Direct to video films have long been a ghetto where low rent productions and long forgotten c-list stars were forced to reside. Recently however a shift in momentum has begun to occur and something strange is happening, some of these films are actually quite good. Now don’t confuse direct to video films with the video on demand platform that is quickly becoming the go to distribution model for indie films. Direct to video productions do not have star-studded casts (at least in a ‘mainstream’ sense) nor do they much fanfare surrounding them. What they do have is freedom.
Director John Hyams quickly understood the freedom and malleability that direct to video presents and has gone about creating some incredibly interesting genre fare. Hyams first two feature length films, Universal Soldier: Regeneration and Dragon Eyes, displayed an acute understanding of the action genre. Both films showcased his talent for utilizing space, and the bone crunching physicality of his actors. Many big budget Hollywood films are currently focused on framing the action as tight as possible in order to achieve a more immediate and chaotic aesthetic. Hyams on the other hand isn’t afraid to allow his action and actors space to breath.
Universal Soldier: Regeneration and Dragon Eyes both achieved moments of pure spectacle. Hyam’s latest film, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, transcended the shackles of the direct to video stigma and became vivid pop action poetry. Day of Reckoning’s beauty lies in its utter insanity. It is not merely focused on action, but it concerns itself with the horrors of an unraveling human psyche. As the narrative progresses any sense of logical consistency decays and shatters. The line between reality and subconscious blurs and smears until only cracked bones and bloodied bodies remain.
Stylistically Hyams draws on upon such varied influences as The Shinning, Enter The Void, and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. While these filmic influences are certainly tangible, they are never overbearing. Hyams deftly manages to appropriate the visual and tonal elements without directly aping them. These influences combined with Hyams own sensibilities give Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning an incrediblly unique filmic makeup.
All of these flourishes would amount to nothing though without the brutal, blood splattering violence that Hyams has such a perfect grasp on. Hyams forces the audience to endure of ever blow and kick. Hyams, a trained painter, turns a suburban sporting good store and a cavernous underground complex into his canvas. The bodies of his actors, aging stars Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren, and raising star (in my opinion) Scott Adkins, ascend above their prescribed identities. It is their bodies that truly matter, every clenched muscle and popping blood vessel, not their characters. Like the stars of classic Hollywood musicals, their bodies reach the level of pure spectacle through Hyam’s bloody stroke. When violence ruptures the normal and a ferocious fight breaks out within said sporting goods store, the action is more akin to ballet then Bourne: a flurry of kicks and fists, as bodies and sporting equipment hurtle through the air.
Through his understanding of genre conventions, and action set pieces that focus on clear visuals and spatial relationships, John Hyams is attempting to start a revolution within action cinema. The fact that he is even attempting, let alone succeeding at creating such unbridled action fare within the constraints of the direct to video format is utterly astounding. I am eagerly awaiting John Hyams next endeavor, and you should be too.
(Note: Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning received a limited theatrical run in certain international markets after its VOD release)