of meeting Maria Shriver, and he used to talk about his mother, who I met, actually. I met Arnold’s mother, and I also met his best friend from childhood, who was still around and part of his posse.

CERVANTES: I remember meeting Arnold up at the cabin. We filmed up at Mount Baldy in the mountains. I saw him standing across the way with his buddy, Sven[-Ole Thorsen], that big, giant stunt actor. Huge guy. Much bigger than Arnold. And I thought, “Arnold doesn’t look that big.” The assistant director wanted to introduce us, so we’re walking across the set, getting closer to Arnold, and yeah man, he is big. He’s huge! He’s standing next to Sven, who was like a foot taller, and maybe 270. So yeah, I got to meet Arnold and he was great. Making Commando was a real special time. And he took off, man. Who would’ve thought he would become such a huge star and accomplish everything that he did?

Q: How did it feel to die at his hands?

DUKE: The only reason he kicked my butt is because I got paid [laughs].

Q: [laughs] Good answer.

CERVANTES: Oh, it was great, man. I was so into that. I was so high just watching it. I remember when they printed it, the producer and director looked at Arnold, and he said, “Terrific!” You could tell that was it – that we’d nailed it.

When we shot it, they had me in the rocking chair and they hooked a wire to it, and the wall behind me wasn’t a real wall. We shot that part in a studio, so it was made of balsa wood, just in case I hit it. They shot a pellet at my head, and three or four grips just yanked that rocking chair I was in. They’d cut the back legs off. When they pulled me back, boom – I hit the wall. I got up and they started talking about another take, and I said, “Guys, you got one take. That was it [laughs].” 

I didn’t want to do stunts, man. I wanted to act. But we did it in one take, and it ended up in the trailer, so that was it. And it was just awesome, man.

Q: When you really think about it, the death of Diaz is actually one of the most important deaths in the film. Even though he doesn’t have a lot of screen time, his death signifies that John Matrix isn’t messing around. Diaz is so cocksure in front of Matrix and taunting him about his daughter; he feels safe from reprisal, only for him to get his head blown off. That really goes a long way in summing up Matrix’s motivation as a character. He’s not going to negotiate, and he’s not going to mellow out. Diaz basically tells him, “We don’t need guns” and Matrix replies, “Yeah, we do.”

CERVANTES: Yeah, it was great because it was so unexpected. It was a total change from the standard, like [instead of Matrix asking], “Okay, what do I have to do?”

You know, I was in the gym once doing bench presses, and a guy walks up to me and goes, “You died too early in Commando.” That was it. And he walked away.

Q: [laughs]

CERVANTES: I was like, “Wait, come back, man!” I couldn’t believe it. “Yeah! I did die too early!” Son of a gun…

KELLY: [Sully’s death] was a great scene, and it was well prepared. I was on a big cable. I had a harness that went up my leg. It took a long time. I give a lot of thanks to Bennie Dobbins, who was a great stunt man at the time – he passed away [in 1988] – but he harnessed me up there. It was just him, and another guy down below on the cliff who caught me after we did it two times. It took about six hours to film that whole thing.

Q: David, I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but Sully has become such a popular character. At times he even surpasses John Matrix in popularity—

KELLY: [laughs]

Q: —and so the death of Sully is a highlight for all kinds of reasons. Were you aware that Sully had such a rabid cult following?

KELLY: No! I’m just kind of hearing about it now. I knew that people responded to the movie and remembered it. They say that line to me quite often – not as much as “Warriors, come out to play!” but they say, “I promised to kill you last.” I’ve never done autograph shows or those kinds of particular venues. I prefer venues like this to talk about these things, because I understand that people are interested in them on a deeper level. I respect those autograph shows and the fans that come, but it’s not my thing.

I based Sully on two former mercenary guys who were charged with protecting Robert Vesco, who died a few years ago in exile, in Cuba. He was a fundraiser for Nixon, but he had done these financial shenanigans. He made millions before Bernie Madeoff did. This guy was doing it way back in the ‘70s, and maybe earlier than that. He was doing these shell-game financial things and he ended up being pursued by the government, and he ended up in exile – first in Costa Rica, and then in Cuba – and he had this mercenary squad who protected him. I had seen an interview on “60 Minutes” with these guys, and I thought that was a fascinating backstory for Sully – to be hired by the dictator guy. That’s where that came from; that’s who he’s based on. There’s an important book written by Christopher Dickey about Nicaragua and the contras [With the Contras: A Reporter in the Wilds of Nicaragua], and the CIA’s work to fight against them. In the 1980s, there was the Freedom of Information Act, and so you got to see manuals that the CIA put out to help overthrow the rebels in South America. These were really interesting to read as background for possible scenarios in Commando. So, as cartoony as it was, it was based on real stuff that was going on in the Reagan America at the time.

Q: Within the context of the film, Sully’s background makes a lot of sense. When you look at the group of guys they got together to play the villains, most of them were pretty much the brawns, but Sully was the money guy. He didn’t need the brawns, because he was more of the intelligence gatherer.

KELLY: Yeah, and there’s the scene where he makes the deal for the illegal passports before the big chase scene with Arnold – before Sully meets his demise – so you’re right. Though you never find out what Sully was going to do with those passports, it was for some kind of terrorist something or other! [laughs]

Q: Do you all have a favorite line from the film, whether it was one of yours or that of someone else?

CERVANTES: [Impersonating Arnold] “Sully, remember when I promised to kill you last?” “That’s right, you did!” “I LIED.”

DUKE: “I eat green berets for breakfast!”

Q: I was hoping you’d pick that one.

KELLY: Steven E. de Souza and the director, Mark Lester, let me improvise a lot of my dialogue that Sully says, especially with Rae Dawn Chong, and at the deal-making session where Sully is buying the illegal IDs.

Q: David, I have to ask you: during that scene in the mall when you’re buying the illegal passports, you sort of offhandedly mention to the guy you’re meeting, “This used to be a great place for hunting slash.” Was that improvved?

KELLY: Yeah, that was me. I put that in. I always have music on in the background for my characters, and the song that was sort of everywhere at that time was Sade’s “Smooth Operator.” That’s who this guy thought he was. He just travels around, does his business, and gets what he can on every level. So that was his worldview, which is pretty demented and perverse.

Q: You can tell just by the way Sully saunters around on screen that he’s sexually aggressive, and he thinks very highly of himself.

KELLY: That’s right. So we put that one in, and then the dialogue with Arnold when Sully meets his demise at the hilltop. That was at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, which is famous because that’s where Rebel Without a Cause was filmed, with James Dean and Dennis Hopper. It was the same place where they had the big knife fight – where Arnold was holding me by the foot. That was near another cinematic shrine.

Q: Looking back on Commando, whether at the finished film or of your time on set, what do you first think of?

DUKE: That Commando was one of my first real bad guys. It was an opportunity to work with Joel Silver, who went on to do incredible things, and so did the director. Everyone went on to do great things, you know? It was an experience that I felt very fortunate to be a part of.

CERVANTES: Oh man, it’s Arnold. I remember I was smoking a cigar on the set – just a regular cigar. And he goes [imitating Arnold], “Oh, you smoke?” And he tells some guy on set to bring him a cigar, and he brings back this giant cigar. The thing looked like a stick of dynamite. And he had a cutter that looked like pliers. So that was cool, sitting with Arnold and having a cigar with him.

KELLY: I think of that Porsche – which wasn’t really a Porsche, since they had to wreck it. It was a Volkswagen, I believe, with the shell of a Porsche over top of it.

CERVANTES: I also remember I was supposed to do the Cadillac scene in the car dealer. That’s what I read for. And Joel Silver changed it on the day of the shoot, and I was like, “Aw man, what are you talking about? That was like…my scene.” And he goes, “Well, you know: a black guy…Cadillac.” Aw, jeeze.

Q: [laughs] Oh no. That’s so, so bad, but you almost have to laugh because that’s perfectly typical Hollywood rationale.

