Monthly Archives: March 2014

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning

Whenever I tell someone I’m a big fan of Dolph Lundgren they have a tendency to slowly walk away while looking worriedly at people around them, their eyes going: “Oh God, someone please help me!” But alas, there’s no help to come for the rest know it’s better to just let me feed because then I’ll leave the rest alone for a while.

So, how far does my Lundgren mania go? Well, let’s just say that I own some of his movies on DVD for the sole purpose of owning movies he’s in on DVD. I don’t have a poster of him yet. Nor his autograph or his soiled underwear but I’m working on at least two of these things. I’ll let you speculate on which ones.

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning

If you were alive and reasonably old during the early nineties, like say ten or above, chances are pretty good you heard about Universal Soldier. Mostly because it starred two foreigners who could barely speak English mangling a Shakespearian plot about identity and sanctity of life. Also, there was a great deal of kicking… a great deal. And a combine harvester… I think you see where this is going.

Jean Claude van Damme plays Luc Deveraux, a farmboy who goes off for glory and duty to his country and serves as a soldier during the Vietnam war. But near the end of his tour, his good friend and comrade in arms, Andrew Scott goes what is in professional circles known as batshit bonkers and kills Vietnamese civilians indiscriminately but even more unforgiving, he slays all of his fellow soliders as well. Finding this to be unacceptable, Deveraux tries to stop him, ending with the two killing each other in the process.

While that is a movie in and of its own, that’s just the beginning of Universal Soldier. Both Deveraux and Scott’s lifeless corpses are put on ice and used in the “Universal Soldier” program, an initiative by the US government to create the ultimate soldier. But once they’re deployed twenty three years later it becomes pretty apparent pretty quick that there are some flaws with the idea, such as Andrew Scott going into a homicidal rage and killing indiscriminately and Luc Deveraux going AWOL with a reporter he saved from Scott.

God damned fucking icon, right there

Since then the franchise has been in a bit of a holding pattern. Day of Reckoning is the sixth movie in the franchise but really only one of three that can be considered somewhat canon. There were two direct-to-TV movies starring Matt Battaglia as Deveraux and then in 1999 they released “Universal Soldier: The Return” in which van Damme reprises the role as a Deveraux now cured of the UniSol stuff building additional UniSols for the government. In other word, he’s now officially alive again but despite his experiences in the past he’s willing to condemn other soldiers to the life he nearly had.
In other words, he’s a douchebag Jesus.

Needless to say, both TV-movies and The Return were retconned so hard they practically phased out of existence. “Universal Soldier: Regeneration” was a new start for the franchise where Deveraux is called back into action after having been put in stasis following the original outing when the Ukraine prime minister’s (TOPICAL!) children are kidnapped by a NGU, a new typ of Universal Soldier, and held for ransom.
The conflict was resolved by killing a bunch of dudes but at the end of the movie, Deveraux ran off to parts unknown, presumably never to be seen again. Oh, and Andrew Scott came back temporarily to get killed again despite having become so much mulch in the first movie. Cloning, people, it’s a lot easier than you think.

So now it’s time for the sort of sequel to Regeneration: Day of Reckoning. And if you’re a fan of Lundgren and van Damme then I’ve got some good news for you: they’re both back. The bad news is, of course, that they hardly feature in the movie at all. Instead it focuses on a new character named John played Scott Adkins, a relative newcomer to the mainstream action venue and his most notable roll right now is probably in Expendables 2 as van Damme’s henchman.
At the start of the movie he sees his wife and daughter brutally murdered by Deveraux himself before falls into a coma for nine months. Upon waking up with no other memories than his wife and child’s murder, he finds himself drawn into a mysterious past where not everything is as it seems. Pursued by a relentless UniSol assassin he begins to seek out Deveraux and his merry men to claim vengeance.

Would you piss this guy off?

Day of Reckoning is a breath of fresh air in the UniSol franchise. Rather than mostly action like previous installments, Day of Reckoning instead tries to have some actual drama and intrigue. Although pretty predictable it’s more of a thriller, following John around as he starts to unravel his supposedly own past and the dark deeds he might have done and how much of his memory is actually true. Like I said, it’s pretty predictable and few of the twists will come as any big surprises but the fact that they even tried to go in this direction says good things about it to me.
The plot is slowly unraveled over the course of the runtime and it doesn’t really fall back in old and comfortable patterns until the end and it’s done with more or less an audible clunk with how blatant it really is. It goes from a pretty interesting thriller about identity to a pretty generic action movie with the subtlety of a drill in the brain. Up until then it also goes more for brutality in its action than quantity which underscored the difference in tone.

