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by Eric Kohn
October 24, 2012 9:00 AM
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Review: Why the Latest 'Universal Soldier,' Now On VOD, Is Better Than 'Skyfall'

"Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning."
The movie sports a peculiar alchemy of influences: Film noir, body horror and martial arts all come into play. The sole consistent ingredient is an emphasis on the element of surprise, which Hyams delivers in the context of a relentless pace always one step ahead of our ability to process it. A high-speed freeway chase quickly segues into a duel between two snarling men wielding baseball bats and concludes with one of them missing half his head. The punchline? A cutaway shot to astonished onlookers implying that, even in this made-up universe, these events push the boundaries of reality. The fourth wall doesn't just break; it explodes in calculated mayhem.

For those more enticed by the prospects of playing it safe, you could do a lot worse than "Skyfall." Mendes' treatment of the material lacks that same ingenuity found in "Day of Reckoning. However, as pricey tentpoles go, it's still a satisfying cut above for the sheer elegance of its visuals, due in large part to cinematographer Roger Deakins. A newcomer to the Bond series, Deakins' work with the Coen brothers ranks among some of the best American cinematography of all time, so if "Skyfall" holds any weight during the current awards season it should go straight to him. Possibly the most evocative Bond movie of the 23 that have been made, it frames the succession of showdowns in wondrously expressionistic terms. Two scenes of nighttime combat find Bond silhouetted against a ominously dark backdrop, first surrounded by the deep blue of a skyscraper and then later dashing through a flame-soaked field caked in yellow. The poetry that Deakins brings to these images transcends the limitations of the material and almost — not quite, but almost — makes it feel fresh.

That "Skyfall" looks strikingly beautiful may explain why it has already generated waves of positive buzz. At two hours and 25 minutes, the movie runs far too long, but has been artfully rendered to obscure its fundamental simplicity. A long string of incidents only watchable enough to keep the pace in flux, the premise finds Bond briefly going off the grid, much to the chagrin of his maternal supporter M. (Judi Dench, weirdly underutilized despite her elevated role in the story). A full hour goes by before the arrival of a defected former agent played by Javier Bardem. With his absurdly out-of-whack blonde 'do and curiously flamboyant delivery, Bardem's character is weighted with innuendo. Creepy enough for the standards of the material, he faces down Bond on two drawn-out occasions before the explosive (yet oddly anti-climactic) finish. The movie staggers forward with episodic surges that may reflect an evolving commercial pressure to import television sensibilities in the feature-length form. The result is paradoxically enjoyable and tiresome (enjoyably tiresome?), but does the trick for a formula that needs only to stun, startle and titillate its audience to gain acceptance.  

Even so, a fatigue hangs over the entire picture. "We're both played out," Bond tells M., and you can see why. By the time an end credit acknowledges the anniversary and promises further sequels, the very idea of more Bond movies arrives like a predetermined mandate. If we're lucky, that will yield further opportunities to use the franchise as an excuse to keep heating up the genre with unbridled energy. Let's hope so, because it will take more than a martini to shake Bond up.

Criticwire grade: B

HOW WILL IT PLAY? "Skyfall" opens in the U.K. this week and in North America on November 9, when it's likely to perform well at the box office for several weeks due to little large-scale competition, Craig's continuing appeal and the ongoing marketability of the Bond franchise.

 

"Skyfall" opens U.K. this week ahead of its U.S. release to commemorate a half century of James Bond movies, stretching back to 1962's "Dr. No." While the series has grown slicker with age, it retains a certain familiarity from the outset. The genre -- if not the series -- can do better than fancy wrapping paper, as other recent examples clearly demonstrate. But we'll get there in a moment. 
 
"Skyfall" begins, as all James Bond movies must, in the middle of a story less relevant than the action sequence that results from it. The very first shot centers on Daniel Craig, in his third 007 outing, fitting comfortably into the iconically suave character as if it were a sturdy body suit freshly cleansed for another bout in the field. Before he's even visible in sharp focus, a snippet of that familiar trumpet score announces Bond's sudden arrival. Bursting into a narrow hallway, he glides across the frame before arriving at a chaos-stricken room in the midst of an undefined mission in Istanbul. His gun drawn, 007 finds a fellow agent down and the baddie responsible on the lam. The baddie is always on the lam.
 