CERVANTES: Yeah, and he tells me this on-set! It was a six a.m. call at the Cadillac set to film it. So I had to sit there and watch them film the scene, because I was needed for something later that night – the trash truck stuff. And my stunt guy, who was going to be driving through the window, ended up doubling the guy who was on top of the car. Yeah, Joel… “What the? Are you kidding?” But I couldn’t rock the boat.

Q: From now on, every time I watch that scene, I’m going to picture Diaz sitting in that Cadillac instead.

CERVANTES: Yeah, Diaz, with that puffy jacket!

So that was a total bummer, because that was such a great scene. But I still got to do what I got to do. It turned out to be a great experience.

As it turned out, I got lucky, because Joel Silver put me in the trailer. “You’re gonna cooperate, right?” “Wrong.” Boom. And that little commercial got me so much work. Suddenly I was a hitman in so many movies, getting killed, killing people, getting beat up. It was fun! And I made good money.

Thirty years later, I’ve done a hundred movies, and it all goes back to Commando. I think, “Wow, if I hadn’t put that stamp on that envelope and mailed it…”

KELLY: Because you were talking about the fans and the people who appreciate it, I’m going to share something very personal now. For a period of time, from the time Commando first came out until about ten to fifteen years afterward, I had a little fan named Jamie, from Philadelphia, who had spina bifida, a very serious spinal nervous disorder – you’re always in and out of the hospital – and he was just an exceptional fan. And like you were saying, and I’m very humbly grateful to you for saying it, he saw me as the lead in the movie, and he talked about how Rae Dawn was Sully’s girlfriend. He was just a little boy. His father just cherished him – took him to things, and showed him Commando because Arnold was just an amazing heroic figure. But Jamie really became enchanted by Sully. I have to think there was something in Arnold holding me up in that way, which is so mythic, and so in his own disorder, his own disease, he identified with that somehow. So he came to visit me – his father brought him all the way to New York City – we had lunch at the Plaza Hotel. He wore a little suit, which looked like Sully’s suit, and his father bought him a toy yellow Porsche. To see that there is something in your work beyond the horrific characters that can touch someone – that means something to them, that there’s something they can take away from it – that’s what I think of when I think about Commando. I think about Jamie. Unfortunately, I think it was about ten years ago that he passed away. I went to his funeral and I sang an old Bob Dylan song, “He Was a Friend of Mine.” It was very moving.

Q: That’s amazing.

KELLY: People, over the years, have identified with that and recognized that, and saw beyond the horrific characters – and they are terrible, terrible characters – that we were trying to reflect something of the world that exists and tell the story of how someone can be heroic in the midst of that. If you can help do that, and if people identify with that, it really is just the whole reason for doing this.

Q: The shooting of the film made it look like everyone was having a great time. Everyone on screen had great chemistry.

DUKE: Commando was fun. It was – it was a good time. We had a good director and good people. It’s hard enough to do anyway, but it’s ten times harder when there’s drama. But there was no drama.

CERVANTES: Times like that, and even now when I’m on a big movie, it’s like going to Disney World. It’s so nice to be part of something that you know is going to last through the decades.

KELLY: I really enjoyed the crew: the late Bennie Dobbins, the great stunt man, who worked with me on 48 Hours; the great Matt Leonetti, who did the cinematography on 48 Hours; [composer] James Horner, who eventually won the Academy Award for Titanic – he did both 48 Hours and Commando; Mark Lester, who was very gracious.

I just think about those times, you know? Arnold was the id monster for the Reagan era. He was the dream of “We’re gonna solve the problems around the world, and if we have to do it ourselves, we’ll do it.”

Q: Charles Meshack, who played Henriques, died in 2006. What are your memories of him?

CERVANTES: I never met him on the set, but I did meet him later on at something. Maybe it was at the studio or at the screening, I don’t remember. But no, I never got the chance to work with him on set, unfortunately.

DUKE: Talented, funny, and committed. Very clear and committed to his craft. He’d joke around, but when the camera came on, he was a totally different person. We’re losing a lot of good folks, you know?

KELLY: He was a very quiet fellow. We were filming in 1985 at the LAX airport – that’s where we filmed our scene together – and it turned out that Charles Meshack was a decorated Vietnam War veteran. And it was in 1985 when they finally had a parade in lower Manhattan to welcome home, all these years later, all the Vietnam veterans. And he was very moved by that, so he started talking to me about it. We were filming the scene where Arnold gets on the plane when we saw on the TV that this parade was going on, and he said, “I was there, and there were some really terrible, terrible things that went on.” And he told me about some of those things. It was really a watershed for those veterans. I always felt really amazed by him – how he’d survived and gone into acting, so…it’s all props to Charles Meshack.

Q: I was reading up on Charles beforehand and there is very little information out there about him, so I wonder how many people knew about his history beyond those who were close acquaintances of his.

KELLY: I wanted to personalize our relationship in the dialogue [we shared]. I give it to Steven de Souza – he gives you the opportunity by writing this script and putting all these situations together so you can improvise a little bit within them. Shakespeare has these little subplots that sort of echo the main plot, so I improvised a little bit about my “old war buddy, Henriques.” I don’t quite remember the exact line, but it was something like, “there’s nothing like old war buddies,” about the two of us when we’re walking into the airport. I wanted to build up our relationship a bit and I remember Charles being really happy about that – about the fact that we weren’t just bodies walking through there. So we talk about “old war buddies,” but then you see that [kind of relationship] blown up to when it becomes Bennett and Matrix. But Sully and Henriques were at least on the same side.

Q: What was your impression of the film while you were working on it? Did you think it would be just another action film, or did you have a suspicion that it would go on to amass such a huge appreciation and still have people talking about it thirty years later?

DUKE: I guess the business people knew, but I don’t think any of us knew it would go on to become what it became. As actors, we’re there to do a job, but we’re not the editor or the director or the producer. We’re just there doing our job – it’s another gig. But the studio did a good job of marketing it. They did a good job with the music. All aspects of it, really. The feedback we got was incredible – from friends and everyone else. It was one of those experiences that an actor lives for, because, not only for that film, but it helps you get work in other things.

But nobody really knew. Everybody hoped, but nobody really knew.

Q: I think when you’re working on a film, you can tell that it’s special, but no one can ever really know if something is going to capture the kind of lightning in a bottle that most artists hope for.

DUKE: That’s right. That’s the truth. You can speculate, right? You can do your best, but… If it hits at the right time with the right audience, that’s a whole other situation.

CERVANTES: Well, Arnold had just taken off. The Terminator, I believe, had just come out and was going through the roof. I’d seen Arnold’s other films – the Conans and all that. I hadn’t seen The Terminator yet, but I’d heard the buzz. The buzz was huge. I remember Joel Silver running to the set with a Variety and saying, “Look at these numbers! Arnold’s going to be a huge star! We gotta finish this movie!” And I remember them at night doing dailies – I could hear it through the wall, it was on the other side of my dressing room. And I could hear Joel Silver talking about it. “We gotta wrap this up. Cut this scene and cut that scene.”

So I thought, “I think I’m on to something here.” Just from the way everyone treated me, and the atmosphere on the set, I thought, “This is going to be big, man.”

We finished shooting in June of ’85 and it was theatrically released in October of the same year – and they never do that. They were just pumping it out to jump on Arnold’s notoriety. And Commando only made $35 million in the United States, but it made $70 million overseas [$151 million adjusted for inflation]. It established Schwarzenegger as a major international star.

They had the screening at Fox Studios. It was funny, my brother-in-law, wife, and sister-in-law were there. Afterwards, [my brother-in-law and I] go into the bathroom and we’re at the urinals. There’s maybe ten of them in there. Some guy steps up in between us…and it’s Clint Eastwood [laughs]. Clint Eastwood, man! He must’ve been [at the screening] checking out the competition.

Q: Oh, wow.

CERVANTES: Yeah! But I didn’t ask to shake his hand. [laughs]

Man, I remember when the DVD first came out – just the DVD. I was at Walmart and they had this big cardboard cutout of Arnold from Commando, with all his movies on DVD. I was standing there looking at it and this little kid walks in with his mom and says, “Oh man, Commando! I want it!” So his mother gets it and puts it in her cart. And someone else comes over. “Oh, Commando! I gotta have that!” I thought, “Wow!” Two people bought it during those two minutes I was standing there. It was amazing.