The decision to focus on a new character is also definitely welcome. Nothing ill towards van Damme or Lundgren but their characters have played out their parts. Bringing them back again and again and having them do the same things over and over again sets a limit as to where the movies can go from here. Scott Adkins is still a relatively new and young talent and could definitely use a franchise to make his own outside of “Ninja”. He has the chops for it, he just needs the opportunity.

But there’s also the problem with van Damme and Lundgren being past their prime. Again, not saying they can’t still put up a fight but the UniSols are supposed to be fast, efficient and nearly unstoppable but at this time in their lives, neither van Damme or Lundgren can put up a reasonable fight against someone as young and spry as Adkins. And no amount of stunt doubles will cover this realistically. Adkins wipes the floor with them and this makes the conflict pretty… dull. The only one who can put up a reasonable fight is Andrei Arlovski, an MMAer with a pretty impressive record who also happens to be about the same age as Adkins. He also starred in Regeneration as the antagonist UniSol.

I’m not trying to say that age is the ultimate factor, Lundgren despite his age is still pretty fit and well trained. But it is a factor and ignoring it won’t help anyone.

And the odd man out here is definitely van Damme who doesn’t really have much of anything to do in the movie. He’s now the leader of a band of rogue UniSols out to take down the government for what they did to them and are continuing to do on an almost daily basis. Which means he mostly sits around in a dark, dank bunker in the swamps twiddling his thumbs and killing off anyone he deems too weak, I guess. Gone is the sympathetic Deveraux from original and Regeneration and instead we have face-painted warmongerer who apparently has little sympathy for the little guy, condoning cutting a swath of destruction across a city of innocents.
Andrew Scott’s characterization has always been one of murderous rage whereas Deveraux was a protector of innocent. The explanation offered by the first movie is that the soldiers remember their final moments more clearly so that is what defines them. Andrew Scott may have been a nice guy but in his final moment he was child murdering, cut-off-ears-wearing, gun toting maniac so that’s what defined him as a UniSol. Alternatively, Deveraux’ last moments were spent trying to save a child and additional innocents so that’s what defined him as a UniSol.

The only point I thought the movie handled either character really well was in the beginning when the Plumber (Arlovski) assaults a brothel where Scott and a few fellow UniSols are partying like animals. Lundgren does really well here and the setting is used to great effect, giving Scott a really manic nature and character, sitting around with his hair slicked back and sporting a kickass white shirt, beer in one hand and whore in the other. It goes back to his psychotic portrayal in the first but it loses much of it the next time we see him, preaching to the UniSols.

Scott makes for a far better villain than Deveraux is what I’m trying to say. It doesn’t help that Deveraux spends the final fight painted like a clown.

Go ahead, try and take the final fight seriously. Especially when Adkins is clearly the better fighter now.

I hope they use any possible sequel to expand on the world they’ve now built. There’s conflict, there’s drama, there’s conspiracies and most importantly there’s two clearly defined sides. Up until this point it’s always been a bit of a struggle to find a villain for Deveraux. In the TV-movies they invented a brother to up the ante. In “The Return” it was a rogue AI. In Regeneration it was insurgents with hints at a much larger conspiracy. And now finally we have a huge conspiracy just waiting to be picked apart with judo kicks and bullets. And perhaps more importantly, the franchise has the opportunity to move away from Deveraux and Scott. The rogue UniSols have a clearly defined enemy in the government and the government has the option of cloning indefinitely.

Scott Adkins could definitely do something worthwhile here as he’s every bit the fighter van Damme and Lundgren were in the eigthies and nineties and at the very least their equal in acting. Bringing in more MMAers along the lines of Arlovski and Mike Pyle (played Capt. Burke in Regeneration) could make for a brilliant, action filled franchise with martial arts and stunts as their focus. A tighter, less star studded vehicle for martial artists looking to take a bite out of the B grade action movies of Hollywood.

The kind where you don’t fake bruises and blood with makeup.

But if they do make another I hope they go back to the same aesthetics and design as the first one. Say what you want about the movie’s quality and whatever it might have been ripping off but it sported a very cool, unique look for its UniSols, a look they’ve slowly been phasing out for some reason.

