"Death-haunted meditations on identity and memory"
October 18, 2013 8:32 AM   Subscribe

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky proposes that today’s best action directors aren’t working in Hollywood, but in direct-to-video.

Related: Vishnevetsky takes a closer look at Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning , which "brings to mind...Lost Highway and Videodrome."
posted by Iridic (17 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Between this and the recent horror movie thread, I can restock my Netflix queue with ridiculous films.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:39 AM on October 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

Very few of those movies mentioned show up on netflix's streaming service :(
posted by RustyBrooks at 8:51 AM on October 18, 2013

There's no denying that, taken together, Undisputed II and III are the Citizen Kane of Prison Fighting movies.
posted by ph00dz at 8:56 AM on October 18, 2013

"Termite art" is my new favorite critical term. That first link is a much better piece than the usual contrarian "this thing everyone sneers at is actually good" essay.

Regeneration and Day Of Reckoning are, first and foremost, expertly crafted action movies, marked by intensely choreographed, brutal violence that expands on the themes instead of negating them. They do what the best classic action movies did: turn the struggle and endurance at the center of the genre into a portrayal of something bigger.

At their core, action movies are about bodies—bulging veins, swelling muscles, chests and foreheads drenched with sweat—and what those bodies are capable of. When there’s a sense of unity between what the body is doing and what the camera is doing, the result can be sublime. A body framed a certain way becomes figurative art and takes on a meaning that goes beyond the context of narrative or character. Space becomes sculptural, and movement becomes musical. That’s the essence of what made action movies a vital, exciting genre to begin with.

That's smart; I'd like to believe it. The piece also captures nicely what is so atrocious about what passes for "action" in most Hollywood movies: "a grab bag of contemporary action clichés—jittery handheld cameras, smash zooms, nonsensical cuts—that doesn’t work as action and isn’t artful enough to be appreciated as texture."

The two links get very close to convincing me to check out Day of Reckoning with all those references to the Black Lodge, Cronenberg and Enter the Void. Sure would be nice, though, to see some of those filmmaking chops put into service on a plot that wasn't "typically atrocious" and that maybe even (gasp) had a woman or three in major roles.
posted by mediareport at 9:04 AM on October 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

Hyams’ Universal Soldier films are death-haunted meditations on identity and memory. Though both are canonical sequels to Roland Emmerich’s original Universal Soldier (1992), there’s no trace of Emmerich’s influence in either; Regeneration takes its visual cues from Andrei Tarkovsky and David Fincher, while Day Of Reckoning’s David Lynch vibe (think Lost Highway or Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me) is mixed with over-tonal references to Videodrome, Enter The Void, Funny Games, and The Shining.

Ok, what. My mind is being blown here.
posted by naju at 9:05 AM on October 18, 2013

Writers on comics Tucker Stone and Sean Witzke do a weekly movie podcast called Travis Bickle on the Riviera, where they often reference Vishnevetsky and talk about these kinds of movies. If that's your thing, you may enjoy it!
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:33 AM on October 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Here's the sporting goods store fight scene mentioned in one of the above links, it's an interesting and brutal fight between superhuman combatants.
posted by Grimgrin at 10:16 AM on October 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

That is brutal, Grimgrin. The low budget grounds it in a way that 'real' movies have long left behind.
posted by wotsac at 10:35 AM on October 18, 2013

I have the day off and followed the link to the AV Club article. Then I added "Universal Soldier : Day of Reckoning" to my Instant Queue. I used to quite like David Lynch's films and the other stylistic influences had me curious. Plus, I might be just a teensy bit wiped out from a month-long major project concluding at work.

So, I watched the movie. Until the last half hour or so. I would agree that it was arty and even visually interesting, or at least intense. But MAN, OH MAN was it cliche. I didn't even realize you could still make that be your movie's plot and watch out here's a spoiler that anyone who has ever seen an action movie might be able to guess, but... The protagonist's wife and child are murdered in the opening scene! So (with pesky things like families out of the way) he's out for revenge! And, since there's an opening still for sexual energy, he hooks up with a sensitive stripper with a heart of gold. YEEEESH!