That movie, thirty years later, people still play it over and over again.

KELLY: I think there are a lot of reasons why people relate to it still. There are some really great performances. Rae Dawn Chong was such a charming leading lady. It was the first movie that, I believe, tried to humanize Arnold, like in John Wick, that offered just a basic story that everyone could relate to. And who can’t relate to someone wanting to rescue their child? So it’s this really elemental thing that continues to make people watch it and be interested in it. I know the style was cartoony – well, Arnold is kind of cartoony anyway, just because of what he’s achieved – but there are other reasons, too. [Writer] Steven E. de Souza was very much into political conscience and scenarios of things that could possibly happen, you know, so it pre-stages a lot of stuff that’s still important to the world, whether it’s about mercenaries – and mercenaries are just everywhere these days. And Sully and his gang are these ex-guys and Matrix was a former Special Forces guy. And all these independent armies are doing things for these mercenary reasons around the world now. So I think that’s one of the reasons people still think about it.

Q: Rumors have persisted for a while that 20th Century Fox has been pursuing a remake of Commando [which most recently had Sabotage director David Ayer attached]. How do you react to that?

DUKE: Well, I’m old school and old fashioned, and to me, there are certain things…

I understand the business component of it. There are all kinds of things being remade now, you know? But like I said, I’m old school and old fashioned, and why remake it? You know, why remake It’s a Wonderful Life? Why remake The Godfather? I guess that’s just old-fashioned stuff, but I believe in classics.

Q: It’s easy to remake a film, but you can seldom recapture the kind of magic that makes that film special.

DUKE: Yeah! I feel that. I think there’s something that happens at a point – the right combination of people, the right actors and producers and the director – you shouldn’t touch it.

My daughter, and her generation, thinks I’m crazy. [laughs]

They think, “Why not? Why not redo it?”

CERVANTES: [A remake would be] kind of weird, because Arnold was so much a part of that movie. If you remake it, it’s not Commando. Walter Hill, the director, told me once that he was going to remake The Magnificent Seven, and I was going to have a nice part in it. But later on he said, “I’m not doing it. I can’t do a better job [than the original], so I’m letting it go.”

I mean, who would you get [for Commando]? A karate guy? The Rock? It would be more of the same.

DUKE: It’s almost like [the belief is] anything can be replicated and that’s not my particular belief. There are certain things… Take Miles Davis, or take Tony Bennett, who is one of my favorite singers of all time. He’s in his ‘80s or something and he’s still got chops. When Tony Bennett goes, there’s not going to be another. There’ll be other singers, but how do you replicate Tony Bennett or Whitney Huston or Frank Sinatra or Pavarotti? They have a certain magic, and how do you explain that magic? How do you replicate it?

There are certain things…leave ‘em alone.

KELLY: I think it has been remade, in many, many forms, for thirty years. I think the Bourne movies and the Transporter movies owe a bit to it. Some of Tarantino’s. I think a prequel would be interesting. Where did all those guys come from before the story of Commando?

CERVANTES: There had been rumors, a long time ago, there was going to be a sequel, but it never happened. I don’t know why, because Commando made money.

Q: What do you all have coming up next?

DUKE: I’m directing a number of things now. We just finished a TV pilot called Blexicans, which you guys will hopefully see on TV in the next year or so. I was in Chicago for a while working on that. I’m working on developing my own content and those kinds of things.

CERVANTES: Well, I did [season two, episode two, of] True Detective, where I get my ass kicked, and I just did an episode of Murder in the First. It’s the last episode of season two. It should air either late August or early September. It’s on TNT; I think they did twelve of them. There’s a chance I could come back. I play a fat cat political guy in a suit. I’m doing a lot of suit guys now. I wore a suit in True Detective, even though I was getting my ass kicked.

Q: David, Lionsgate is going ahead with John Wick 2. Will we see the return of Charlie the clean-up man?

KELLY: I hope so! There’s a lot of work to do for John Wick. He takes care of business, and he’s got to have his reliable team there. It was a great deal of fun with those guys. No one has called me yet, but Charlie survived, and I still have the gold coins in the other room, so I hope so.

Q: Last question: If I were to tell you that I’ve watched Commando more than a hundred times, what would you say to me?

CERVANTES: [laughs] Well, I would say that I understand how you can, because I have movies that are personal favorites and I could watch them a hundred times. And I probably have. Like Scarface. Christmas Vacation. I’ve seen Commando at least a hundred times – maybe not in its entirety, but my kids, they loved it, because when I did it, they were young. And they watched it, and got older and watched it again. It’s always on TV, man, and I’ll stop and watch some of it. So I understand.

KELLY: Watching it a hundred times is amazing. It makes me happy that people can find interesting details and appreciate the work that goes into movies. All of those involved go their separate ways developing their skills and when it all comes together to make something people want to see again and again, well, that’s wonderful. It’s like a painter whose work can be appreciated and grow in value as time goes on.

DUKE: [laughs] I think you have good taste! And thank you. Thank you.

Dec 3, 2019


1974’s Death Wish, directed by Michael Winner, is nowadays considered a minor classic. While it achieved only a modicum of critical success, it certainly landed much better with audiences and was a box office hit (none of which the pitiful Eli Roth remake from 2018 managed to do). Death Wish was one of the last of the guy-in-a-suit-with-a-gun films of the 1970s, which were a temporary stopping point between the spaghetti westerns of the 1960s and the gloriousness of the 1980s. These ’70s comprised guys like Clint Eastwood, Roy Scheider, Lee Marvin, and even Walter Matthau, domestically, and blokes like Michael Caine, internationally, all doing their thing with a single pistol tucked somewhere between their tweed sport coat and their brown turtleneck. Physically, the men were rather average — even scrawny — and so they depended on their performances to exude intimidation rather than ludicrous musculature. 

Also born during this era was the realization that Charles Bronson, despite his tiny-uncle-like stature and his strange anonymous hybrid of ethnicities (dude looks Mexican, Asian, and Native American all at once), was a remarkable bad-ass. Though he never achieved the same level of critical acclaim as his fellow suit-wearing bad-asses, as he often fell victim to just playing Charles Bronson on-screen, his name is one that often comes up in conversations akin to old school action flicks.

Given Death Wish’s financial success, you might think that a sequel was inevitable, but you must remember that during this era, sequels weren’t nearly as commonplace as they’d eventually become. Death Wish 2 was actually one of the first sequels to be made in what would eventually become a very marketable franchise. It’s also the worst sequel in the series. Based on the finished film, it’s clear Death Wish 2 was eager to hit all the same beats as its predecessor without too much deviation. And its version of Paul Kersey (Bronson) was eager to get to his vigilantism, this time not even giving law enforcement the chance to fail him before he slipped on his knit hat, grabbed a revolver, and took to the streets — this time hunting down the actual punks responsible for the defilement and death of his daughter, hereby eschewing the “any punk’ll do” mentality that gave the original film its voice.

As tends to happen with franchises, the Death Wish sequels were very silly (though not incrementally – Death Wish 3 out-sillies them all), but unlike most other franchises, these sequels barely resembled the groundbreaking first film when the series was only halfway through. This unexpected tonal change in the Death Wish series very much mirrors that of the Rambo: First Blood series, in that their increasingly absurd entries succeeded in not only becoming so removed from their first films’ original ideals that they barely resembled each other, but also somehow established a precedent of cartoon violence for which those series would ultimately be known. As far as Death Wish goes, this can be likened to the involvement of the legendary Cannon Films, who produced all four sequels, and who are responsible for perhaps some of the most iconic B-action films of all time.

Death Wish 2 is the grindhouse entry of the series. It’s grimy, slimy, violent, and discomforting, courtesy of the returning and controversial Michael Winner. For those unfamiliar with the deceased British director, he was the 1970s/80s version of Michael Bay: his talents were hardly ever commended, and not many good films can be found in his filmography, but he always turned a profit for studios, so they were eager to keep him employed. In an almost spiteful reaction to some of the critical drubbings he received on its predecessor, he ups the cruelty for the sequel: the rape scene lasts longer, with more graphic detail and softcore flourishes, and with the added taboo of the victim being mentally handicapped. It also ends in her equally graphic suicide. The reactionary violence perpetrated by “mourning” Paul Kersey that then unfolds results in more bodies dropped, right down to a completely unrealistic mano-a-mano finale set within a hospital (which allows for a small role by Carpenter regular Charles Cyphers).