Bond gives chase -- or rather, several chases, hopping aboard a motorcycle and pursuing the criminal across a rooftop and down through a marketplace as the crowd magically splits on command to let the speeding duo pass. At a certain point they wind up on top of a speeding train atop a narrow bridge, because why not? Following in step with a pointless but eager-to-please battle, Bond briefly engages his opponent from afar using a unwieldy crane before hopping aboard the roof of the high-speed vehicle and engaging the goon mano-a-mano. The punches continue as they narrowly avoid the onrush of one tunnel after another until a shot rings out. A single body falls to the river below and…Adele's gloomy "Skyfall" theme song begins. Roll credits!
 
It wouldn't be a Bond movie without a high stakes prologue, but the "Skyfall" showdown has another precedent in film history beyond its franchise: Preston Sturges' indispensable 1941 Hollywood satire "Sullivan's Travels" opens with a movie-within-a-movie featuring two men coming to blows while holding tight to a moving train. The music screeches wildly as they continue to tussle until the two bodies hurtle down to the depths below. The lights come up in a screening room and the production's titular writer-director announces to his studio overlords that the movie "has social significance!"  The moguls aren't buying it. "Who wants to see that kind of stuff?"  Indeed: Two decades ahead of "Dr. No," Sturges' movie sarcastically predicted a key ingredient of the action genre's appeal: Sometimes, a train fight is just a train fight. 
 
With "Skyfall" so closely echoing this prognosis, the franchise has come full circle. No longer attempting to reconstruct the character a la 2006's "Casino Royale," which effectively spiffed up the usual Bond routine (rather than adding to his appeal, despite marketing claims), "Skyfall" avoids any shot at reinvention in favor of surface pleasures at every turn. Making his first foray into the action arena, director Sam Mendes has carefully latched onto the same old equation: The movie competently represents many of the ingredients that have imbued Bond with such monumental staying power, as well as the reasons why even at its best, the series remains tethered to familiar ground. 
 
Studios craft product to suit the needs of an imaginary audience (in "Sullivan's Travels," one of the moguls tacks "with a little sex in it" onto the end of virtually every pitch), so it comes as no great surprise that "Skyfall" mostly plays by the rules. If, however, you seek a wholly original, unexpected dosage of action ingenuity, look no further than "Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning," available on VOD platforms this week ahead of its November release. The bizarrely inventive fourth entry in a far more unorthodox franchise with a greater capacity for taking risks, "Day of Reckoning" explores the action genre with a grab bag of possibilities: Writer-director John Hyams litters his second entry in the rejuvenated "Universal Soldier" series with daring long takes, dizzying speed, and unruly tonal shifts, all of which inject the excessive violence with an otherworldly Rube Goldberg-like quality that invites comparison to animation. In my estimation, a movie weighted with ludicrous twists delivers far more excitement than another by-the-numbers Bond triumph. 
 
Shifting the outlandish sci-fi premise to the perspective of a Unisol, which in this installment refers to a clone developed exclusively for the battlefield, "Day of Reckoning" revolves around the experiences of a clone-gone-rogue named John (Scott Adkins), pitted against the advances of two menacing Unisol leaders (Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren). The sole remaining ingredients of the comparatively simple-minded 1992 original, Van Damme and Lundgren lurk in the shadows of this entry like menacing phantoms of the brutal masculine archetypes they always represent. 
 
The movie sports a peculiar alchemy of influences: Film noir, body horror and martial arts all come into play. The sole consistent ingredient is an emphasis on the element of surprise, which Hyams delivers in the context of a relentless pace always one step ahead of our ability to process it. A high-speed freeway chase quickly segues into a duel between two snarling men wielding baseball bats and concludes with one of them missing half his head. The punchline? A cutaway shot to astonished onlookers implying that, even in this made-up universe, these events push the boundaries of reality. The fourth wall doesn't just break; it explodes in a cascade of calculated mayhem. 
 