And the sad thing is, that none of those cliche plot points were at all necessary to advancing the plot. In fact, it would have been much more Lynchian to open with the protagonist already in the hospital and to let the audience sort things out from there...

Definitely kudos for making a well-shot film and props for doing an "interesting" film on a low budget, but next time take some of that money that was saved and hire a writer.
posted by Slothrop at 1:34 PM on October 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Around here little of the direct-to-video makes it to the rental places, but in the last two years or so I've noticed some very weird and interesting stuff under that label, so to say. For instance, the much mentioned in the article Scott Adkins shows up leading The Gringo, released here this year. It's a pretty baffling little movie, with some great chase and shoot-out scenes, but what caughts quickly your attention are the quirky mood, running jokes (how can you not get a glass of water when your travelling bag is stuffed to burst with dollars?), and bizarre characters. Even with my limited access and point of view here, I'd agree with the article that many of the interesting things on the action genre seem to be unfolding in the direct to video line these days, while shit like the last Die Hard and similar attempt at blockbusters are just embarrassing, stupid, and stink of Michael-Bayism pertpetual apocalypse shot fetishism.
posted by Iosephus at 4:22 PM on October 18, 2013

Lost my edit window, the movie is actually titled EL Gringo.
posted by Iosephus at 4:32 PM on October 18, 2013

The last action movie I watched was The Raid, which I loved. Even though it's definitely one of those movies where the trope is to move up the levels of a building crowded with bad guys, the action scenes were phenomenal. It's brutal and makes you feel like there's something at stake. The director, Gareth Evans, also directed the "cult" part of V/H/S 2, which was a personal favorite of mine. I haven't seen any of his other movies, so I can't speak for his overall quality as a director, but I definitely love what I've seen of his so far and am excited to see more. I really want to watch those two Universal Soldier movies. That fight scene in the sporting goods shop is ridiculous (I love when he punches the bowling ball into pieces). I'm a huge fan of over-the-top action films, but my favorites are all older movies like Aliens, Predator, Robocop, Terminator 2, etc. And I know movies have ripped off their action scenes but I haven't seen a movie yet that has ripped off the ways those movies make one feel. Predator was an awesome romp through a jungle and felt adventurous. Robocop was very dystopian and had a sense that the future was screwed. The Terminator really made it feel as though you were being stalked by this inhuman menace, with Terminator 2 piling on the threat of nuclear weapons. I love The Terminator for it's juxtaposition of destroyed future LA with hunter-killers flying around and robots annihilating everything in large scale battles, infiltrating small compositions of humans and wiping them out vs. 80's tech-noir LA with its huge skyscrapers but very low-key, one machine stalking one woman through the city. On one hand you have a very impersonal, but global human identity against these robots and on the other hand a very personal struggle. I'm hoping a movie comes out that replicates those feelings.
posted by gucci mane at 4:49 PM on October 18, 2013

For those who haven't watched the second Youtube-linked fight in the article (final fight between JCVD and Lundrgen in US: Regeneration), it is one brutal fucking fight scene. It's exactly what a fight scene between two hulking, genetically engineered colossi should be. Perfectly paced, nicely cut, good variation, continually spiralling up and up in the violence and ends exactly when it should.

"I just remembered what I wanted to tell you ..."
posted by jpolchlopek at 5:08 PM on October 18, 2013

That fight scene was awesome.
posted by ph00dz at 7:14 PM on October 18, 2013

Watched Day of Reckoning last night, couple of thoughts:

1. Notice during the sporting goods fight there's no music until about halfway through, after Adkins delivers the flying kick at 2:27 and begins to realize he's kind of superhuman himself. The music throughout the rest of the scene is wonderful - a series of pulses and then a slowly building and receding drone that amps up slightly at the end and cuts off as he kills Arlovski.