Death Wish promotes private justice!” those 1974 reviews stated with condemnation. Winner responded with his middle finger that he later nicknamed Death Wish 2. 

And then there’s Death Wish 3, again helmed by Winner, and considered by many to be the standout of the series for just how ridiculous it is. It’s the equivalent of a live-action “Itchy & Scratchy” cartoon — a hyper-violent marriage of Grumpy Old Men and Home Alone that includes a third-act extended finale where more time is dedicated to people dying than people not dying.

Those people who call Death Wish 3 the series standout are kind of right…depending of course on how seriously we’re considering the rating system. Because Death Wish 3 is kind of a masterpiece. It’s Charles Bronson meets Merry Melodies. It’s an unabashed series of vignettes in which people are killed in extremely disparate ways, loosely connected only by one common thread: they deserve it. Kersey knows they deserve it, the audience knows they deserve it, and the audience wants Kersey to make it rain bodies. And by gosh, does he ever. While the previous two Death Wish films, each in their own ways, wanted to make killing ugly, and revenge conflicting, Death Wish 3 wants you to eat your fucking popcorn and enjoy the carnage, you assholes. Out of sight is any commentary or sense of confliction. There are no warring minds re: revenge versus justice. Kersey barely needs a reason to begin unpacking all of his weapons of mass destruction. Evidently he can’t wait to do it. He’s no longer haunted by the change that’s taken place inside him, turning him from mild-mannered architect/widower to a nonplussed bachelor/accomplished killing machine. His ease at life-taking has come to define him. In previous Death Wish films, the vigilante murders had been committed in response to the frustration spurred by feelings of helplessness; in Death Wish 3, they are cathartic release. They are the unleashing pent-up blue balls of a mentally exhausted neighborhood so beaten down and regressed by daily victimization that rioting in the streets and blood in the gutter is tantamount to ejaculatory celebration. To come away with the message “violence isn’t the answer” at film’s end, where Kersey grasps his suitcases and heroically marches down a street littered with flaming cars, dead bodies, and screaming police sirens — it’s the lone rider leaving that Old West town at sun-up — is to embrace your delusion. Death Wish 3 makes one thing very clear: violence works — works well, works often, and should be utilized for every possible conflict.

Death Wish 3 so changed the overall tenor of the series that there would be no returning to semi-respectable ground, which is why the remaining sequels don’t hold a candle, either in terms of being a rock’em sock’em silly time, or of actually attempting to be engaging, thoughtful films. But the Cannon Group, enjoying another hit, obviously had dollar signs in their eyes and typically premature Death Wish 4 posters floating around in their brains…

Following the “disaster” (read: genius) that was Death Wish 3, a minor shake-up occurred behind the scenes as Death Wish 4: The Crackdown moved ahead without series director Michael Winner. The why of this is unclear. I’ve seen this attributed to Bronson refusing to work with the director ever again after Winner had allegedly secretly shot additional violent inserts on Death Wish 3 while the conscientiously objecting Bronson wasn’t on set. Another story had Cannon claiming that Winner simply wasn’t interested in further sequels (which will seem suspect soon). Whatever the reason, replacing him was J. Lee Thompson, a far better filmmaker (he directed the original Cape Fear, for one) with whom Bronson had previously worked six times, and with whom he would collaborate twice more following Death Wish 4 for an overall total of nine films. (One of these is the bonkers Bronson crime thriller/slasher flick Ten to Midnight, which is required viewing as far as I’m concerned.)

Being a Cannon Films production, Death Wish 4 is still pretty silly, but following the gonzo previous sequel, there’s at least an effort on behalf of Thompson and screenwriter Gail Morgan Hickman, who had written the Thompson/Bronson flick Murphy’s Law, to ground the Death Wish world back in reality. Although this is called Part 4,  the events of Death Wish 3 go largely ignored, and I can see why. If one’s goal with Death Wish 4 is to adhere to a more realistic world, best not mention the time your lead hero literally killed an entire neighborhood of painted, unionized punks.

Death Wish 4 thankfully feels different from what’s come before, although it still embraces the silliness that would come to define most of Cannon Films’ output. Retired from the vigilante life and living with his replacement wife and daughter, Kersey embraces his old deadly ways when his nu-daughter is killed by drug dealers thanks to her shady, drug addict boyfriend. But this time, instead of taking to the streets and murdering any punk he encounters, Kersey is embroiled in a mystery — one that has him infiltrating two competing drug operations and serving up some serious Yojimbo-style double-cross, all at the request of his mysterious benefactor (played by Cannon go-to guy John P. Ryan).

Thankfully missing from Death Wish 4 is the grit and grime from the first two films. Also thankfully, it’s a sequel that preserves the “let’s have fun!” mentality from Death Wish 3, which was quite honestly that sequel’s only selling point. As mentioned, Death Wish 3 had so changed the trajectory of the series that there was no reverting back to the path of the original’s respectability. Death Wish 4 pretty ably straddles that line between actually showing off an engaging plot while trying new things, but also blowing up chunky looking dummies that had, just seconds before, been real, living character actors. (And I love a good dummy.)

Following the release of Death Wish 4, Cannon Films was sold to Pathé, and the Golan-Globus cousins were fired. Golan soon joined 21st Century Film Corporation, who immediately kick-started the redundantly titled Death Wish 5: The Face of Death, the worst sequel in the series since the second entry and the film that Golan hoped would save the ailing company. (It didn’t.)

Death Wish 5 is the most bizarre entry in the franchise, even if the mainstay of Kersey the vigilante remains its chief narrative hook. Again enjoying a quiet life (this time under a new name) with his new girlfriend Olivia and her daughter Chelsea, shit goes sour when Olivia is killed and Chelsea is kidnapped by a maniacal mobster named O’Shea (Michael Parks). Complicating the matter is that O’Shea is Chelsea’s biological father, so the cops (one of whom is played by a generally terrible Saul Rubinek) can’t do anything about it.

Enter the vigilante.

Bronson was 72 when he made Death Wish 5, which was the main dig most critics got in when the critically savaged sequel was released — that the aging action star was far too old to be engaging in something so silly and violent. Not only that, but much of the sequel feels cheap, offering the kind of small scale environments prevalent in direct-to-video features. There are very few city exterior sequences, which had been a stalwart of the series up to that point. The actual cities of New York and Los Angeles had become part and parcel with the stories being explored in those entries; sorry, I have to say it: they became characters. Death Wish 5 was the series’ only Canadian production, and it’s evident that director Allan Goldstein was eager to hide this whenever possible.

Death Wish 5 offers a fair share of entertainment strictly on two terms: the presence of Michael Parks, who absolutely excelled at villainy, and the lunacy involved with Kersey’s murder methods, whether they be remote-controlled soccer ball bombs or poisoned cannolis borrowed from The Godfather III. Beyond that, Death Wish 5 has absolutely nothing else going for it — even the presence of an aging, puffy-faced Bronson, who had been completely over the Death Wish franchise since Part 2, is a serious bummer, because you can tell he’s not at all into it — and, as the critics noted, definitely showed his age.

Director Michael Winner, who helmed the first three Death Wish films, once said, “I’d have Charles Bronson starring in Death Wish 26 if I thought it would make a profit.” From the point of view of someone strictly looking for a silly, B-movie good time, I’ll say it’s a shame that the series ran out of steam far before that projection — that is, of course, assuming that some of those never-to-be sequels would have reached the same lunatic heights as seen in Death Wish 3. Because at that point, there was no turning back — no sense in trying to end the series before it jumped the shark, because that shark had most definitely already been jumped. So long as Bronson had been willing, I’d have easily taken 21 more entries in spite of how terrible the last official sequel had been. Over Charles Bronson’s storied career, he made far better films than the original Death Wish, but the long-running vigilante series would eventually define his career. It’s a shame this was the final theatrical note on which he had to go out.