Unstoppable killing machine.

Maniacs in a boring bunker doing boring things.

See the difference?

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Turn A Gundam (series)

So it turns out I’m not just a tokusatsu fan, I also happen to like my fair share of anime. Go figure, right? My foray into anime started when I was just a tadpole in my little pond of a city where I was forced to endure a life of Eastern European children’s show and mascots being generally creepy. If you don’t believe me, check out Björnes Magasin or Bamse and you’ve got yourself a crash course in childhood trauma and what it was like growing up in Europe during the eighties and early nineties. Add a little Ika i Rutan and you’re scarred for life.

Seriously, watch Ika i Rutan if you can and marvel at what Swedish kids had to put with during the eighties. Just LOOK AT IT! I NEED YOU TO UNDERSTAND MY TRAUMA!

I think the general rule was that if it wasn’t scary then kids would start developing sexual urges. As for the whole “stunting their sexual development”… trust me, it just made things a hell of a lot weirder. I still haven’t found a girl that wants to do the naughty version of räserschack with me… prudes.

Oh, and here’s a little snippet from a Swedish puppet show… yes, while you got Sesame Street… we got this. Again, dammit, understand where I’m coming from!

So why did I go off on this rather weird tangent? Well, I wanted to illustrate how I didn’t really grow up with anime. For one, it wasn’t readily available here at the time. What little we got was often secluded to cable, the kind you had to pay for and growing up poor, that just wasn’t an option. The only real exposure I had, believe it or not, was through the Danish channels we could get through the antenna (remember those things) because for some reason, anime was all kinds of popular in Denmark. I watched things like “My Neighbor Totoro” and various other weird things I had no clue what they were but couldn’t stop watching.
My second exposure came through the video rental store but then it was more of a gamble than anything else. We went entirely by the box art and the pictures on the back when judging whether to rent or not. This is how I ended up paying full price for two episodes of the Rambo cartoon… yes, that was a thing. But eventually I stumbled across Robotech and I started to realize that there was a whole other side to children’s television that didn’t necessarily invoke a flight or fight response and a mad dash for safety.

But even then it was years before I got into Gundam, the daddy of all modern mecha tropes. And it wasn’t for a lack of trying. I managed to get a hold of a couple of episodes in my early twenties but to put it charitably, I thought it was completely awful and never watched much beyond that. It wasn’t until maybe three years ago now that I decided to bite the bullet and watch the whole thing. The reasoning then being that if I was going to consider myself a big mecha fan then I was going to have to watch it just to understand the origin.

Luckily I ended up loving it so at least that worked out of the best. And since then I’ve slowly but surely been working my way through Gundam at a steady pace. And had it not been for Unicorn, I’d be closing the book on the Universal Century timeline with Turn A Gundam.

Turn A Gundam

“Turn A Gundam” is sort of a weird cookie in the way that it crumbles… that was tortured but I like it. When it comes to Gundam there’s a few things you need to understand, starting with the fact that there’s like a million of the effin’ things. It comes in just about every kind of flavor imaginable and it’s here to stay. So to make sure they were unhindered by things like “continuity” or “plot” they split the Gundam series into various timelines, basically going “This is Gundam as you remember it but not really.” While it did open up for a lot of different interpretations and directions, it also means you’re unlikely to love Gundam as a whole since it spans such a wide array of themes, characters, styles and plots.

And Turn A Gundam is no different, it takes place in the “Correct Century” timeline and at first appears wholly separate from the rest of the franchise. However, as the series progress you start to recognize various factors from previous series and mobile suits from previous entries in the series start to show up. The Zaku, introduced in the very first Mobile Suit Gundam and a staple of the franchise, show up fairly early on and the Kapool is the Capule from ZZ. And there are many more nods to entries in the series scattered throughout, including using footage from other series as archival footage and the blueprints of many different mobile suits appear at various points.

The official story when it comes to this timeline is that it takes place roughly 3000 years after the Universal Century but there are also many nods to other series that aren’t part of the Universal Century (such as After War X and Wing) so consider the entry more of a meta series, commenting on the whole of Gundam rather than continuing one particular plot.
As such the premise in itself is very interesting, acting as a hodgepodge of Gundam things and this is how the series reels you in. However, outside of potential and some backstory, the series never does much with this setting which is a shame. Obviously the series is incredibly anti-war, all Gundam more or less are, but it could’ve been a golden opportunity to bring mechas of old up to speed, give them perhaps a little retouch then pit them against each other.