For those more enticed by the prospects of playing it safe, you could still do a lot worse than "Skyfall." Mendes' treatment of the material certainly lacks that same ingenuity found in "Day of Reckoning. However, as pricey tentpoles go, it's still a satisfying cut above for the sheer elegance of its visuals, due in large part to cinematographer Roger Deakins. A newcomer to the Bond series, Deakins' work with the Coen brothers ranks among some of the best American cinematography of all time, so if "Skyfall" holds any weight during the current awards season it should go straight to him. Possibly the most evocative Bond movie of the 23 that have been made, it frames the succession of showdowns in wondrously expressionistic terms. Two scenes of nighttime combat find Bond silhouetted against a ominously dark backdrop, first surrounded by the deep blue of a skyscraper and then later dashing through a flame-soaked field caked in yellow. The poetry that Deakins brings to these images transcends the limitations of the material and almost — not quite, but almost — makes it feel fresh. 
 
That "Skyfall" looks strikingly beautiful may explain why it has already generated waves of positive buzz. At two hours and 25 minutes, the movie runs far too long, but has been artfully rendered to obscure its fundamental simplicity. A long string of incidents only watchable enough to keep the pace in flux, the premise finds Bond briefly going off the grid, much to the chagrin of his maternal supporter M. (Judi Dench, weirdly underutilized despite her elevated role in the story). A full hour goes by before the arrival of a defected former agent played by Javier Bardem. With his absurdly out-of-whack blond 'do and curiously flamboyant delivery, Bardem's character is weighted with innuendo. Creepy enough for the standards of the material, he faces down Bond on two drawn-out occasions before the explosive (yet oddly anti-climactic) finish. The movie staggers forward with episodic surges that may reflect an evolving commercial pressure to import television sensibilities in the feature-length form. The result is paradoxically enjoyable and tiresome (enjoyably tiresome?), but does the trick for a formula that needs only to stun, startle and titillate its audience to gain acceptance.  
 
Even so, a fatigue hangs over the entire picture. "We're both played out," Bond tells M., and you can see why. By the time an end credit acknowledges the anniversary and promises further sequels, the very idea of more Bond movies arrives like a predetermined mandate. If we're lucky, that will yield further opportunities to use the franchise as an excuse to keep heating up the genre with unbridled energy. Let's hope so, because it will take more than a martini to shake Bond up. 
 
Criticwire grade: B
 
HOW WILL IT PLAY? "Skyfall" opens in the U.K. this week and in North America on November 9, when it's likely to perform well at the box office for several weeks due to little large-scale competition, Craig's continuing appeal and the ongoing marketability of the Bond franchise. 
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24 Comments

  • Fox Mulder | November 11, 2012 9:56 PMReply

    A curious contrarian review, because there is more psychology and insight in SKYFALL than most Bonds in the series (and much more than UNIVERSAL SOLDIER). In our culture of hype, the currency of praise has been so devalued that no one credits it, even when it's deserved. The truth is, SKYFALL is impressively an uncompromising thriller. It feels plausibly seated in the real world, which is testament to the talent involved.

  • arthur | October 28, 2012 12:28 AMReply

    eric: great piece.

  • greg | October 26, 2012 7:29 PMReply

    agree with Yuri. grade too high

  • yuri | October 26, 2012 12:51 PMReply

    Sound review. generous grade.

  • Red dude | October 26, 2012 4:11 AMReply

    B!!?
    How the hell is that classed as a rotten review.
    Sort it out RT.

  • jim | October 26, 2012 1:50 AMReply

    Gives movie a 'B'. Lists it as "rotten" on RT. Desperate for attention are we?

  • emerildo | October 25, 2012 8:50 PMReply

    Good parallel review. takes guts to bring the comparison. "the fans' get agitated when the deficiencies of the "hero" are brought up for everyone else to see

  • katherine | October 25, 2012 7:00 PMReply

    Interesting comparison

  • richard | October 25, 2012 6:57 PMReply

    The reality is that Universal Soldier has a message Skyfall is pure entertainment. Your review brings this out quite clearly.

  • huehuehue | October 25, 2012 3:29 PMReply

    I skimmed the review because I don't feel like wasting my time reading it. Seems more like a commercial for Universal Soldier than a review. You sure you weren't masturbating in the theater thinking about that VOD release instead of watching the movie?