Jul 24, 2019


The best thing the film medium can offer you is surprise. Unfortunately, our ability to be surprised has been severely hampered by both our technology and our cynicism. In the old, old (old) days, ten-second flicker shows of "a crying baby" or "a sneezing man" were what comprised the medium: for a nickel apiece, you could peel back the tent flap at the World's Fair and step inside for your viewing of – in retrospect – completely mundane, everyday things. And you would be completely blown away by this marvel of technology called film. A hundred years later, two-hour films filled with mind-blowing special effects meticulously assembled by crews of hundreds and filled to the brim with Hollywood's most revered and legendary talent can still be written off with the dreaded "worst movie ever." Perhaps the leaps and bounds in technology has directly led to this cynicism – to our spoiling as an audience with insurmountable expectations. Or perhaps it's this heavy emphasis on promotion (internet film sites painstakingly offering every update on a film currently in production; trailers giving away every money shot; teaser trailers FOR trailers) that ruin it for us. In this age of lightning-fast social media updates, or websites designed solely to give away major spoilers from brand new films (seriously!), it's so hard anymore to feel like something has come out of nowhere to wallop you in the best way possible. A film can still be considered "good," even if it's formulaic; alternately, such precedents can be so established that we need nothing more than to see the poorly Photoshopped poster or cover art, featuring the floating head of the actor or actress (usually actor) well past their prime, and know that we'll be skipping that one. From the highest extreme – isn’t it obvious the men and women in the capes and robot suits buzzing around the CGI sky are going to be victorious? – to the lowest – isn’t it obvious that the new Steven Seagal film that’s gone direct-to-video called Ultimate Carnage or Ultimate Destruction or Carnage of Destruction is going to be unwatchable?

Doesn’t it all just feel too safe and predictable anymore?

Thankfully, despite our technology and our cynicism, films and filmmakers still have the ability to surprise; they will come from the unlikeliest of places, and will be made by the most unassuming of people.

And when that happens...

Worst-case scenario: you’ll say, “That was better than I thought it would be.”

Best-case scenario: it will either create a new love, or rejuvenate a forgotten one, for this thing previously dismissed by the filmmaking world, and previously unappreciated by the viewing audience. It takes this preexisting thing watered down by too much baggage and too many ill-advised intentions and looks at it from an entirely new and unexpected vantage point.

Christopher Nolan did it with Batman Begins. Rupert Wyatt did it with Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

In 2009, filmmaker John Hyams (interview here) did it for Universal Soldier, a sorta-hokey action flick from the early '90s...

"God damn it the whole fucking platoon's dropping like flies! What the hell are you staring it? Do you have any idea what it's like out there? Do you? Well I'm fighting this thing man, it's like kick ass, or kiss ass, and I'm busting heads! It's the only way to win this fucking war."
Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren as Luc Deveraux and Andrew Scott, respectively, 1992’s Universal Soldier is a fun and unassuming little action film about two Vietnam War soldiers who died by each other’s hand and were later resurrected by a government program called "Universal Soldier," which experimented in making tougher-than-nails, indestructible super-soldiers for the usual paranoid-America military purposes. As can be predicted, chaos ensued. Lives were taken. Van Damme stripped down to his nothings and said, “I just want to eat” (but not at the same time). This film essentially about the corpses of fallen soldiers reanimated into Terminator/Robocop-like zombie killing machines, though fun and certainly entertaining, didn’t have a whole lot to say about “fate” or “the self” or other themes that were explored in those two previously mentioned films by which Universal Soldier was very much inspired. But that’s okay. This was the early ‘90s, after all. It had been twenty years since the 1970s, the last decade to really take the medium of film seriously as a means of dissecting and deconstructing our shortcomings as members of the human race, and so not many filmmakers or studios could be bothered to inject such heavy themes into their films starring that guy from Rocky IV who said, “I must break you." Universal Soldier was a rock'n'rollin' good time, but it didn't have shit to say about, really, anything. (The closing credits song is "Body Count's in the House" by the Count. I rest my case.)

Made during that now-dead period when action films were allowed to be R-Rated, lighthearted, and knowingly silly, Universal Soldier more than satisfied the macho level of violence that action film fans required while proving to be the most financially successful film of Van Damme’s career. Surprisingly directed by Roland Emmerich (The White House Explodes: The Movie), who would later achieve infamy for destroying the world several times in several films, and in larger-scale but less graphic ways, the filmmaker atypically imbued his film with a certain level of grisly violence that he has seemingly been hesitant to revisit. (Perhaps that can be attributed to Universal Soldier being a Carolco release, a studio that hardly ever shied away from the red stuff.) Not to mention, Lundgren, probably (unfairly) the least respected actor among his action hero brethren, actually turns in a hell of a performance, chewing every piece of scenery with relish. "Now that's the spirit, soldier!" lives on because of the infectiously manic way he delivered it – it's since become his "I'll be back." Accepting the gimmicky approach of matching these two action film heavyweights against each other, the on-screen chemistry between our hero and villain was a large reason behind Universal Soldier's success. When the box-office failure of 2013's Escape Plan pervaded theaters, nearly every reviewer wrote off the film's concept of doubling up Stallone and Schwarzenegger as "twenty years too late." Personal opinion of Escape Plan's quality aside, they were right. The double-team of Van Damme and Lundgren, made during their respective primes and during a less-highbrow era of exciting popcorn cinema, might be the action-hero pairing – not just of its time, but of all time. (You read that right.)

Six years later, Universal Soldier 2: Brothers in Arms happened, followed close behind by Universal Soldier 3: Unfinished Business - both of which were originally attempts by Canadian producers to launch a television series, and neither of which saw involvement from any of the cast or crew of the first film. For reasons unknown (likely having to do with the quality of the final product), a series did not happen, and so the footage already shot was pared down, creating two direct-to-video feature films.

They feature Gary Busey and Burt Reynolds. Let's move on.

"When I was a machine, I yearned to be a man. Now I'm better than both. The created has become the creator."
1999's Universal Soldier: The Return hailed “the return” of Van Damme to his most profitable character. But not only is it the worst film of Van Damme’s career (it boasts a healthy 5% on Rotten Tomatoes), it is an absolutely confused and unabashedly stupid sequel that attempts to directly continue the events of the first film while somehow bungling every attempt at continuity possible. Luc Deveraux, whom one could argue was left forever ruined at the conclusion of Universal Soldier, is now a single father (super-semen?) happily and unrealistically working alongside the people responsible for the UniSol program, and with a smile so big one might expect him to slip on a clown suit and make balloon-animals for children. There's even a scene where someone at UniSol headquarters asks him if he's ever going to get back in the field (aka become a mindless, government-controlled, undead killing machine); in response, Luc flashes a giant smile and says, "Been there, done that!"

Does he seem at all haunted by once being a resurrected corpse and manipulated for the sole reason of total bodily destruction?

Not at all.

Does he hold any kind of grudge against the government program that dared to play God, and is he perhaps working covertly in hopes of exposing the program for the evil and soulless beings that they are?

No, he doesn’t, and no, he isn’t.

Is he…still a corpse? Or is he just alive again for some reason?

I have no idea.

Is Bill Goldberg really in this?

And how.

The Return throws out everything that made the first film a success, sacrificing thrills and chills for really cheap humor, terrible special effects, and Michael Jai White (who, admittedly, is a total bad ass). The Return also has the dubious honor of having been Van Damme’s last widely released theatrical feature film (until The Expendables 2 thirteen years later), as well as one of his worst performing returns at the box office; even sadder that it’s a sequel to one of his best performing ones. His decision to return to his most profitable character was likely spurred by a string of failures at the box office that spanned six consecutive releases, beginning with Street Fighter and ending with the utterly obnoxious Knock Off.

The Universal Soldier name was all but dead. Up to this point, this four-film series had arguably only one strong entry, and even that devotion was predicated on a prerequisite for appreciating cheesy, tongue-in-cheek action films that got a lot of mileage from Van Damme removing his clothes and cutting to a supporting character's :O face.