Unfortunately, that’s not what we get. Instead we get a plot that is wholly uninteresting and characters pretty much set in their ways even before the show begins. But I now realize I haven’t even given a brief synopsis so before delving further into that, here’s what the show is about.

Loran Cehack is from the moon. He and two of his friends come to Earth as early reconnaissance to judge whether Earth was ready to receive the Moonrace after they went into exile many thousands of years ago. After living on Earth as a servant in the Heim household, Loran concludes that Earth is a great place full of great people and that he can’t wait for the Moonrace to reintroduce themselves to their distant cousins.
Unfortunately he and his friends were unaware that the Moonrace had no plans on doing their introduction in a peaceful way but instead land with a massive military presence, claim a huge portion of land as their own and pretty much just tell Earth’s inhabitants to “deal with it”.
Naturally, knowing humans, this triggers a massive armed response and before long the conflict escalates into full fledged war. Loran, after discovering an ancient mobile suit somehow more advanced than anything the moonrace has, takes to the battlefield in an attempt to stop the war in its tracks but instead becomes wrapped up in political intrigue and ancient history threatening to happen again.

Loran Cehack

This is Loran, our main protagonist and if you look real closely you might realize that it’s actually a dude. Don’t worry if you were strangely attracted to him, though, the show makes a point of his androgynous appearance more than once and is actually one of the more interesting aspects of the show. They go very far to show him as an attractive, sexy young man that appeals to both genders. The sexual undertones are actually really refreshing.

To further my case, this is him as Laura:

Loran as Laura

So if you’re feeling slightly confused, don’t because it’s all part of their ingenious plan to make you gay. And to tell a compelling story about duality in the sense that Loran cares about as much for the Moonrace as he does for Earth’s people and as such he feels split on the issue, never quite being able to decide where to stand.

It’s also a ruse to keep the fact that the one piloting the White Doll, the titular Gundam of the series, is of the moonrace fighting his own kind. This is all a plan of the aristocrat Guin Lineford who actually ends up sort of falling in love with Loran, a subtext I wish they would’ve explored in greater detail. His insistence on calling him Laura even after the disguise has been abandoned whispers of his forbidden love even if the show never dares to talk about it outside of a throwaway comment in the end.

And that’s pretty much this show in a nutshell: great potential but never any good payoff. The show is presented as a pretty much villainless show where both sides are the aggressors and it starts to ask interesting questions but never commits to them.

Do the Moonrace have a claim to the land they possessed before leaving?
Is Evil and Good just two sides of the same coin?
What’s the consequences of a more advanced civilization suddenly making contact with a younger civilization?
Does technology decide the outcome of the war?
Is ultimate power ultimately corrupting?

But then the show sort of forgets about it all, abandons the setting and goes into space and like a famous Internet critic once said, where do you go from space? And despite being a busy series running from place to place, the show is fifty episodes long but doesn’t have enough plot to fill it all. After the initial setup is done the show meanders about heavily and engages in pedestrian drama about romance and silly antics. Every now and again it flirts with serious themes such as the consequences of wars for civilians, love during war and racism but never comes to any satisfying conclusions.
Instead we’re asked to take a lot on blind faith and the show more or less tells us how to feel. Loran Cehack is a boring character that never truly evolves or changes because of the things he sees and experiences. Even when returning to the moon after a long absence it’s kind of muffled and with little impact, Loran telling us he missed it without actually showing signs of it before.

Oh, and the fishermen of the moon ride dolphins… yes, saddle and all. Just keep that in mind. He left that.
If there’s anything in this series that comes out of left field, that’s probably the most surprising one. Not that they ride dolphins on the moon, I’ve always suspected that, but that Loran left that.

And the show pretty much abandons that whole “no real villain” thing towards the end when it introduces Gym Ghingnham, a villain if I ever saw one. He revels in combat, talks about how war is great and glorious and he travels with a sidekick that dresses like a jester equally obsessed with war and laughs even more.
Again there’s hints of something more interesting hiding under the surface, with several comments being made about Merrybell, the jester sidekick, that suggests she’s suffered through a lot but again the show never does much with it. Her past remains a mystery despite easily being the most interesting of Ghingnham’s crew.
There’s also a fat bloke called Sweatson that practically licks his lips at the thought of killing something and repeatedly endangers everything around him for a shot at Turn A Gundam. Just in case you weren’t sure they were villains.