2. In fact, the music throughout is fantastic, adding to the eerie, Lynchian feel and keeping the relatively slow pacing of most of the scenes from getting too dull. The attempt to make the film feel stranger and weirder by slowing the pace did make it too long and uninteresting in ways that felt wrong for such a slight plot, but the music helps cover for that. Lynch can get away with it because what he's doing is so rich; Day of Reckoning not so much. But the odd music is one of the things that makes the movie feel much smarter than the usual action dreck. I wish the score to 'Gravity' had this much restraint. There's a deeply emotional reunion between Mariah Bonner and Adkins that's played with no music whatsoever; I can't imagine another Hollywood film leaving that alone.

3. The long car chase before the sporting goods scene is another great action piece - the camera moves, but intelligently and not in needlessly jittery bullshit; there are quick cuts, but there are also shots held for long enough to tell the story of the chase. That story is ridiculous, of course, like most of the movie (there's no way Bonner walks away from that final crash, etc.) but the way the scene is directed is so much better than almost any other car chase I've seen in an action movie in years, and clearly makes Vishnevetsky's larger point about the quality of the film.

4. That said, there are some tics the director substitutes for the usual shitty action tics that become almost as annoying as the stuff he's replacing. For instance, the slo-mo thing you can see at :55 in the sporting good fight is all over the final confrontation between Adkins and Van Damme. The overuse of that ridiculous technique ruins the scene by not trusting the action to speak for itself and (as long as we're overthinking here) feels like an active betrayal of all the stuff Vishnevetsky praised about the director's style.

5. Sorry, edeezy, but the film is a cliche-fest, for sure. Vishnevetsky oversells the depth of the drama significantly. "The closure Day of Reckoning offers Adkins' character...is as bleak and challenging a worldview as you'll find in a contemporary American film"? Uh, no. It doesn't even come close, mainly because the characters are so laughably cartoony. Again, it's a beautifully directed film, and the way it deepens the Universal Soldier story about identity is briefly interesting (if something that's been done to death in scifi from Blade Runner on), but it remains a deliberate schlockfest. The enormous effort of mood and tone and color and style that goes into selling the mystery feels mostly wasted on the slim excuses for plot and character development. I mean, yeah, the director did much better with what he had than anyone in the audience had a right to expect, but that's as far as the praise needs to go.

6. I find it interesting that the word "women" appears nowhere in either of Vishnevetsky's pieces. It's as if we're all just supposed to accept the shitty, subordinate roles of all the women in this film. Yes, edeezy pointed out there's a twist to the brutal deaths of the character's wife and daughter in the opening scene, but there's no excuse for the brutal, casual deaths of a half-dozen naked prostitutes in another early scene, or for the next scene where women show up and - you guessed it - they're all topless strippers. Mariah Bonner is given 2 or 3 things things to do in almost 2 hours, and saves Adkins' life in a fight once, but is it really too much to ask that a film like this play with gender roles even a *teensy* bit? Apparently so.

Anyway, it's a good, at times beautiful, shallow little film, with mostly brilliantly directed action scenes. Any praise it gets can only help spread good action directing to the mainstream, which is A Good Thing. So yeah, if you like action, see it for a glimpse of what action movies might potentially become, and then kneel by your bedside and pray that someday we'll actually get stylish intelligent writing to match the stylish intelligent directing these B-movie guys are doing.
posted by mediareport at 6:28 AM on October 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

Watched "Universal Soldier: Regeneration" and "Universal Solider: Day of Reckoning" after reading these. I put a review on my blog. Basically "Regeneration" is a flawed but watchable conventional action movie. "Day of Reckoning" is better, definitely worth watching if you can cope with the violence and exploitation: a sharp Philip K. Dick-inspired action/horror movie.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 12:08 AM on November 10, 2013

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