If this brand were to continue, something new had to happen. Something drastic. Something that satisfied the old fans while creating a generation of new ones who'd grown up in the age of The Matrix and The Dark Knight, and who needed something more than just quips and ear necklaces.

Someone new came along and did just that.

His name is John Hyams.

"Can I ask you a question...? Do you often contemplate the complexities of life? Are you a punctual and reliable person? Do you know how to put every minute of your time to good use? Are you rested? Are you happy? Do you often think about humankind and its destiny? ... Who am I?"
Universal Soldier: Regeneration happened ten years after The Return, and it was due to a combination of franchise fatigue and the less-than-stellar reputations of Van Damme and Lundgren, both having spent the last decade wallowing in direct-to-video obscurity, that the red carpet was not rolled out for this series' rebirth. Regeneration did not receive immense coverage on the Internet, and its existence was not mentioned in the pages of entertainment magazines. Unless you were keeping a purposeful eye on the careers of its leading men, its release saw very little fanfare, and outside of a surprise film festival premiere, very few people knew about the imminent return of Luc Deveraux and Andrew Scott.

To viewers who would have been even remotely interested, Regeneration was already battling too many preconceived notions right out of the gate: Wasn’t the previous sequel really bad? Wasn’t the character of Andrew Scott literally ripped to shreds during the first film’s finale? Won’t Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren pretty much do any film right now so long as it guarantees a hot meal? (The Internet is a mean place.)

In many ways, Universal Soldier: Regeneration is a revelation. Its subtitle is not just a plot descriptor – it’s a proclamation. It’s a declarative. It’s “Motherfuckers, Universal Soldier is back and better than ever.”

Eschewing everything in the Universal Soldier “series” and directly following the events of the original film, Regeneration is one of those ideas doomed to fail, but never does. Such a radical departure from the first film could have only resulted in one of two potential outcomes: a miraculous achievement or a massive failure. They say that the greatest risk reaps the greatest reward. In the case of Regeneration, they were right.

A band of Russian militants have kidnapped the children of the Ukrainian prime minster and seized control of the former Chernobyl nuclear power plant, threatening to blow it to hell and spread radiation all across the land, should the Ukrainian government refuse to release the terrorists' captive comrades. Bolstering their brashness is their having stolen, courtesy of a treasonous scientist, American UniSol technology, which includes the next generation UniSol (NGU), played by UFC fighter Andrei “The Pit Bull” Arlovski. After the U.S. responds by sending in their own team of first-generation UniSols, as well as a team of regular, honest-to-Gosh humans, all of whom get wiped out by the NGU, they have no choice but to turn to one man: Luc Deveraux, a former and decommissioned UniSol.

For years following the incidents of the first film, Deveraux has been participating in therapy sessions with his psychologist, Dr. Sandra Fleming (Emily Joyce), the only person he trusts, in an attempt to regain his memories and rebuild his humanity. His involvement with the UniSol program (and definitely not with his consent) has left him broken, sad, haunted, and alone.  You can see it in his face. But it's also left him with an uncontrollable rage – one that can set him off at any time. He's like – how Hyams described all of his UniSols – "a dog," and one that attacks strangers in the middle of a restaurant simply because he doesn't like the way that stranger is approaching him. Clearly there's a long way to go before Deveraux is fully rehabilitated, but he's making progress. Like an addict in recovery, he wants to change – otherwise, he knows he's doomed.

That all stops once he embraces his inner universal soldier, unlocking the cage of the wild dog and letting it run rampant, leaving behind him a majestic trail of gunshots, stab wounds, and hollowed-out heads.

For those familiar only with the original Universal Soldier, the first big surprise of Regeneration is how serious it's taking, well, everything. While the original film was a violent and thrilling adventure, it also boasted a healthy amount of humor, which it would seem Roland Emmerich is incapable of avoiding. Deveraux, and Scott, and the whole UniSol program may have been ported over into the new millennium, but the cheeky humor certainly was not. Despite only one scene intended as a joke (and a nice nod to Terminator 2), the tone is dark and somber, and there are some weighty themes about humanity constantly simmering. The tone is so vastly different from the first film that those looking for a fun action film complete with bad puns and cheesy violence will be in unwelcome territory. It feels as if Hyams watched all the previous Universal Soldier films, including the first, and said, “This is a good concept for a film, but why are all of you fucking around?” and made something steeped in dark-edged bleakness but without becoming too self-indulgent or pretentious. To state something painfully obvious: this is a film. It feels like it were made by a cast and crew of people who were trying. This isn't the result of a typical, direct-to-video, "Let's shoot a few scenes before lunch," type of production starring Steve Austin or Cuba Gooding Jr. Though on its surface it had all the makings of being such a production, it never feels cheap or disingenuous. It feels like something you'd go see in a theater, and unlike paying for a ticket for something like The Expendables 3, there'd be no real feeling of shame in doing so.

Regeneration, despite being the fourth sequel in a Van Damme-centric action franchise that has gone direct-to-video, actually received its fair share of positive notices from both critics and audiences, and that is quite a relief. Critics appreciated the wild reinterpretation of these somewhat silly characters and fans appreciated the bad-ass action sequences and the return of their two action heroes from yesteryear. And it's that latter part which is going to attract first-timers to Regeneration: the presence of both Van Damme and Lundgren, revisiting some of their most successful characters. Having said that, the focus is not entirely on them. There is a lot of other focus spent on events occurring within the confines of the UniSol program, the ground-troops tasked with trying to overthrow the terrorists who have seized Chernobyl, the internal struggle between these terrorists, and surprisingly, the “villain” of Regeneration, the NGU (Arlovski). For much of Regeneration, we witness the decimation of U.S. soldiers – universal and other – at his hands and through his eyes. He is the Jason Voorhees of Hyams' blue-tinted industrial world who humiliates and destroys line after line of soldiers sent in by their superiors to hopefully quell the conflict and subdue the terrorists. Though we do catch intermittent glances of Van Damme during the first half, his role does not become prominent until nearly the beginning of the third act, more specifically at the 40-minute mark, in which he sheds the humanity he’s been trying to rebuild over the last however many years. Lundgren, too, has limited screen time – even less than Van Damme – but regardless, the scenes they share are excruciatingly effective, and Dolph's death scene is quite haunting, in both its graphic, clever brutality as well as its ambiguity. His first on-screen appearance is nearly ceremonial, harking back to the imagery that has long become associated with Universal Soldier: bodies stuffed into futuristic coffin-pods, packed with ice, the steam of which billows over their glaring eyes when the lid is peeled back.

Van Damme, too, is surprising with his new approach to the Deveraux character. Whereas in the first he was tasked with blank-slate expressions and occasional mugging for the camera, here, he is utterly haunted, and he wears it across his face. The once-troubled actor, enjoying a career resurgence following the one-two punch of this film and the titular JCVD (and, weirdly, that "epic split" commercial for Volvo), has been the one making the most interesting choices among his action-hero direct-to-video colleagues. And it begins in Regeneration, where Deveraux is dealing with the loss of his humanity, his unpredictable rage, and his profound sadness. Van Damme wears his age and battered life just as obviously as Deveraux wears his pain. He offers an extremely melancholy performance – one where it feels he’s almost constantly on the verge of tears. They say actors lose their stuff over time, choosing to sleepwalk through their later roles, but in the case of Jean-Claude Van Damme, he's stopped being a performer and started becoming an actor. (Those who doubt his thespian abilities have not seen JCVD, plain and simple.)

Another surprise? Regeneration is a thinking person’s film. It would be so easy to write off, essentially, this Part Four as another cash-grab entry, but enjoying the full effect of the film’s intention requires you to sit down and pay attention – to everything; every piece of dialogue and every bit of information is vital to you understanding who is who, what is what, and what it is exactly you’re seeing unfold before you. No one will flat-out tell you. You’re given the pieces; it’s up to you to put the puzzle together.