The last ten episodes are practically entirely devoted to this plot twist but the problem is of course that it’s not established very well and Ghingnham is never made into a threatening villain in any way. There’s enough plot here to fuel the series at large yet it’s cast aside for some dull drama that never really goes anywhere. The revelation concerning Turn A and its brother-mecha Turn X are never satisfyingly explored and the ending in particular raises a lot of questions that I wish the show would at least hint at an answer for. But more on the ending later.

There’s also a fair bit of romance permeating the story but the show doesn’t handle it very well at all. One character falls in love with someone who ends up dying yet it’s handled with the weight of a paper clip and leaves no emotional consequences at all. Did they become lovers on the battlefield for fear of dying? Was it true love? Romance of convenience? Did she truly love him or did she just humor him because it made him happy?
And that’s pretty much fifty percent of all the memorable deaths in the series. While other Gundams have a tendency to scatter a few deaths throughout the series to emphasize how shitty war is and priceless life is, Turn A tries to have its cake and eat it too. It’s definitely geared more towards the pre-school demographic as it distances itself from everything dark and heavy but its insistence on being “kid friendly” is also the thing that ultimately dooms it as it doesn’t have the opportunity to show us how horrible war truly is.

Instead the show just kind of expects us to take its word for it. And because of that it feels more preachy than it perhaps really is. If the intention was to just make a light hearted comedy adventure romp then by all means do that. But this goes back to what I said before about the show wanting to have it’s cake and eat it too. It wants to be Gundam but at the same time not at all.
That’s not to say you need to have tons of death to give the show lasting impact. I saw Victory before this and that’s a show that relishes death like no other show so Turn A is very much the opposite of that show. Which only makes sense if you’ve seen both, I suppose.

What surprised me the most about the production of this show was that Mr. Yoshiyuki “Kill’em All” Tomino directed it, the man famous for killing off characters to the left and to the right during his depression. Look no further than Space Runner Ideon and Mobile Suite Victory Gundam for perfect examples of this. Having just come from Victory, it was incredibly jarring in terms of atmosphere and nature that it almost put me off it entirely.

As for the rest of the production, the show has really high standards. The animation is gorgeous and while I don’t personally like the design of Turn A itself, at least it’s thematically sound with its butterfly/moth motif. And if you didn’t see it right away, the special attack being named “Butterfly Wings” and the ending pretty much made it blatant. And it does raise a lot of curious questions about the Gundam but, sing after me, the show doesn’t do a good job at exploring them.
The aesthetics for the rest of the show are really appealing, mixing the old timey west with its steam engines and early motor vehicles with the sleeker, more advance technology of the moonrace people. The only thing I missed would’ve been an early mobile suit built by the Earthlings to combat the moonrace but instead they rely entirely on suits found buried or what they can get off of the invaders themselves.

Same praise can be heaped on the sound. While its hard to put a finger on why the music is so good, something of note is definitely the second ending theme as it’s really beautiful.

As for the sound effects themselves, well, they’re just of really high quality here. More than once I found myself nodding approvingly of some really good sounding explosion that took me by surprise and the sounds of the mobile suits themselves are also of really high quality.

So ultimately I guess I have to sum things up. What did I really think of Turn A Gundam? Well, I’m pretty neutral on the whole thing. It didn’t leave me with a bad taste in my mouth but nor did it really thrill me. The plot itself didn’t speak to me at all nor did I find most the characters or their writing very compelling. But it’s hard to deny that Turn A is a very competently made anime with a lot of good action to get you pumped. The ending left me very cold and unappreciative but the setting alone sold me on the series.
There’s nothing offensively bad about it but there is so much potential buried here under your typically Japanese “cute” stuff that I feel more could’ve been done with just a little more effort. And in some ways squandered potential is far worse than no potential at all.

So it kind of depends on what you want out of your series. It wasn’t what I wanted, that’s for sure, and doesn’t come close to what I consider the best Gundam has ever produced: MS IGLOO and War in the Pocket. But I do leave the series with a pleasant farewell rather than a snide remark and that has to count for something.