Interview: John Hyams on UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING and Diplomacy in Action Cinema
The fourth official entry in the franchise, and the second to be directed by John Hyams, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning comes to Blu-ray, DVD and Home Cinema options in the US this week. Scott Adkins stars opposite series stalwarts Jean Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren and it is a pulse-pounding action spectacular that blew the roof of the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas last September when it debuted at Fantastic Fest 2012. [You can read my review here].
This week I was lucky enough to chat to writer-director John Hyams about his experiences making the film and working in the action genre at a time when the beefcake heroes of old are hanging up their gloves, guns and grenades.
ScreenAnarchy - Day of Reckoning is your second venture into the Universal Soldier franchise after Regeneration. How did you get involved with the franchise in the first place and what attracted you to this particular story?
John Hyams - I got involved through producer Moshe Diamant, who has done a lot of movies with Van Damme in the past. My father (Peter Hyams) did a couple of Van Damme movies (Time Cop and Sudden Death), so he had worked with Moshe on those, and I had worked with him too, doing storyboard work. In the fall of 2008, this property appeared, this script for Universal Soldier: Regeneration. It had a different title back then and was quite different. Neither Van Damme nor Lundgren had approved it, but Moshe sent me the script and said, "Give this a read, and then talk to Jean Claude on the phone immediately after finishing it and see what you think."
So I got this script and it was rather large in scale, it was kind of all over the place, but some of the core ideas, like the Chernobyl setting, were there. I spoke to Jean Claude shortly after that, I flew out to Brussels, met with him, met with Dolph, and I was trying to decide what kind of ideas I wanted to bring to it, and I realised that I was actually pretty unfamiliar with the Universal Soldier franchise. But I was familiar with a lot of the franchises that Universal Soldier "borrowed" ideas from. Films of the 80s like Robocop, Terminator, their fascination with biomechanics.
I decided, reading the script and looking at the core mythology, that somewhere in there were ideas that related closely to some movies I really cared about, like Blade Runner, in the Frankenstein aspects of the story. I really responded to those ideas and through the subsequent rewrites, we tried to draw them out. Rather than making a tongue-in-cheek action romp we decided to make it more of a serious suspense thriller, much darker and more serious in tone.
Having come from documentary films and doing network television for a while, I was thinking about how to get into the feature film world. I never imagined that I'd do it through action genre films, but when that opportunity arose I suddenly realised it would give me the chance to play out a lot of ideas and do things that were very appealing to me. So, Regeneration was my first foray into that and I've basically spent the last 3 or 4 years working in this new territory.
Day of Reckoning sees you collaborate with a big favourite of ours, action choreographer Larnell Stovall. How did he become involved with the project, and did it have anything to do with Scott Adkins' involvement?
They kind of went hand in hand in that sense. I had been speaking to Scott months before we even finished our script. We had a lot of mutual friends, we had both done work in Bulgaria, and we knew a lot of the same stunt guys. People would always talk to me about Scott Adkins, there was even a time on Regeneration when his name came up, but we were unable to make it happen that time.
So Scott was circling this project, in the mean time I got involved in a movie called Dragon Eyes down in Louisiana. Cung Le was the star as well as fight co-ordinator, doing all his own choreography. I remember feeling that Cung's workload was getting pretty heavy and I wanted to get him a little help, a local stunt coordinator who could help with casting the stuntmen, training the stuntmen, and allow Cung to do his choreography.
Larnell is from Louisiana and at that time was actually down there, where he'd been stunt co-ordinator for Never Back Down 2. I met with him and said "Look, I'm looking for someone here to really be on the administrative end of things, but we've got this other movie coming up, and we're thinking of getting Scott Adkins. I know you've worked with Scott before, he thinks very highly of you, so if you can help me out on this one, then hopefully we make it happen together on the next one." It was actually kind of a tricky situation politically. Larnell was coming into a movie that was very much Cung Le's movie, he had to be sure not to step on Cung's toes, but also help out in a way that I thought we needed help. And to Larnell's credit, he really did that beautifully, and ended up winning Cung's trust and respect.
Of course, once I got the chance to work with Larnell and see what he's really capable of as a choreographer, not only did I realise what a true artist he is in what he does, he proved to be the most important collaborator on the entire production. Day of Reckoning is every bit as much Larnell's film as it is mine. He designed all those fights and all that choreography. He has such an astute narrative approach to his fights, it's not just about punching and kicking, each fight has a real story to it that he's trying to tell and each fight reveals something about the character. He's very aware of every part of that. I can't say enough good things about Larnell, he's amazing at what he does and I definitely plan on working with him again.