Regeneration is dark, brooding, brutal, and thematically heavy. It’s about humanity – the lack thereof, how to find it, and what happens when you lose it. But don’t let that deter you, because it’s also a kick-ass action film that doesn’t let all those weighty issues get in the way of men pulverizing other men. Regeneration wants you to earn the full effect of its story, but dear god, does it also want to satisfy the carnage for which you’re jonesing. The action on display is revelatory. It starts big, ends bigger, and everything in between is an action fan's wet dream. It is unrelenting, well-staged, and best of all, realistic. Also refreshing is you see everything. Forget the Greengrass shaky cam and forget the CGI enhancements (a result of Hyam’s filmmaker father, Peter Hyams, having endured heartache on the set of A Sound of Thunder due to the expensive and subpar visual effects.) It is old school filmmaking from a filmmaker with an old school mentality. The camera shoots, and the action unfolds before it. Nothing is designed to obscure; instead, it’s designed to capture, so that the viewer may bear witness to the utter animalistic madness unfolding. The final fight scene between Van Damme’s Deveraux and Lundgren’s Scott, where they throw each other through walls and windows, or down whole flights of stairs, is one of the greatest action sequences in film – and that’s not hyperbole. Your jaw will drop once their fight scene commences, and it won’t close again until well after we say goodbye to one of them – for a second time.

Continuing with this old school mentality, the musical score by Michael Krassner and Kris Hill is appropriately John Carpenter. The ominous and brooding synth is a nice callback to an earlier era that preferred content and mood over ridiculous set-pieces complemented by bombastic Hans Zimmer. And because Hyams opens Regeneration with an extended, unbroken Steadicam shot, much how Carpenter opened Halloween, the musical design is obviously not just a happy accident. Everything has been designed for a specific reason.

Regeneration is the film that action fans deserved, and that the Universal Soldier series needed. It was a sequel, a reboot, a retcon, and a resurrection. And it's all thanks to John Hyams, who seemed to have a plan. It was one that required skill, patience, and the resources at his disposal.

Part one of this plan: legitimizing the Universal Soldier series, getting it back to respectability, and perhaps bankability, and establishing a sturdy base off which future ideas could be built.

Part two: going off the deep-end and creating, quite possibly, the most unique action film…ever.

Enter 2012's Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning.

"My brothers, let's not forget the moment of sickness. Our thoughts interrupted by unfamiliar voices. We were merely arms and legs moving to the directive of another mind. But in an instant, the veil was lifted. Today, brothers, I stand you before you declaring: your minds are now your own."
With the newest entry in the Universal Soldier series, Hyams takes things to the next level. It’s the natural next step following a film about humanity: it’s about identity. It’s about you – knowing who you are, knowing your place in the world, and knowing enough about yourself that you know why you are.

The film opens with an impressive use of first-person point of view, during which our lead, John (burgeoning action star Scott Adkins of the Undisputed series and The Expendables 2), is awakened by his daughter, who tells him there are monsters in the kitchen. He gets up to check it out and sees that there really are monsters in the kitchen: a group of ski-masked men led by a very bald Luc Deveraux (a returning Jean-Claude Van Damme). Before we can wonder just what is going on, Deveraux executes both John’s wife and daughter right in front of him, but only after one of Deveraux’s cronies beats John into a bloody mess with a crow bar. A very interesting turn of events, in that Deveraux, who has been the hero in every past installment, is now apparently the villain.

After awakening from his nine-month coma, John begins to pick up the pieces, all while dealing with a heavy dose of amnesia. A dead body leads him to a strip club, which leads him to a dancer named Fantasia, aka Sarah (Mariah Bonner), who seems to recognize him, but won’t immediately say how or why. He also soon crosses paths with "the plumber," the also-returning Andrei Arlovski, who lets his fire axe do all the talking. On the surface, it would seem that "the plumber" is John's foe to be defeated, but this is Day of Reckoning, people – you simply have no idea what you're into.

John's drive to solve the mystery of the motive behind his family's execution puts him on the path to a bloodied corpse and an acid-burned, scar-faced mafia boss, all while being haunted by strobe-lit visions of Deveraux that play out behind his eyes. It all eventually leads to a rebellious horde of UniSols, free from the constraints of the government that had controlled them for so long, now living in an off-the-grid bunker with Deveraux acting as their leader. This underground movement (figuratively and literally), called the UniSol Church of Eventualism, has been systematically decommissioning and providing shelter and guidance (in some ways, anyway) for UniSols who found themselves free, but without a home or without an identity. It's through this rehabilitation of sorts that Deveraux becomes a spiritual father to all of these wayward children. Though he's not a "father" in the paternal sense – he encourages the soldiers to engage in battles to the death in order to weed out the weaker populations of his growing army – there is a sense of dependency that these UniSols have on him. It's because of this that it's not quite clear why Deveraux wants John dead. Easier to understand would be why John wants Deveraux even deader – but it's the obviousness of his motivations that should have you questioning their veracity.

A bunch of bad-assery, blood, and brutal savagery soon follows.

What Hyams has managed to do with this entry is beyond praise or description. Nothing he does – and not a single idea he tries – should work. But they do, over and over. And he goes about it in the smartest possible way. To him, each entry he makes is not about continuing the mythology in the same way that another popular action franchise, the Bourne series, executed (even though there are echoes of that series within Hyams' entries). It’s not about examining the beginning of the UniSol program, nor about its nefarious creators. Instead, it’s about what being a UniSol has done to each and every soldier. It’s about how they are different, barely human. But really, while the soldiers and their abilities are incredibly important, they are not the driving focus. The focus is on John, and the series of clues he finds during his journey. It’s about answering the question: what would you do if you found yourself finally freed from your oppressor, but aware you could never live among normal society? And more: what if everything you thought you knew was a lie? What if you were a lie?

It’s kind of amazing that Hyams keeps marrying the UniSol concept to so many different kinds of genre staples and continuously creating something entirely new. While Regeneration is a straight-up action thriller with sci-fi elements, it successfully elevated the type of action we had seen previously in Emmerich's original. The fighting in Regeneration became very instinctual and unfeeling; it became graceful despite a complete lack of grace – "the ground and pound," as Hyams called it. It became about brute force, though methodically choreographed. While Day of Reckoning is still very much an action film that enthusiastically continues that kind of gritty, almost robotic fighting style, it also transcends the limitations of just being an action/sci-fi film and explores elements of psychological and physical horror, the 1970s-era paranoid thriller, and even film noir. (You know you’re living in a noir landscape when a book of matches for a seedy club is found at a crime scene and points to the next phase of the mystery.) Hyams wears his influences on his sleeve, and there are many. Homages to Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange and The Shining are ever in place, not to mention Blade Runner and Apocalypse Now, all existing within the very gritty shadow of The Manchurian Candidate.

Day of Reckoning is also incredibly violent. The fight scenes are awe-inspiring. Heads gets shot-gunned and explode like Gallagher's watermelons. Hookers catch slugs in the chest and go flying across the room. Feet lose toes and hands lose fingers courtesy of fire axes. One scene staged in a sporting goods store – likely by now known as "the baseball bat scene" – is a showstopper. It is an expertly choreographed sequence that shows performers Adkins and Arlovski at the absolute top of their game, and their characters at the height of their capabilities. It also contains one hell of a brutal punctuation mark. Last, let's not forget the finale where John storms the underground bunker, where he quite possibly lays to waste more bodies than the T-800 did in the police station shootout from The Terminator. It's another Hyams-esque sequence whose cuts are cleverly hidden, therefore offering the appearance that it's all part of one extended, blood-soaked rampage of beautiful carnage. It needs to be seen to be believed and fully appreciated.