  • Patrick | October 25, 2012 2:18 PMReply

    I imagine you are being paid by the makers of Universal Soldier for this review?

  • robert | October 25, 2012 1:14 PMReply

    I am a James Bond fan. This film breaks the mold of the franchise. I becomes another single action movie. Not bad but it will not be ablle to generatesequels like the originals. your review is right on the mark Your grade is generous.

  • Concerned Reader | October 25, 2012 10:11 AMReply

    I suppose my comment helps you acheive your goal, being the one person who rates this movie poorly despite most critics giving it rave reviews. I suppose the Indie Audience reading this all can agree that everything everyone else likes is terrible, and the stuff the few like is always great. Rubbish.

  • Filmix | October 25, 2012 12:24 AMReply

    I COMPLETELY AGREE WITH SANE !!!!!! YOU'VE LOST ALL CREDIBILITY WITH THAT STATEMENT. NOT A CLUE REALLY.

  • Sane Person | October 24, 2012 11:12 PMReply

    Really? Universal Soldier is better? Any credibility you may have had was thrown out with that statement...

  • goodman | October 25, 2012 11:03 AM

    Universal soldier IS BETTER!!!.

  • Gooch | October 24, 2012 10:20 PMReply

    Dude you is a FAGGOT maine. Howz u goingz to mess wid my boi JBizzy like dat. I gar and tee itz a phenomenal movie with an exceptional cast and fantastic cinematography.

  • Barack Obama | October 24, 2012 10:21 PM

    I approve this message.

  • joanne | October 24, 2012 8:22 PMReply

    I appreciate your correllation to previous Bond movies it helps to understand the enduring attraction to this kind of action movies, especially by male audiences.
    Thanks

  • Jim | October 24, 2012 6:18 PMReply

    You reek of someone trying to make a name for themselves by going against the flow. I'll take what you say with a few tablespoons of salt thanks. J

  • rob | October 24, 2012 2:44 PMReply

    The disappointment for us, 007 fans, is that the flavor of elegant action of Casino Royale. Cannot be reproduced. However as you correctly record,the action is great.

  • tom | October 24, 2012 1:23 PMReply

    Good review. Thanks

  • Rohan | October 24, 2012 11:23 AMReply

    As a reader, I believe that I have the right to comment and express my opinion on what I read. IndieWire is one of my favorites websites and I enjoy thoroughly what writers bring to this site. I have lots of respect for Ms. Thompson and to some other blogs as well. But, this morning, as I sit and commenced reading this piece written by Eric Kohn almost made me puke my guts out over my keyboard. Your review of the film begins with giving away the prologue of the film, step by step; while instead of giving away the details, you could just say Sam Mendes' SKYFALL begins with the traditional Bond intro. We all know how a Bond film begins. And then this review says towards the end of the article, that it is far too long. See, I bet you, Eric, if Skyfall would be 2 hours long, you would say, a bit too short for a Bond film. The weakest part of this review is that you sit there and compare Skyfall to Universal Soldier: Days of Reckoning. - I don't know, Mr. Kohn. My mind is telling me to type: Give me a break! - You gave away too much plot in this juvenile review of yours. I am sorry. This is not a review. Should I take this to Sony? I would love to see their reaction.

  • walt | October 24, 2012 12:37 PM

    I am a regular reader of Indie movie reviews. I read Mr Kohn's reviews regularly. sometimes I disagree with them often I find them informative and useful. This is the first time I write a comment to a comment. I felt this to be necessary because of the outrage I fell By Mr Rohan's comment.
    It is a cheap attack on Mr kohn's : NOT BASED on what he wrote but based on what Rohan's opinion of what Kohn should have said. I Have watched the movie It turns that in order to understand the plot and the director intentions understanding the prologue is essential. your summary alternative is quite frankly stupid.The film itself is a mixtutre of genre as Eric states in he first paragrapph of his review. The beauty of the scenes is a redeeming factor of the movie as Eric states in the second paragraph of his review. AND the movie runs out of theme 3/4 way trough indeed is too long. the movie gets sail at the end. your suggestion at the end is a cheap threat. Sony IS aware of the limited appeal 0f the movie especially because The 007 crowd compares this with previous 007 .