It's interesting you mention the diplomacy necessary when dealing with these fighters, because Day of Reckoning seems, if nothing else, a very conscious handing over of the baton from Jean Claude Van Damme to Scott Adkins.
I think a lot of that was really born out of the story itself. Last year when I came to do Day of Reckoning, I didn't have much interest in telling the same kind of story again. I wanted to answer some of the questions that we pose at the end of Regeneration. Luc Deveraux's character escapes, so I thought let's make a movie where we introduce a new protagonist, whose job was to find Luc Deveraux. And on his way to try and kill Deveraux, this journey is going to tell us what became of him. So it was all born out of this narrative device, but then we cast Scott and realised we will end up with the inevitable showdown between these two, and in this case Scott is the protagonist.
There's no denying there was a kind of passing of the baton element to it, if nothing else it's almost like Scott getting knighted by the old guard. And I think that all plays into it. It's important to say this, I think Scott is worthy of that, and I don't think it would have been right for us to put Jean Claude in that position if it wasn't someone as talented as Scott Adkins, who deserves to walk alongside these guys and be an action star in his own right.
It's a tricky situation, dealing with the politics of who wins and who loses a fight in an action movie. There are a lot of people whose livelihoods are based on their onscreen fight record. That's a real thing, it's not something to be taken lightly, because these guys have built a reputation. It's not a simple thing to have someone lose onscreen. Depending on that person you have to pay your dues, and there comes a point when someone like Jean Claude is going to be defeated in a movie by someone like Scott Adkins. That requires a lot of trust on Jean Claude's part, and of course his approval, to ensure there's a good reason for what's gonna go down on screen.
I heard that this was a serious problem in The Expendables, the politics over who was going to beat who in the various fights.
Oh sure. Not to begrudge The Expendables, but it's almost the irony of the title, that hardly any of those guys are really expendable. When you think of the guys in that movie who can't really lose, you've got a long list. It makes it tough to tell that story, and have there be legitimate peril, in a situation where you have a bunch of guys who cannot be losing fights, whose characters cannot die. Sometimes it's at odds with the drama in the movie. Fortunately for us, neither Jean Claude nor Dolph let that get in the way of ultimately telling a good story. In Day of Reckoning there were certain inevitable things that had to happen, that were integral to the story, and ultimately they agreed with that.
It's an interesting issue that is coming up increasingly here in Hong Kong, that when Donnie Yen and Jet Li and the rest of that generation do finally retire, there are no obvious successors. Is this something you have witnessed, and who do you think is worthy of taking over the mantle?
I think the playing field is different and movies aesthetically have gone into a different place too. Cung Le is a legitimate guy when it comes to straight-up action movies, what he does is different to, say, what Jackie Chan does. I think Scott Adkins has got to be at the top of the list. Jason Statham is definitely more mainstream, but I also think that if we talk about what's the biggest action franchise of the last decade, really I would have to say that's Bourne. Matt Damon is really the biggest action star, even though he's more than that. Outside of that, you've got to think, what are the other big action franchises? How about Christian Bale in Batman? I think what it says is that the action star as we know it is generally defined by the big action movies. During the 80s and 90s, that was the period of Van Damme, Seagal, even Arnold Schwarzenengger, although he's not a martial artist, but he was definitely an action star.
Then you throw in Bruce Willis, who is more in the Matt Damon, Christian Bale mould, an actor who became an action star. I think today it's kind of wide open in that sense, the movies generally anoint the stars and then it's what they do with it. We don't have a whole list of guys who came straight from the martial arts world. So, if you're looking strictly at the martial arts world. Scott has got to be high on that list as someone who's really born and bred of the same kind of stuff as Van Damme.
What I liked most about Day of Reckoning was how you tread the line between being cutting edge and nostalgic. I also really appreciate the Apocalypse Now vibe that runs through the film, which is probably my favourite film of all time.
Yeah, that's probably my favourite film of all time too. It's kind of strange. We didn't go into Day of Reckoning thinking about Apocalypse Now, but organically the film started going that way. First we were trying to decide what Luc Deveraux's hair would be like, and we couldn't think of what would be appropriate short of just shaving his head. And there's something about what that represents, it allowed us to make him this native, almost otherworldly character. The shaved head just made sense and suddenly we're like - ok, we're in Louisiana, there are rivers, there's a guy going to kill another guy who's got this cult, this militia, and the references to Apocalypse Now just started compounding. Before you know it we just said, "Alright, I guess we just embrace it!"