Tom Jolliffe on the Universal Soldier film that foreshadows Donald Trump’s rise to power…
In case you haven’t noticed there’s an election race going on in America right now. Megalomaniacal business mogul, Donald Trump is head to head with former First Lady, Hillary Clinton. As for the general movie going public, I’d wager only a select few have seen Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. For those not in the know it’s a straight to video sequel (in probably the loosest sense of the word) to the early 90’s, decidedly goofy Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren film. Day of Reckoning is actually the third official sequel, in a series which has skewed wildly in the last two films away from the daft as a brush original film.
Now Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is a film I love. It split critics down the middle having gained a surprising amount of coverage (due to some surprising festival entries thanks to its left of centre approach). In some of the US’s most high profile film publications (Variety, HW Reporter, NY post, NY Times, LA Times) it received great reviews. Among some critics it made yearly top 10 lists. It’s a bizarre mixture of art-house, exploitation, horror and balls out action. It’s unlike any film you’ve seen. This often grim film has an amalgamation of influences, from Kubrick, Gasper Noe, David Cronenberg, Nicolas Winding-Refn, John Carpenter and many more. There’s a level of intellect to the film that fights against the sheer dumbness of the franchise it was birthed from. It’s largely for these reasons that the films core audience, fans of Van Damme in particular, largely disliked it. Some hated the film with a passion. I can see that. I can appreciate that. However, it’s for these reasons I think the film is a fucked up master work. It’s all the divisive elements that will tip many to extreme appreciation or detestation. There’s not too much middle ground with Day of Reckoning.
Among all these divisive elements, which also include the extreme violence which was a point of contention among some critics, the film can be appreciated for it’s visual style. The ode to Kubrick et al is clear, and it’s beautifully shot whilst the action is brutally impressive. It’s worth checking out, particularly for those who appreciate such oddities.
So… where does Donald J Trump come into this? Well I found myself thinking of a scene from the film recently. A scene in a brothel. The establishing shot taking us through different rooms where universal soldiers (re-animated dead soldiers given super strength…Frankenstein creatures), sets the tone. One room in particular is what twigged something for me. One of the soldiers is sat there. He stares blankly as if everything is somewhat normal to him, totally disaffected by the fact a prostitute is currently hammering a nail into his hand. This is gruesome. It’s horrible. Yet he’s become de-sensitised to it. What should be considered to him as wrong, is overlooked or repressed into a dormant part of his brain where empathy used to exist. This to me encapsulates all too many a Trump voter and also foreshadows what a Trump lead America will be like for all, but particularly for those who have ardently (and often furiously) supported him. They will sit by as if all is just normal, whilst the nation and individuals get metaphorically (and morally) crucified.
It lead me to think more deeply about the film’s relation to what is happening currently (and what will happen). Now I’m wholly aware that when John Hyams and Doug Magnuson sat down to write this in 2011 there wasn’t a second thought to the unlikely prospect that Donald Trump would be not only running for president, but dangerously close to succeeding. Of course the film follows the Frankenstein formula, but there’s also a pinch and dash of dystopian horror too and lets face it, Trump would certainly lead America into Dystopia despite his promises to do the opposite.
In Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning a group of rogue former government soldiers band together to rise up against the society which has oppressed them. The star names of the film, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren reprise their franchise characters once again. Both have smaller roles as the two primary antagonists of the piece (Van Damme’s Luc Deveraux started life as the atypical hero) who lead there rogue group of ardent followers. In Day of Reckoning, for me, Deveraux and Andrew Scott (Lundgren) are two halves of one character. They are the stage, and back stage persona of a politician (in the worst, most frightening senses). Scott deals with the stage. He gives these emotionally charged, yet deceptively narrow minded speeches. They evoke a response of first pumping, roaring aggression. There’s no need for facts. There’s no need for consideration or empathy. He sets out what he feels his audience will respond to as being “wrong,” promises “freedom” and then has them baying for blood by the end of the speech. I’m not painting every Trumpite as the same here by any stretch. Some have actually taken some consideration, and quite what they’ve seen having scraped away they bullshit as far as policies go, is beyond me, but they’ve at least taken a more thoughtful decision to vote his way. Some have merely voted as an affront to Clinton, the other half of this Sophie’s choice. I certainly don’t envy the well considered American voter (mind you I’m British and we have our own problems to deal with).
Some may argue that Trump’s selling point is his blunt honesty. He says what he thinks. He’s not cut from the political cloth. That in itself is a fallacy. He’s the same. He’s a businessman and ultimately politicians and businessmen are cut from the same cloth. Frankly all the lies Trump will come out with should really put to bed any notion of honesty. The other side of this dual persona in the film is Deveraux. He’s the unseen element, that plots and keeps things back. The inner circle get the occasional glimpse of the orchestrator behind the showman. Deveraux’s maniacal rise to power is not without collateral damage and none of his followers are individually important to him. It’s the collective that matters, as long as they are hooked in.
The parallels extend to the significant target demographic. Those lacking in reason and intellect. In Day of Reckoning the soldiers are almost dog-like. Easily trainable, and trained for aggression. Trump of course can send his crowds into whooping and hollaring explosions of misplaced rage. Send the Muslims back, send the Mexicans back, to hell with the rest of the world. Us against them. His support find faces to blame for problems that are actually caused by people just like Trump. People who run large corporations or banks. Men who do everything within their power not to pay their dues (or their taxes) who exploit the very same kind of people who now whoop and hollar for the type of person who actually oppresses them. Take up your arms and fight back against who I tell you to. It becomes easy to sway some people, dangerously so. Some Trumpites take almost disgusting relish in Syrian children dying, or every time a black person gets shot. Again, what the antagonists in Day of Reckoning want is regression. To take things backward to a baser world of violence to attain power, and a world where Trump can be a leader is one of regression too. A world where 40 years of gradual progress in racial equality, integration and diversity can halt and reverse.
Day of Reckoning is an exploitation film about exploitation. It comes from both sides of the film. The government side and the opposers. It doesn’t matter which side you end up. On both sides the workers are exploited and in the case of DOR, central character John (Scott Adkins) is puppeted from both sides. Ultimately a country must succeed by exploiting its inhabitants. People need something to strive for, or a goal. They need something to work for, and something to fight against. This is where exploitation can then be used (often abused) to control people because what we are told are the reasons to work for, or the things to fight against, are not always the truth. However if it’s emboldened on a newspaper headline, or shouted at us by someone on a speakers podium, then surely it must be true?
Perhaps in the end one thing that parallels the real world better than anything in the film is the denouement. Having been exploited through a lie for most of the film, John finally discovers the truth. The real facts are revealed to him, but despite that he continues on his path, fighting religiously for a reason that isn’t real. Even with the facts laid before him he ultimately chooses to carry on in his misguided belief and ignore those facts. Relate that point to what you will, but whether it’s Trump supporters, or Brexiters swayed to vote emotionally because of unsubstantiated facts (or remainers too for the sake of balance) or ISIS soldiers, they’re rallied to follow like sheep but I suppose despite everything, and how repugnant some reasons and causes may be to most/many of us, there’s a unity in that.