If Regeneration’s change in tone was disconcerting to some fans, then Day of Reckoning’s change in storytelling device and point of view is going to send those same fans scattering to the wind. Day of Reckoning is so far removed from the first Universal Soldier in nearly every way, except for the presence of Van Damme and Lundgren, that it should have naturally shed anything that remotely felt like it belonged to a concept from a different era. But somehow, Hyams makes it feel like it not only belongs, but that it's a natural progression in the Universal Soldier story. Lesser filmmakers would resort to having Luc Deveraux enthusiastically (well, okay, maybe with a little hesitation, and probably with all kinds of self-referential Die Hard 2-ish monologues to remind the audience that, hey, he's done this already!) going on mission after mission and becoming less and less surprised to see that Andrew Scott is there inexplicably waiting for him. To ground this series in reality, it was a natural and organic choice for the hero to have suffered emotional scarring after his first foray as a UniSol (Regeneration), and it's natural for that hero to deny this manufactured fabrication that his life has become and descend into the underground, slowly amassing an army to ultimately rebel and perhaps overthrow this government and their awful Frankenstein program. But is that hero still capable of what would traditionally be considered heroic acts? Because what Day of Reckoning also posits – another question in the litany of questions it's already posed – is this: does the man who frees you from your shackles then inherit the role of your master? Have these decommissioned soldiers left one tyrannical government and traded it for one fanatical leader? And to flip the question around again: what's the worth of a handful of soldiers when rebelling against the very government that created them? What, ultimately, is the bigger evil?

There's another thing that separates Day of Reckoning from the previous entry, and that would be the welcome return of the humor – and, mind you, not the kind of humor found in Emmerich's original. If Regeneration wanted to distance itself from the 1992 film by dropping the humor entirely, then Day of Reckoning wants to distance itself equally from both of those entries. The humor on display here is vile – the black, gallows kind of humor. Moments of "levity" are spurred from an old madam being shot in the head, her brains splattering the wall behind her, her dead body remaining upright and unmoving, her face wearing a permanent look of shock and confusion. "Comedy" derives from a man paying a prostitute to hammer nails into his hand as a means for sexual pleasure, and by the look on her face, she's none too pleased about it. And we're supposed to laugh when Scott wards off the plumber's vicious attack, kicking him halfway through a wall, but then motioning to him with a wave of his hand to, basically, come at him, bro.

Day of Reckoning, much like other unique, outside-the-box films, appeared on both “best of” and “worst of” end-of-year critics’ lists in 2012. It's a surreal, psychedelic, Lynchian mind-fuck. It's an homage to every significant era of filmmaking, to every disparate genre. (It just also happens to feature a lot of punching.) And the homage continues with the return of Krassner and Co. turning in another Carpenter-ish score, only this one is more tonally foreboding, relying less on synthesizer and more on traditional instrumentation to set the mood. At some points, the composers seem to be channeling Penderecki, dancing on that line between unorthodox composition and flat-out experimentation. And since Hyams is experimenting gleefully with a Kubrick aesthetic, the musical homage is right at home.

In many ways, Day of Reckoning is a natural sequel to Regeneration. And in many ways, it’s not. The presence of Van Damme and Lungdren assures some attempt at series continuity, but to see that Van Damme has gone from heroic lead to villainous supporting role? And to see that his former foe now appears to be a disciple? A sort-of deranged and sex-seeking henchman? It's not just a ballsy development, but downright unheard of. That just doesn’t happen.

That is, of course, unless not everything is what it seems...

In Regeneration, Deveraux is faced with a difficult choice: deny the humanity for which he yearns, embrace the UniSol life, and save the day. Once Deveraux makes that choice, he's become the hero; he saves the day because those were his orders. There was no catharsis for him. He was not facing the demon inside him by embracing his past. He was not trying to right a wrong that has left him haunted, because he's done nothing wrong. Instead, he was kidnapped from his home and all but forced to agree. But once he was victorious – once the mission was complete – he had no further orders. To borrow a phrase used repeatedly in Day of Reckoning, his mind became his own. And he chose to disappear.

So at the end of Day of Reckoning, when John and Deveraux finally meet, you have no clue for whom to root. Obviously it's natural to root for John because he’s the one who’s been victimized –he's been your immediate sympathetic lead, your protagonist, the one you want to see achieve emotional retribution – but you also root for Deveraux, because he’s been that same hero twice before. You remember his history in the mythology, and you remember that he is/was a victim just like John. By now the cat is out of the bag. You know why it appears that Deveraux slaughtered John's family. You know why he's living underground, playing foster father to a horde of miscreant mutants. Day of Reckoning takes that idea of the black-and-white idea of protagonist vs. antagonist and turns it on its ear. Forget fifty shades of gray – try billions.

There's a reason why Scott Adkins' name is being bandied about as the next action superstar. Though not quite a household name, his role as Yuri Boyka in the Undisputed series sequels, which are far superior to that Walter Hill prison-set film about which you've already forgotten, were excellent showcases for both his techniques as a fighter and his range as an actor. With Day of Reckoning, Adkins has now managed to appear in four action franchises (including the underrated Ninja series) while breaking dozens of faces, but not breaking a sweat. A story about perseverance if there ever was one, Adkins, in his non-famous youth, used to write fan letters to his idol, Jean-Claude Van Damme, telling him about his aspirations in life, and about how much the actor/martial artist had inspired him. All these years later, Adkins and Van Damme have worked together in no less than four films – all of them solidly entertaining – with possibly more to come.

Much has been said about the limited on-screen involvement of the very little-used Van Damme, and the seldom-used Dolph Lundgren, who returns without explanation, given his previous fate in Regeneration (although we really already know how/why). They only appear for a few minutes – Van Damme to do his best Colonel Kurtz and give commands, and Lundgren to give rousing speeches and smash a head or two. And no, Van Damme and Lundgren do not share a fight scene as they did in previous installments (including their breathtaking, wall-smashing, multi-floor brawl from Regeneration). In fact, they share no scenes whatsoever. Because they’re on the same side now; it's a different dynamic. Though both of them appear often enough that it doesn’t feel like a total disappointment, make no mistake: Scott Adkins is your lead soldier.

Director/co-writer Hyams gleefully makes these films for a very select group of people. He certainly did not make Day of Reckoning for the masses, as its events are too inspired by what has come before, and simultaneously, it wears its very unlikely inspirations proudly on its sleeve. (The Big Sleep, Angel Heart, Chinatown, to name some more.) He seems willing to remain in this world and create new adventures for the very non-mainstream demographic that appreciates what he’s doing. While audiences could sit down and recognize the quality and daring of Regeneration, not many people would be willing to lose themselves in this world and lend themselves to the kinds of risks that Hyams is taking in bringing new ideas to the table and experimenting in the way that he so far has. It's essential that audiences not only remain open to these new ideas, but that they shed their unfair assumptions about what kind of film they think they'll be getting simply because it has Van Damme and Lundgren's faces on the poster. Though these men still have their fair share of fans, it wouldn't be incorrect or unfair to suggest that their association suggests a certain kind of film: one that was made to occupy a video store shelf or Netflix upload and inspire a few rentals before disappearing into the oblivion of B-movie history. Van Damme and Lundgren have a lot of baggage in the same way other action stars like Schwarzenegger and Chuck Norris do: people love their films because most of them are near-cartoons. People love Commando because it’s fun and manly, not because it’s “good,” and certainly not because it's taking anything seriously. So when you're flipping through Netflix and you read one or both of these titles, you'll recall the first Universal Soldier, and you may think, “Oh, isn’t that Van Damme?” Already, some credibility will be lost, because that's the nature of cynicism. Though it may be difficult to name three or so titles from Van Damme's career during the phase where he disappeared, you'll have no trouble remembering that none of them played at the multiplex, so, how good could they be? But to then go on and read the words “sequel” and “direct to video,” well…forget it.

And that's the problem.

That's the uphill battle that daring, little-known films like Regeneration and Day of Reckoning are facing: such preconceived notions and the cynicism that comes with them have the unfortunate power to repel much of that potential new audience who aren’t willing to open themselves up to the possibility that such ideas could really pay off.

John Hyams deserves great things – to explode onto the A-list scene and become a name as weighty as James Cameron or John McTiernan. And even though we do not need further entries in the following properties, he's proved that he's worthy of taking on Die Hard, or Terminator, and infusing it with his sensibility. He's worthy of tackling something with a high budget, and with access to the kinds of resources that would enhance his imagination and his skills as a director.

But selfishly, this writer wants Hyams to remain under the radar – to keep making Universal Soldier films for the fans who genuinely want to see what else he has up his sleeve. And we just may get our wish: Hyams is already thinking about the future. He’s very keen on doing another.

As Deveraux says in the finale of Day of Reckoning, "there is no end."

Here's hoping he's right.

[Reprinted from Cut Print Film.]